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June 1997 Vol. 23, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Manta Rendezvous

Off Baja, rays in your face

from the June, 1997 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

For most of us divers, an encounter with a giant manta ray is a rare experience, at the top of the list of underwater thrills. But when a manta comes so close you can scratch his belly -- and he seems to like it -- wow!

For some odd reason, the mantas of Socorro -- actually the Revillagigedo Islands, a full day's steam from Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of Mexico's Baja peninsula -- are on call for human encounters with no apparent fear, hesitation, or shyness.

During my week here I was often treated to eight or ten animals at a time. Three or four might be in formation, while others might approach alone or in pairs, suddenly materializing out of the gloom.

I met two mantas on my first dive, and six more greeted me on the second. I'm not talking about some distant observation through squinting eyes; this was in your face. For example, an enormous critter moved into my space, nose to nose, then lifted up and hovered over my head. I reached up and gently scratched its white underside. To my amazement, it stayed motionless for several moments, apparently enjoying the tickling bubbles from my regulator.

In my many previous experiences with mantas, they simply maintained a comfortable distance and moved away if approached. In Yap (Micronesia), where visibility is usually poor and the current strong, fleets of mantas are just about guaranteed. They're majestic in formation, wonderful to observe, but of no mind to interact. There I saw a "gotta touch" diver kick off the bottom, make his doomed attempt, and ruin the photo of a patient photographer who had traveled thousands of miles to capture it.

On several trips to Costa Rica's Cocos Island, I've sighted large numbers of mantas, often quite close. But any attempt to move in was inevitably rejected.

The mantas at Revillagigedo Islands, however, seem to stay in one area for long periods. Perhaps due to repeated diver visits over the years, they have decided that we can be not only trusted but even counted among their playmates.

Perhaps it's also a tribute to the divemasters visiting the islands who have learned proper mantaray protocol and give careful and accurate instruction to their guests. It seems that a manta wants a diver in his line of vision until just before contact. An approach from behind or a sudden movement will stop the intimacy. Any handson contact must be totally controlled by the ray.

The rays here have distinct personalities. Darth Vader (completely black except for a few patches of white on the underside) was selective about who could come close. Others were not at all interested in being ridden but stayed nearby. Once, when no other divers were in the water, I was approached by Stubby, a monstrous ray with a 20-foot wingspan and a missing tail. I lowered myself onto his upper back, gently placing my bare hands on his rough skin. This allowed me to adjust my position without losing contact.

What followed was the trip of a lifetime. From a distance, it would appear that we were moving slowly through the water column. But from my vantage point, it was an exhilarating, ecstatic flight, accompanied by a mixed bag of emotions, not the least of which was guilt.

You see, over many years of diving I've become a strong proponent of not "touching the sea." Marine animals from corals to whales should be visited, observed, and photographed, I believe, not manhandled, manipulated, or interfered with. So I couldn't dispel the thought that I was participating in a practice that may be ultimately detrimental to these friendly fish. I had succumbed to behavior that I would have considered reprehensible before. But it was irresistible; and it was a dilemma. Now, guilt or not, I'm glad I did it.

Alone on another dive, I was approached by a single manta ray. It hung overhead for the usual bubble-and-scratch routine, in which I now gladly participated. After a time I swam away, but the ray followed and hovered again. This happened repeatedly, until I began feel a little uncomfortable with it. I wondered how long the manta intended to keep me captive. I swam to a rock and waited several minutes. The manta remained nearby, and when I pushed off, it was again over my head. I was beginning to feel claustrophobic, so I swam toward the boat. Other divers entered the water; the ray seemed happy enough to share its attentions. I felt relieved.

While I still feel guilty about violating my rules of being only an observer of the seas, I guess the rule is to treat the mantas with respect and let them be the creatures in charge. I hope that the unique experience I had was, and will be for other divers, mutually enjoyable.

G. S.

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