My first thought is always of an eagle approaching. Peering up, I see the wingtips flapping languidly, just enough for momentum. My heart beats faster, I lie on my stomach so as not to alarm the approach.
The problem is that I am 20 metres underwater, breathing air from a tank, and peering through a scuba mask. I’m witnessing the arrival of a manta ray. And, after five specific trips – and a lot of money – to spend time with this creature, here and overseas, watching a manta approach never, ever gets old.
Longer than a Subaru Forrester
Not much is known about mantas, though researchers are working hard to better understand them. There are two, maybe three species, and Australia is typically home to the Alfredi species, which can measure up to 5.5 metres wing tip to wing tip. It’s a metre longer than a Subaru Forrester, headlights to taillights. My lounge room at home is less than five metres, wall to wall. (The larger ‘giant’ manta, the birostris, can reach seven metres wide.)
Now add a huge eye, gazing quietly at you as the manta glides above, hovering over a bommie rock where small cleaner fish pick parasites and dirt off its enormous belly. Add two protruding cephalic fins, on either side of the wide, plankton-catching mouth; cephalic fins that resemble horns, giving the manta the early name ‘devilfish’ because it was thought the horns showed they were evil.
Far from it. Mantas are one of the gentle giants of the sea. Despite their size, they can’t hurt you, even if they wanted to, which they definitely don’t. Sometime, you’ll see a manta with a chunk out of the back of its wing, where a large shark has taken a bite. The manta’s only defence is to give those gigantic wings a flick and swim away, fast. They have no teeth, their tail does not sting. They are harmless. And more, they are unmistakably gentle and friendly.
At the end of my last dive on my first ever trip to swim with them, off Lady Elliot Island, at the very southern end of the Barrier Reef, I was slowly surfacing, completing my five-metre safety stop, when a manta approached and swam past, close enough for me to touch, gazing at me with that big eye, only a metre below the ocean surface. I smiled, almost losing my regulator. The manta swam away and then turned slowly, and passed me again, brushing me lightly with the tip of its wing. Swam away and turned back once more, to gently brush me. And again. And again. For more than five minutes. My GoPro ran out of battery, I was now breathing through a snorkel, as the manta circled me and brushed me over and over again. There was a lot of spare ocean for it to feed in. If it had swum 20 metres away, I would probably not have been able to see it. Instead it stayed, to play.
Joy of the ocean
You’ve probably gathered that I regard manta rays as one of the great joys of the ocean. Right up there with spending time with a whale, a dolphin or a seal. I defy anybody to spend time in the water with these creatures and not be exalted.
If you speak to a leading marine biologist, such as Dr Kathy Townsend, head of the Protect Manta research project and one of the world’s leading manta specialists, she can tell you about the unique bone structure in a manta’s wing, which enables it to flap the wing like a bird, to independently manoeuvre each wing to spin and twist, rise and plummet in ways that other rays, with their rippling swim technique, simply can’t.
But even the birdlike movement isn’t what makes me love manta rays. I love them for their curiosity and intelligence. The first time you see one, you can’t help but be excited and the manta rays can sense it. They move away, glide effortlessly to a part of the water that doesn’t include you, with your over-excitement. But once you calm down, control your breathing, be cool, man, be cool, manta rays will come and hover right over your head. If you watch the video attached to this article on the RoyalAuo apps, there is a shot where my camera is nothing but the black underbelly of a manta. It was so close, checking me out, that it blocked out the sun. Manta rays know who they can trust, to the point that an injured manta recently allowed Project Manta scientists to untangle a fishing line that was severely cutting into its head and upper wing; patiently hovering as they used knives to cut into the line.
Lady Elliot Island
So where can you experience this wonder, either snorkelling or scuba diving?
Manta rays can be found on both northern coasts of Australia – off Western Australia or Queensland – but strangely, the place they most love to gather is in the water only metres off the shore of Lady Elliot Island, basically a speck of coral in the ocean, roughly 80 km north-east of Bundaberg, straight out to sea. What Lady Elliot has going for it is that it is in shallow water only eight kilometres away from the Continental Shelf where the ocean drops to 1000 metres deep, and the Great Australian current, meaning the lower Barrier Reef tropical fish, coral and plantlife of Lady Elliot are also visited by ocean giants, cruising past. False killer whales (giant, fish-eating dolphins) had been spotted and the water was so full of whale song in every dive that I was disappointed I didn’t see any humpbacks swimming past. On one dive, we returned to the boat and saw three whales 50 metres away.
Lot packed into small space
Lady Elliot Island is so small that the runway takes up the length of it, the plane coming in low over the beach, touching the grass and braking hard until it stops just short of the beach at the opposite end. I can’t imagine it’s more than a kilometre to hike the circumference of the island, but there is a lot packed into such a small space.
The eco-resort prides itself on its eco-friendly living and with teaching guests about nature and leaving as little footprint as possible on coral and the world. Turtles nest there through November and December, then its hatchling season in February-March, where you have to watch where you walk so as not to disturb the all important first journey of a tiny hatchling to the water. Winter is peak whale and manta ray season.
See great creatures of the sea
The island markets itself as internationally unique – a place where you can witness what the resort calls The Great Eight. Namely, guests have a strong chance, depending on the time of year and the luck of being in the right place at the right time, to witness any of eight ocean highlights:
Whales (mostly humpbacks); sharks (many kinds, almost all non-dangerous); dolphins; manta rays; turtles (crunch your fingers while swimming and adult turtles might siddle up for a back scratch); clown fish (hello, Nemo!); cod, and maori wrass (there is one huge one, in particular, that cruises around near Anchor Bommie).
This tiny island might be the only place in the world where they all are, and throw in that most are visible while snorkelling, let alone scuba diving. Or from the glass-bottom boat that putters out from the island for visitors who aren’t keen on getting wet.
The writer travelled at his own expense.