Fijian Diving Instructor Atu Kele shares his experiences with Manta Rays.
It was a beautiful start to the day with the clear cloudless sky, the water reflecting the rays of the rising sun, and the feeling of warmth on my skin. I was taking a stroll along the beach reminiscing on the blessings of nature, and also because I had a hard time sleeping the night before. Having a swollen gum perhaps was one of the most painful feelings I had ever come across. I was worried about work, which had picked up since the Manta Rays were spotted a few days ago, arriving a month early this year.
“Alright love, let’s go!” I called out to Sarah as she jumped off the bench with excitement. “We are going to see the Manta Rays first, aren’t we?” she asked. Sarah was an English lady who hadn’t been diving in seventeen years and was eagerly excited to get in.
Just a three minute boat ride from the resort, we had made it to the Manta channel and as easy as the boat ride, the captain spotted a dark movement ten meters left of us gliding just under the surface with the tip of its pectoral fin visible above water.
It was probably three meters across which made it easy enough to be seen from the boat. As I turned to inform Sarah, I was surprised to see her all suited up and ready to snorkel with the Manta Rays.
Standing there on the deck of the boat with fins on, the mask fitted on her face and her snorkel in her mouth, mumbling out a reply. Just then a thought came to me, “for someone who has never seen a Manta Ray before and only heard about it a few days ago, there was no sign of nervousness in her”.
My first Manta Ray encounter was the total opposite! Imagine yourself in the water looking out into the blue as you see a dark figure approaching, every time it drew closer, the more nervous you get. I mean there it was, four times your size and ten times your weight, with two big horns on its head and a whip-like tail on its back, you’d be having a brown trousers moment! Luckily enough on my first encounter, I was already a dive master so I had to keep my cool. Otherwise I’d jump back on the boat before my feet even touched the water.
All I could hear was Sarah screaming with joy as she saw it drawing closer to us; it was only a baby Manta, three meters wide but boy, was it a sight to see. This massive creature would easily be mistaken as dangerous, yet it was so peaceful. Gracefully gliding across like a hawk, but in slow motion. We carefully made sure to not disturb its path, swimming alongside watching as it filtered in water with its large mouth and gills. For half an hour we swam with it, watching it spiral down into depth and shooting back up towards us, we were inches away to almost touching.
We were fifteen minutes behind on our scheduled dive but Sarah never wanted to leave, for that feeling you have on your first ever encounter with these magnificent creatures is truly out of this world.
As the boat left the channel, Sarah couldn’t stop talking about her experience, she was so happy. Seeing this made me proud to have guided her, I wanted to make sure she had an equal experience on the dive. But since she was doing a refresher, it would need a lot of comfort and attentiveness.
We used the mooring line to descend into the first pinnacle, despite the average visibility, there were lots to see. Like cutting through a herd of sheep, we dropped into a school of Yellow Tail Fusiliers feeding on top the Coral mountain, swarming around us, with Pelagic Spanish mackerel and a group of Blue Fin Trevally preying on them.
We made it to the bottom, a lot of things were happening around us, Parrot Fish grazing on algae off the rocks. Angel Fish and Bird Wrasse pollinating the corals, Goatfish scavenging the sandy bottom with a Triple Tail Wrasse behind it hoping for a piece. I looked beside me to check on my dive buddy, she was comfortable yet distracted, she didn’t even notice my arm leaving her hand as she drifted ahead of me. She was lost in it, her mind consumed in the life of the underwater world.
Being able to see through only one lens was quite annoying, the left lens of my mask was starting to fog up. Every time I tried to clear it the worse it would get, I then decided to just go on with it. Sarah was at it, she had a Go Pro and was taking photos of anything that moved, to be honest it was quite amusing watching her. Smiling away, cruising behind her, I noticed a sudden change in the shape of a rock under her. Every foot drawing closer, the rock shrank in size, “this was such a funny rock” I thought to myself, just then; the rock changed complexion. “Octopus!” With its tentacles partially caved in into a small hole, it started changing colour, from purple to brown to white. This was pretty cool to watch! At my amazement, it sprang out of the hole it was clutched on and retreated to another rock to my left, adapting to the change in shades of the background it was travelling across. Who wouldn’t fall in love with an octopus after seeing this? Just a wonder!
The Pinnacles had loads to offer in terms of diversity of marine life. These underwater mountains provided habitats, protection, a food source and breeding place for different kinds of marine animals, it’s a whole ecosystem.
Throughout the dive we came across a patch of sand where hundreds of Garden Eels lived, sticking their heads out of their burrows and feeding into the current. We dived under an overhead where a family of Lionfish dwelled, finding brightly coloured Nudibranchs and Flatworms. We even came across a hunting party of Coral Trout tag teaming with a very large Moray Eel, a definite mutually symbiotic relationship. Having a keen eye and a will to find as much as I could in forty five minutes, we also spotted a Stonefish, a Reef Shark patrolling the reef, Blue Spotted Stingray and so much more.
What I love the most about this dive site was that at the top of the shallowest pinnacle was a patch of Anemones where a huge family of Nemos lived. One of the Nemos was so territorial that it attacked anything that came close to its Anemone. I would play with it, let it chase my finger around and if I was slow enough, it would nip my finger and this provided some amusement to the group who loved to join in… a perfect spot for a safety stop! With a beep sound, my dive computer signalled that we were clear to surface. Nodding back to me, Sarah pointed to the top, I think she was more than ready to end the dive as I was.
Making sure we didn’t forget anything that we had seen, we immediately logged her dive and commented on everything we experienced. The comments needed another log sheet as there wasn’t any space left on the first sheet to write anything more.
Sarah was all smiles with little tears falling down her cheeks…she thanked me. She said that up until a few days ago, she had never thought of going diving again and getting a chance to swim with Manta Rays. But now she was as happy and as excited as she had been the first time she had tried diving, promising herself that she was going to plan vacations just for diving, and of course share the experience she had with the Mantas.
It’s amazing what the underwater world does to us, no matter how long we hadn’t dived for or how often we do, that feeling we get can only be explained partially but experienced fully.