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Monday, May 14, 2012

5/12/2012 Swimming with the Manta Rays

5/12/2012 Hanamoenoa Bay, Tahuata Island, Marquesas

I don't know how old I was, six or seven maybe the first time I went snorkeling but I definitely remember it. We were at Octopus Point on Hood Canal. My dad had commandeered the Terri II, grandpa's 16 ft runabout and we had zipped across "the canal" headed to wherever dad's childhood memories might take us. The snorkel gear was new and fascinating and the water was cold.
I know my whole family must have been there but all I remember was being astounded by the life under the surface. Octopus Point, which might actually be name dad made up, is rocky and remote. As the tide came in I hovered over the rocks watching little crabs scurry about, tiny fish dart back and forth in the tide and bits of sea grass float by and I was enthralled. It certainly made deep impression on me because I have loved to snorkel and now dive from that day on.

Now, living full time aboard our boat gives me plenty of opportunities to get in the water and in fact that has always been one of the draws to this lifestyle. I swam with the Whale Sharks in Bahia Concepcion and with an entire sea lion rookery in Bahia Refugio. Yesterday morning we slid off the side of our boat into water filled with Manta Rays!

Watching them from so close a distance, actually being able to reach out and touch one was an experience I will never forget. The Manta's were all roughly five feet from wingtip to wingtip. They have a long tail like a sting ray but no stinger to do you harm. They are plankton eaters so you don't have to worry about one deciding you would make a nice dinner and they are purported to have the brain capacity of a two year old.

They are amazing creatures to watch because they shift and change under you gaze. The shape of their mouths change shape and function when they feed vs when they are just hanging out. Their underside is bright white and also changes shape with feeding. When not feeding it is a big flat expanse that looks something like the bottom of a halibut or a sand dab. When they are feeding the whole body expands to accept the thousands of gallons of water they filter every day for food. The cut of the gills open up with the expansion and the gills make it look eerily like a human chest with prominent rib bones. They often swim along right at the surface with their great wing tips just barely peeking out on the upstroke so you can easily spot them. They really look like they should be flying in the sky, their graceful strokes so strong that when they pass you can feel the press of the displaced water roll over you.

When we first entered the water they stood off away from us but continued to feed. A few minutes later they seemed to have decided we weren't a threat and came much closer. As one came very close, shifting his path a smidge to glide under me I stretched out my arm and ran a single finger the length of his back. He didn't even flinch. Their body feels completely different from a fish. The skin is sandpaper rough but underneath is a layer of softness that gives until your pressing against muscle. If you have ever taken a CPR course with a Resusci-Annie doll, well a Manta Ray body feels like a live Resusci-Annie.

There are numerous accounts amongst the cruisers of Manta's allowing divers to ride on their backs and even more amazingly of playing little games of Mimicry. The human rolls over the Manta rolls over, the human does a pirouette the Manta does a pirouette. There have also been some fascinating studies set up to try and test their level of intelligence and why they seem to attach to some humans who present themselves in the Manta's home turf but not to others.

In Mexico the divers around San Benedicto noticed that a few of the giant Manta Rays seemed to pick out a single diver and then stick with them, even following them back to their boats or even coming to the boat early in the morning to say hello. To try and figure this out they put several divers in the water with distinctly different colored dive gear. One of the Mantas was definitely attached to one person over the rest. So, they pulled all the divers out of the water and had them switch dive gear. The Manta without hesitation returned to the same diver as soon as he was in the water. This in spite of a different colored face mask, large dive vest, and different colored air tank, fins and wet suits. Our Mantas were feeding and didn't stay to play but regardless it was a wonderful experience and one that I will look for again.

All the cruisers keep talking about sharks and where is safe and where it isn't safe to get in the water. Everyone seems to have differing opinion on which sharks are dangerous and which can be ignored and everyone seems to have at least one shark story to tell -none of which ever seem to have a truly happy ending. So I'll take Manta Rays any day and will continue to look for every opportunity to slide into the water to experience more wonders of the ocean-preferably the ones without big teeth.


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1 comment:

  1. Dear Kat, Bill,

    snapped off two quick shots of "Island Bound" as you left Hakahau:
    Ignore the 'buy' button, just click on a photo to download it.

    all the best, Axel + Liz, s/v Gudrun V