Guest post by Linda Hill @Lindahill50Hill
Swimming with Manta Rays in the Maldives
There’s a tangible sense of anticipation aboard the dhurney as Chas, our local tour leader, distributes baby shampoo ‘spit’ to stop our masks fogging and we wriggle our feet into our fins. Whilst we were eating sun-ripened baby bananas from the branch strung at the back of our cruise vessel, the Ari Queen, and drinking our early morning teas and coffees, the ever-vigilant crew have spotted Manta Rays in the glistening Indian Ocean and now we are going to try to find them and, hopefully, swim with them.
Chas briefs us carefully. If we are lucky enough to find these magnificent animals, we must slip as quietly as possible into the bath-warm sea, not chase the Mantas but respect them in their environment and remain as composed as our mounting excitement will allow.
A cry goes up from a dhurney crew member. He has spotted a Manta in the water. Chas enters first to ensure all is well for both Manta and guest and soon we are slipping into the ocean ourselves and spreading out into a rough line in the water.
Shafts of sunlight ripple through the top layers of the turquoise sea and it is hard to control our breathing as our heartbeats increase with expectation. We can hear the prickling of the seawater in our ears. This is deep water; we are not next to one of the colourful teeming reefs we have snorkelled on all week with their myriad fish and fabulous corals. All we can see here is the snow dome effect of millions of plankton – the food for Mantas.
For a few anxious minutes we believe we are going to be disappointed. Then, suddenly, silently, a shape appears, indistinct at first despite the clarity of the water, but gradually forming a recognisable image just a few feet away.
No, not a Manta, or even two, but three Mantas swimming in a choreographed ballet of effortless fluidity. Then a fourth joins them. They glide so close it is hard to resist reaching out and touching them – their skin appears silky and one imagines it would be cool to the touch like marble. We remain as still as possible in the water to avoid interrupting them, but they are totally unafraid and seem to want to enhance our experience by passing in front, beside and underneath us continuously so that we are surrounded by their surprising beauty.
Gliding in slow motion they feed without pausing. We can see right inside their gaping mouths that could swallow some of us whole as they hoover up their morning feast of plankton. They remind us of stately nuns in wimples as they pass – far from the devils with horns that the fins at the front of their heads sometimes lead them to be called. As they turn, just inches away, their gills look like the white sails rigged on an old-fashioned schooner.
One Manta performs a series of somersaults right in front of us and we feel as if we have swum into the midst of a wildlife documentary usually only accessible vicariously on the television. Each creature has a different pattern of huge ‘freckles’ on its belly looking rather like scuff marks in fresh paint. It is as if the Mantas are flying in a dreamlike trance, so graceful are their movements and it is easy to see why they are said to have wings. When one makes obvious eye contact with me the emotional pull is overwhelming and I find myself moved to tears.
Soon, almost an hour has passed in what seems like seconds and it is time to leave and return to the Ari Queen for breakfast. Is it really still only 8.30 in the morning with a whole day of cetacean-spotting to come? Back aboard the dhurney there is a communal sense of euphoria. This has been a wildlife encounter of a lifetime. Not one of us remains untouched by the experience.
Linda is a writer and book blogger, you can check out her own fantastic blog here