Flat calm! So flat you felt as though you were
sitting on a mirror. Not a breath of wind. Drops of sweat falling
from your face onto the surface of the sea and spreading as only
oil can do.
I don't think I've ever seen it calmer on the
Great Barrier Reef. We were in the deep water channel three miles
off Lizard Island, one hundred and fifty miles north of Cairns.
Under these conditions sound travels miles across
the surface and we could hear fish rising over a mile away. My
filming partner and I were searching for comb jellies and with
weather like that it is possible to see so much more of these
ephemeral creatures than when the sea's surface is disturbed.
It meant we could locate swarms without continually having to
leap in and out of the boat.
We both stood for a minute or two taking in the
beautiful scene. Brilliant blue sea, cloudless sky, wheeling noddy
terns, a distant osprey fishing and all around us gurgles and
splishes and splashes.
In the distance a slight disturbance caught our
eyes. A few sea birds paying close attention to the sea beneath
them and some heavier movement in the water. We pointed, speculated
and watched. Whatever it was was coming our way. It was still
five hundred meters away but the sound was clear. We began to
realise that the surface of the water was raised and from the
top projected a curved fin - all the while heading straight for
us. Now the swollen mass of water was big and the dorsal fin clearly
scything the surface with a bow wave on its leading edge. We looked
at each other and simultaneously said "Jaws"!
Closer and closer it came. At fifty meters the
birds peeled away, after which we spotted two lateral "outriders".
Almost immediately we realised we were being "invaded" by a big
manta ray - about ten foot across the wings and weighing in at
more than half a ton. The tips of the wings were occasionally
breaking the surface to provide the lateral disturbance.
"Dave, you stay here and keep an eye on it - I'll
try to get a shot or two". I slithered over the pontoon of the
Zodiac with Nikonos, snorkel, and face mask and entered the water
on the side of the boat furthest from the ray. Immediate disappointment!
At a glance I realised the visibility was awful. I turned in the
direction of the action and just made out the grey image of the
manta diving diagonally off to my left - passing ahead of our
motionless inflatable. I fired a desultory "no-hoper" of a shot
for the record and briefly watched the big beast disappear into
the blue-grey depths.
I swam back to the boat, asked Dave for my fins,
told him the visibility was dreadful while I hung from the strake.
Fin-footed and a bit more mobile, I swam gently in the direction
we had seen our visitor take. All around me was blue-grey and
murky. I hung at the surface and peered down. Nothing loomed.
I raised my head, turned back to the boat, which was now twenty
five meters away, and asked Dave if he could see any sign of our
Dave visibly blanched, pointed and yelled. I turned
to see the tip of the manta's wing pass a meter or so in front
of my mouth. The big fish powered past me and skimmed beneath
the boat. I followed. Dave, above, turned on the deck boards and
watched, as from under the boat, and directly beneath him, the
ray appeared and swam vigorously away. At that moment I was aligning
the camera. As I gained clarity of view in the viewfinder I realised
the big beast had taken fright from Dave's activity above him,
turned on a sixpence, and was coming directly at me with a small
shoal of pilot fish at its mouth. Click! I fired one shot, withdrew
my head from the back of the camera and re-focused. What I saw
frightened the life out of me! A split second later I was hit
full tilt across the solar plexus by the open mouth of the manta
ray - a fleshy palp to either side of my waist. I was bodily elevated
and folded like an envelope - my body prostrate across the animal's
back - my legs beneath it's throat. In this unbecoming position
I was then propelled effortlessly away from the boat and Dave,
who by now was looking not a little surprised at my rodeo tactics
atop this powerful black steed. I tried to wave my farewell, but
the speed kept me and mine well adherred to my organic vehicle.
I streamed back like a limp ribbon above and below the beast.
I remember thinking "that's why they're called Devil Rays". It
also dawned on me that anyone ahead of the manta, looking in his
direction, would have only seen my backside plastered over his
The next movement I felt a bit of pain in my left
thigh and I realised it was slewing sideways and almost as fast
as it had begun I peeled off and over the animal's right hand
wing. The mild pain was a graze as I dragged across the sandpapery
body of this classic elasmobranch.
I can now confirm that never have twenty five
meters been so rapidly swam. I gained the port side of the boat
in time for Dave to grab my hair and my bum and raise me bodily
in one smooth movement and drop me unceremoniously onto the deck
of the Zodiac atop anchor chain and plankton trawl!
Need I say more? Between us we had probably frightened
the life out of our otherwise gentle fellow mariner. What he didn't
know was that he'd given us a thing or two to think about too!
In retrospect I have always wondered what would have happened
had I been lying horizontal at the surface. My head would have
entered his mouth and today there would be a big ol' manta flapping
round the reef with a skeleton and a pair of rubber fins sticking
out of his mouth. That would have given the pilot fish something
to talk about!
This article was written by Peter Parks
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