Great Manta Encounters

Manta Ray, Scuba Diver AustralasiaStory & Pics by Michael AW

There should be ballads, poetry and overtures written for mantas...in our ocean world, they are the epitome of grace. With a wingspan of up to seven metres, they soar through the liquid realm, seemingly dancing to the rhythm of a quintessential symphony. My most memorable experience was one morning two years ago at Coral Bay, Western Australia.

The water was dark green; literally a seafood soup of plankton; sperm and eggs spawned from the night before. Water visibility was an uninviting three metres but the half a dozen mantas beckoned me to jump right in. I swam to one of them as it began to rise towards the surface. We met eye-to-eye, a delicate moment that seemed to cause time to stand still. Nanoseconds before I collided into him the white-bellied giant arched away. In a quiescent world, they glide through the watery realm, the morning light flickers across their powerful muscular wings. Two others soon join the lone ray. Together they move through the water like birds of prey gliding in the wind. Their giant, wing-like fins propel them at speeds that make it difficult for me to match.

Manta Ray, Scuba Diver AustralasiaAfter several minutes of performance, one manta breaks off and dives towards the seafloor. Just before it touches the bottom, it exposes its white underside, turns and strikes up towards me. I descend to five metres and hover for a closer look. It momentarily slows its ascent as it reaches into a plankton cloud. It then begins to somersault; its cephalic fins at the side of its mouth reach out to form a funnel scooping in rich sustenance. It is only then that my body reminds me with excruciating pain, that I am not one of them. I break the surface, breathless.

Through my career I have been privileged to have had several encounters with these graceful benevolent rays, though I must admit that I seek out the optimum opportunities for interacting with them. And I have loved every single moment of serenity and grace. There are now several places in the world known for manta encounters and I have checked out quite a few. Palau, Yap, Raja Ampat, Milne Bay, PNG, Maldives, Richelieu Rock - Thailand, Tubataha - Philippines, Heron Island Australia, East Coast of Peninsula Malaysia, Layang Layang - Sabah, Galapagos, Bora Bora - Tahiti, Kona Coast - Hawaii island and the Revillagigedo Islands off Mexico are some of the better known ones. However, a few of these excel among the rest, predictably famous for closer, quality interaction.

About Mantas

Manta Ray, Scuba Diver AustralasiaEarly fishermen called them the Devilfish. A relative of sharks, manta rays often feed at the surface on small zooplankton and krill funneling them into their mouths with specialized head fins called cephalic fins, which unfurl below into twin scoops.

Generally solitary or known to form loose aggregations of three to six animals, they sometimes gather in larger groups of 30 to feed on a concentration of krill. Much like a hydrodynamic equivalent of a sheep dog herding they do so by sommersaulting in tight loops, their white bellies flashing like a vortex generator forcing millions of krill into a concentrated ball - to be rammed into the gaping manta mouths on their next pass.

Manta rays are the gentle giants of the ray family Mobulidae – the largest recorded specimen was taken off the coast of India weighing in excess of two tons. Since mantas bear only a single live pup, they fit into the pattern of a long-lived animal. One easy distinctive feature of mantas is that their long tails lack a stinging spine at the base like other rays. Though the tails might aid in movement, I have seen several mantas with missing or short tails that appear to function normally. Mantas form a single-file train over the reef during mating. A friend observed up to 40 males chasing a single female in the Maldives. When she has chosen a lucky one, she will allow the male to bite onto her long fin tip and slide beneath her for an abdomen-to-abdomen copulation.

How to Shoot Mantas

Mantas are most easily photographed especially at cleaning stations - but most often these stations are in channels where a current is running. Naturally mantas are not inclined to swim up to you and wait for you to take their picture. But this does not mean you should start chasing them around the reef - remember they have huge fins and can swim much faster than you. Mantas are gentle animals and a very gentle approach is necessary for good pictures. At a cleaning station the manta will pass over the coral head and hold position while being cleaned. This is where you'll need to use a little judgment on how close to get. Avoid sudden abrupt movements - move in slowly and carefully. If you seem to have scared him away, be patient, back away from the station and generally they will come back. The underside of mantas are usually white so if you are going to shoot from beneath, point your camera and meter straight out into the open water or just slightly upward to the water column and adjust the shutter speed to around 1/60 or 1/125 second. Set your strobe to 1/4 power or 1/2 power. Since most cameras and strobes work at 1/60 or 1/90 shutter speed, you are letting in enough ambient (surrounding) light and the strobe can fire to fill in the foreground. With the lower power output you'll be less likely to overexpose the image and recycle time will be much faster. Do try to shoot a few frames using natural light. Do bracket your f-stop for variation - I also bracket by exposing - _to 1 EV.

This article was originally published in Scubadiver Australasia

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