First dive we swim towards the cleaning station and I feel the gentle swell and surge pushing me right and left as we swim along at about 10 meters. Moving slowly I see blue spotted Stingrays. First one, then two, then a group of four stacked on top of each other. The entire 49 minute dive goes by without one Manta. The water is beautiful, there are plenty of Stingrays, Triggerfish, Oriental Sweetlips and even a rare Octopus sighting. But not one Manta…returning to the surface I’m feeling cold and disappointed. When we got in the water I heard that little voice say, “Say a mantra and be grateful”, but as I got out of the water it was hard not to feel let down.
As we pile on the boat my sea sickness starts to return. It’s the first time I have ever felt queasy on a boat. Nico takes a vote to see how many people want to stay at the site and try again in an hour or so. It is the first time all season he hasn’t seen a Manta at this site and he doesn’t want us to leave disappointed. If we wait it out, there’s a good chance we’ll see a few, the day isn’t over yet. We all agree to stay, have lunch and dive this site one more time.
It was worth the wait. Close to 40 minutes later the captain of our boat starts whistling and yelling, “MANTAS! MANTAS!” Rushing to the side of the boat we’re yelling, “WHERE? WHERE?” As we look in the distance there’s one black fin, then another.
Zuri asked, “Wow – how many are there?” and Murray replied, “Why don’t we get in the water and find out?”
I had my equipment on and did a buddy check in record time. By then the Mantas were swimming closer to the boat. You could have put on a snorkel to swim with them.
We only descended about 10 meters and suddenly Manta Rays were circling all around us. I was in awe. Excited, afraid and totally in the wonder of it all, I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I watched Murray swim beside an enormous black one. It must have had the wing span of at least 8 feet. Murray was swimming as close as he could possibly get for a good shot with the camera. Their wide, triangular shaped fins looked like bird wings as they smoothly sailed through the water. I was filled with wonder as these enormous, majestic creatures elegantly glided all around me. I counted 10 circling around at once and I could see and feel a few more in the distance. Fins spread as they smoothly glided up towards the surface, then effortlessly dipping down closer to me. Six..seven…eight…nine…cruising all around me. I just kept floating, breathing in and out, slowing my breath down and making my air last as long as possible.
Their flat, black bodies looked like huge bats. The cephalic lobes that wrapped around their mouths remind me of a thick, wide, detachable Victorian era color on a man’s shirt. Acting as a funnel for plankton to get into their mouths it’s a built in water filtration system. The lobes were opening and closing as they swam around looking for smaller fish to help remove parasites from the mucus membranes that protect their skin.
A few more circled above me so I looked up to see 5 huge slits for gills on both sides of their bellies. I noticed some blotches on their bellies and their thin, sting ray like tails as they cruised around me. It seemed like there were at least 16 swimming with us.
I started to silently say to each one of them, “You’re beautiful, you are truly beautiful”. Did they hear me? Could I have a telepathic connection with a Manta Ray? I realized as they swam closer I began to feel more fear. They were enormous. I gently and consciously went in and out of fear and wonder, trying to stay in the wonder of it all.
After almost an hour of passing the camera back and forth and swimming along with them I started feeling really cold so I signaled to Murray and started to ascend. Hovering at the 3 meter safety stop I was still surrounded by Mantas, even more had begun to play closer to the surface. I gently lifted my head out of the water and floated with my regulator in my mouth and just watched them. The blanket like bodies looked flat from my view at the surface. Two came close to me as if they wanted to play, I got scared and started to swim away.
Murray popped his head up to the surface to talk to me and said, “Are you alright? Do you want to go back to the boat?”
“I’m cold” I said, “But I’m happy watching them from here.”
“You can get really close if they let you” he said, “I was trying to tell you to get closer to them. They don’t bite or sting or I wouldn’t be swimming this close.”
“I keep getting scared” I told him.
“Ok” he said, “then let me know if when you want to go back to the boat.” Then his head disappeared and he descended back down.
I decided to stay in. I made sure to stay between 3-5 meters on the surface, put my regulator back in my mouth and went down to play with the ones hovering close to me. There were two enormous black ones and I reached out to them. For the next 10-15 minutes I just swam 3-5 meters from the surface gliding along with 3 manta rays. One would swim directly towards me as if to play a game of chicken and then quickly turn left before I even had a chance to get close. I felt the tables had turned and I was the one moving towards them and they were playing hard to get. I simply stayed in the wonder of it. I felt the fear and just relaxed into swimming next to them and allowing them to come closer to me. Swimming as close as they would let me, I soaked up as much of the experience as I could.
For the next 20 minutes I floated next to some of the most fascinating creatures in the water. As I checked my air and saw it was getting low, I silently started to say goodbye to the ones around me. I smiled to myself as I reached the surface and said to myself it was a bucket list dive.