manta! / by patrick carpenter

(note: this piece originally appeared in the May 2015 SEA-GLOBE magazine

The engines are cut deep in the Mergui archipelago, in Myanmar waters, at a rock no more than a speck on the local nautical map. The nearest community – that of the Moken, Myanmar’s sea gypsies – is more than six hours distance by speeding boat. Solitary, lonesome fishermen speckle the horizon in their longtail boats– some with nets, some with explosives, all with only the most meager protection from the elements.

Below the rock is the reef. The reef, with its giant and white eyed moray eels, its octopus, soft corals, fan corals, zig zag oysters, the beautiful but horribly named varicose wart slug, the beautiful and perfectly named oriental sweetlips, the bluelined and honeycombed groupers, glassfish, angelfish, emperor fish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, an infestation of scorpionfish, fusiliers, snapper…is a diver’s paradise. But this dive is all about the giant manta ray.

Black on top, white on bottom, mouth forever open, the giant manta doesn’t swim - it soars, it glides, it flies. A giant manta’s wingspan can exceed six meters; the largest reach a seven-meter span. Sharks, dolphins, whales, fish all give some sense of the effort it takes to be in motion in the way their tail fins push them through the water. But the manta glides in hydrodynamic grace and can easily outswim a shark.

We step off the boat and drop down to thirty meters and beyond. At this depth, colors dull as light fades. Everything goes from light blue to violet to midnight. We have come all the way here, and dropped all the way down to this blue on blue world, because this particular place is a prime feeding ground. Mantas, being plankton eaters, cruise the world’s tropical waters, harvesting this floating food. And beyond the underwater safari thrill, as part of the Ray of Hope Expedition, we are here to identify mantas for research purposes. Like fingerprints, no two mantas have the same color markings around their gills. This enables researchers to identify and trace individual migrations by processing photographs through pattern recognition software similar to facial recognition technologies.

We drift and spread out like sentries, staring out into liquid midnight. We strain to see something come from out of the abyss. Time and air reserves escape in bubbled plumes rising towards the surface. Both are finite. Anxiety begins to creep in, and the body language of the divers shows signs of resignation and disappointment. Not today, not this time.

But then, from inside the midnight, a flicker of white. The uplifted, unfading tip of a wing. The dive leader taps on his tank with his metal baton – sound travels faster through water than air – and all masks align like searchlights, first to his outstretched arm, then straight on from his finger to that tip. It’s confirmed: a giant manta.

The manta emerges, gliding parallel to us. She banks and comes towards us, then spreads out in full view like a rock star before somersaulting and gliding back parallel the way she came. She stays just a minute, then turns back into the void, tantalizing, fading, practically dissolving into midnight. Just like that she has left the group, left the reef, left the rock. Her timing is perfect - just long enough: come late, leave early, leave us wanting more - like all the most desired guests.