"Run in with the Devil"

Manta Ray - Manta birostris

Photograph by Roger Steene

© 2000 by Image Quest 3-D
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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 quarry.

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 mouth.

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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2001 by Image Quest 3-D
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