This blog post won second place in the 2016 San Mateo County Fair’s Literary Contest for best blog entry!
My Manta Ray Encounter
From the back of the boat, I made a giant stride into the black nighttime water. Underwater, the cumbersome SCUBA equipment strapped to my back was weightless. Warm water crept into my wetsuit. Exhaling, I descended into the pitch black. Pinching my nose and blowing out through it cleared my ears every few feet, and the pain in my ears felt like when ascending in an airplane. Exhaled bubbles surrounded and reassured me. My only lifeline underwater was working properly. I paused to marvel at breathing underwater.
My descent stopped near the bottom of the coral reef. Narrow beams of light danced around as other divers searched for life on the night coral reef. My highlighted view showed motionless fish sleeping. Multi-legged critters scampered out of my light. A hungry moray eel caught an unwary squirrelfish.
Ten minutes of swimming brought me to the “campfire.” Placed in the center of this underwater campfire was a bundle of dive lights so the insects of the sea, tiny plankton, swarmed together. Swarms of plankton attracted various hungry sea animals including fish, and the guests for the night. Divers pointed their lights towards the surface to attract more plankton. Settling down on my knees in the moderate current, plankton surrounded me. Little white dots darted to and fro in front of my dive mask. My dry mouth came from breathing the arid air from my tank and made me cough into my regulator. My eyes watered from the coughing, then cleared. Something emerged in the distance.
From the muted black darkness, and through the backdrop of the bright Hollywood lights of videographers, came an alien behemoth that glided over the all the divers. She was the star attraction for tonight, a manta ray. Her black back with white patches looked spray painted. Her flattened head and head fins swayed in her swim path. Her head fins unfurled to help funnel water into her cavernous mouth.
Her diamond-shaped body measured at least 6 feet across. She flapped her triangular pectoral fins in unison like a bird’s wings. Each powerful flap of her wings sent her flying within inches of divers’ heads.
The manta ray’s black back contrasted with her stark white underbelly. Her belly was full of black splotches. Splotch patterns are as unique as a human fingerprint and they allow scientists to identify and name individuals over time. The manta ray I saw was named Shirley. She gracefully flew inches over my head. I was reminded of the opening scene from the original Star Wars movie when an Imperial Star Destroyer appears to fly over the audience’s heads.
We divers are not supposed to hold their breath underwater, but in a briefing on the boat we were told not exhale bubbles directly onto a manta ray. I unconsciously held my breath as having Shirley so close to me took my breath away. I looked straight into one of Shirley’s eyes. They reflected such depth and soul that I couldn’t help but feel a deep connection with this alien being. It was like looking into a mammal’s eyes. Only manta rays are fish. They have the largest brain of any fish in the ocean, and a similar brain to body ratio as mammals. There is no doubt in my mind that manta rays are thinking beings. What they are thinking is a mystery to us humans though.
With her mouth agape, Shirley’s wide throat was visible. Her gills reverberated from the passage of water through them. A manta ray’s gills not only extract oxygen from the water around them, but also extract food like plankton. She closed her mouth periodically, presumably to swallow the plethora of plankton caught in her gill rakers.
I watched in awe as Shirley did loop de loops to gather plankton. The barrel rolls that manta rays perform are a magnificent underwater ballet. They are elegant and graceful. I could watch them for hours barrel rolling.
Later, another manta ray showed up. His name was Uhane Nui, which means “Great Spirit” in Hawaiian. Estimates placed his wingspan at eight feet across. Manta rays are the largest rays in the ocean. This one was huge. Shirley stayed in the lights, but Uhane Nui faded into the darkness and emerged from the bright videographer lights. Each appearance was a surprise and delight. The manta rays could come within inches of the divers and never bump into them. They could turn on a dime.
That magical night off of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii was my first encounter with manta rays. Upon arriving home, I devoured all the information I could find about them. I was dismayed to find out manta rays are killed when they get stuck in fishermen’s nets. Historically, fishermen would exact revenge on any manta rays that got stuck in their fishing nets and kill them.
I was later horrified to learn that today manta rays are now being targeted by fishermen. I got involved in the fight for California to ban the sale, trade and possession of shark fins. Now, much like sharks being targeted only for their fins, manta rays are now being hunted solely for their gill rakers. Gill rakers are used in controversial new formulas of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Often those hunting for shark fins will fin a shark alive and toss it back into the ocean to die a slow and agonizing death. Similarly, those hunting manta rays will kill them, cut out the gill rakers, and throw out the rest of the manta ray. Killing them that way is inhumane and wasteful.
A live manta ray is worth more alive than dead. Experts estimate a manta ray is worth one million USD over its lifetime due to ecotourism, but worth only five hundred USD when dead. Globally manta ray tourism is estimated to be 100 million USD annually. I’m hooked on SCUBA diving with manta rays-I will add to that total!