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Andaman manta rays take flight

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PHUKET: Dive companies like Sea Bees can guarantee a lot of aspects of their trips. They can guarantee a high-quality breakfast, good equipment and knowledgeable staff, but what they cannot guarantee are those precious and glorious sightings of roaming mega-fauna, like manta rays.

Every diver last week may have spotted the sweeping black wings of a manta ray in the distance or the iconic dorsal fin of a prowling shark, but even that is no assurance that either would be spotted the next day.

On board Sea Bees’ futuristic looking and custom built catamaran, MV Stingray, I try not to think about the mantas as we pull away from the dock and head towards Koh Bon.

Koh Bon, renown for its charismatic mega-fauna, is part of the Similan Islands National Park, despite being almost 20 kilometers north of Island Nine.

After a 55-minute first dive, I’m unsure of the need for a second. We had spotted ornate Blue Dragon nudibranches, a white-tipped reef shark and two manta rays. Admittedly, the mantas had kept their distance, but the dive had been a text book checklist of what to see.

We splash in for our second dive, and follow the vertical wall to the step-down ridge of the island, searching for nudibranches and other small delights.

A manta sails in out of the blue.

Manta rays don’t swim, they glide through water on their massive “wing span”, averaging six meters.

It swoops in below us, like the shadow of a giant bird. An entire school of corbia, groupies to the rock-star manta, cluster and cling to the alien-looking life form and hide under its ‘wings’ (pectoral fins).

The manta makes one pass, then elegantly turns back towards us, this time moving up, closer to us. After several passes it disappears.

Stunned by the close encounter and desperately wanting more, we swim on.

Suddenly, there are two mantas, one following the other. They turn together chasing each other, like children playing tag.

All the divers floating there are awestruck. We’re like a school of lame corbia, too slow to do anything but fantasize about being under the massive wings of the mantas.

They are playing.

They sweep, below our fins, their great wings outstretched. I spin as it passes just five meters below me.

I turn and one of the manta rays flies out of the abysse at me.

I can see between its gently curled cephalic lobes to its mouth, where imperceptibly small teeth are hidden. There is no fear, not only because this harmless creatures mostly feeds on plankton, but because of its eyes.

There is an intelligence in its eyes, a playfulness as it comes within three meters of me and then turns away.

It’s time to go. The mantas are still putting on a show as we ascend for our safety-stop.

For the better part of forty minutes the mantas stayed with us.

Now, floating in the open blue, away from the step-down ridge we wait to surface, the whole time peeking down, still searching for them.

“The best dive of the season!” exclaimed Andrea Filippozzi, our instructor, as we hit the surface.

On the dive boat, even away from the customers, I can see the instructors’ smiles glowing, as they publicly and privately gloat about having just partaken in the best dive of the season – something that’s never guaranteed.

— Isaac Stone Simonelli

 

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