I swam with a manta ray, and it was the size of a flattened Volkswagen.
Twenty years ago when I signed up to swim with manta rays, I had not even heard of manta rays before. Per various 21st century internet sites, manta rays have the biggest body-brain ratio of the sharks, rays, and skates. They are found off the coast of Australia and Hawaii. Manta rays can grow a wingspan of 20 or more feet and weigh up to 3000 pounds, they are the largest rays in the ocean. (Oooh!) Adults are easily recognized by their large triangular pectoral "wings" and distinctive cremoriol fins on either side of its broad head that are rolled like spirals when swimming and flattened when eating. Manta rays eat tiny marine organisms including microscopic plankton, small fish and crustaceans.
That would have been useful to know when I saw the poster in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, that said “Swim With Manta Rays—Night Excursion”. The poster was illustrated with cartoonish baby manta rays that appeared to be the size of, say, puppies. So when I paid my fee, I thought that I would be swimming with flat puppy fish. My eyes had highlighted words like warm pacific ocean, crystal clear waters, thrilling, exhilarating, manta rays gracefully glide and swoop, and delight. And, most of that turned out to be true.
SCUBA gear was offered, but I thought free-diving would suit me better, and cheaper. I felt quite brave and competent. I thought I was knowledgeable. I had my tourist-class snorkel and mask which had served me well in the past. I was ready for the excursion.
My first doubts occurred when I realized that I was the only woman on board the excursion boat. I had been covertly admiring the big, healthy young men as they stowed their SCUBA gear, when it registered that they were somewhat tense. Then I realized that I was also the only middle-aged person on board. I mulled that over as the excursion boat metaphorically steamed into the sunset. We arrived soon after dark. Everyone was silent, then a young man leaned over close to me and whispered, “What do I do if they swim at me?” Ever the wit, maybe a nitwit, but still trying to be helpful, I pointed to his SCUBA suit zipper, “Stick out your chest, maybe the metal will stop it.” He smiled, and plunked overboard backward to join the rest descending to the ocean floor.
I slid over the side of the boat into the warm water, rubbed spit on my facemask to deter fogging, positioned my snorkel, clamped the mouthpiece in my teeth, and then I bobbed there in the dark water until the guides turned on the underwater lights, so I knew where to go.
With my facemask in the water I could clearly see the dozen or so young men alighting thirty feet below on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, all were surprisingly graceful. The water around the SCUBA divers became cloudy with little creatures attracted to the lights. I was disappointed because it seemed that the manta rays were too small for me to be able to see them from my position above, and I did not want to free dive into this unknown situation. I was thinking of heading back to the boat because, frankly, it is creepy to be afloat at night, out somewhere in the ocean. What else was out there with me?
Then the first manta ray swooped into the lights below, gigantic mouth agape, and it was HUGE; and followed by three or four more manta rays, all HUGE. They glided rapidly back and forth in the lights. Wow! Beautiful, yes. But I was very relieved to be on the surface and not down there, with them. I was just beginning to wonder how far they would go as they swooped around, and I was backpedaling a little in the direction of the excursion boat, when I realized that a HUGE manta ray was cruising directly at me! There was no doubt, it was coming up and at me. Next thing I knew it was breeching overhead, I felt the water go up with it, then there was a horrific suspension of time, followed by a huge wet slap into the water as the beast crashed down next to me. I did not hesitate, I had had my money’s worth. I swam directly back to the excursion boat. I saw no good reason to stay in the water with those massive animals zipping around going every which way, and even jumping over me.
It had seemed very personal to me. I felt that the breeching manta ray knew exactly where I was, after all it had headed directly for me, but it is an animal, what if it miscalculated and smashed me? What if it wanted to smash me? No one had told me the manta ray would breech over me, I complained to the boat crew. They would not let me back in the boat. They laughed good-naturedly, and said, “Go back, it likes you. Have fun.” They made me wait until everyone was back at the boat to get on-board. The young SCUBA divers did not know I had been “breeched”, and I did not interrupt their own excitement. The young man with the zipper defense leaned happily toward me and said, “I remembered what you said!” and stuck out his chest. What a sweetheart. I appreciated his kind confession that I was not the only one who had had to steady their nerves on this excursion.
Specialists have speculated that manta rays breech into the air to play, or to knock off skin parasites with a crashing descent into the water, and/or to demonstrate skill and strength during courtship and displays of dominance. Mating behavior!?! Ewww. I did not want to be involved in any of that. Perhaps manta rays breech to get a better look at the humans looking at them? Maybe it was trying to drive me back into the shoal of humans? Experts say that three types of jumps have been observed, forward jumps landing head first, forward jumps landing tail first, and somersaulting, any of which could have landed upon me. Oof, ouch, a scary thought.
In retrospect the experience was both thrilling and delightful. How lucky I am to have been so close to them. Manta rays are swift, beautiful, and graceful creatures. May the oceans stay safe for them.
Caption: Butterscotch Manta Ray by Annmarie Throckmorton, 2017.
Caption: Annmarie Throckmorton snorkeling, somewhere, sometime.