“One, two, three, go!” On the divemaster´s count, I push my feet off the floor of the zodiac and roll back. Normally, when the dive team hits the water, you take a moment at the surface, orient, yourselves, and then vent your BCs and drop. You have a few beats to look around, locate your buddy, and take in the environment before you properly start the dive. But when my head hit the water, upside down and backward, the manta immediately filled my field of view. The mantas in Socorro are huge. They probably average over 4 meters across, and 5 and even 6-meter wide ones aren’t unusual. This one was big. She was forty feet below us, hovering on a cleaning station.
As our group of divers dropped in above her, she glided off the cleaning station and out into the clear, blue water of the reef slope. We all pointed excitedly, throwing “hang loose” gestures at each other with excitement. These animals were why we were all here, and we followed her to depth. At 28 or 30 meters, close to the edge of safe depth, we leveled out and arranged ourselves comfortable distances apart to watch her. She traced a wide, elegant arc through the azure blue water, and headed straight in toward us. Just 2 or 3 meters away, she adjusted upwards to glide gently above our heads, passing herself through the bubble columns streaming from our regulators.
Divers love to tell enthusiastic stories about mantas: how intelligent they are, how playful, how aware. But it doesn’t really make sense until you see them in the water. This giant animal, this huge, swimming plankton filter, approached us again, and again, and again. “They like the bubbles,” people will say. And it’s true, but not in an instinctual, animal sort of way. They like the bubbles the way you like a massage at the spa. Eventually, when the manta has passed two feet above your face three times, four times, you notice them shiver. The muscles of their wings twitch and spasm, as though they’re being tickled. And this one came back for it again, and again, and again. It was such a simple, playful, loving joy, that we shared with her. I wonder about this animal, who lives here, for whom this is a regular occurrence. Do I save my money, book my vacation time, reserve my spot on the boat, so that she can look up at my splash when we hit the water and think, “Oh, good! The monkeys are here?” If I was here to be a spa jet for manta rays, I decided to do the best job I could.
Each time she passed over me, her big black eyes regarding me as she came, I leaned back and took a deep breath out of my tank, and blew all the bubbles I could manage. At a hundred and twenty feet down, this meant using air very rapidly. Each time she passed, my tank was another 5 or 7 bar lower, and by twenty minutes in, I was passing 70, bar 65, 60… Time to go up.
- Bran, United States, onboard the Nautilus Belle Amie