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The Tuamotu Diaries: Chapter 8 - The Magic of Mantas


manta with photographer
photo @moore_rachel

4/15/23

Current ripped through the channel with a fury. Like trying to move upstream on a busy street it was nearly impossible to not to slowly drift backwards. Except for a small eddie at the end of the shallow reef edge where we anchored the dingy.


Crystal clear water is broken up by billions of tiny pink dots. They are really only visible when you focus on the water just in front of you.


Flat black and white diamonds come barreling up current. Their fronts opening to large slates in their bodies. Polka dotted bellies pass overhead and dark topsides glide below. Subtle changes in body position allow them to maneuver in and around us as the rush of water forces nutrients down their mouths. One after another glide by as we struggle not to get flushed away. As each passes the next faintly appears in the distant blue. They are both the alien and the space ship. While the flying saucer filter feeds, it makes eye contact with each of us. They are intelligent aliens visiting from another planet deep below.

manta under surface

We spent nearly four hours diving with the mantas in the pass. They were probably some of the best hours of my life. I ran both my camera battery and legs to their limit.


The train of rays would swim at and around us as we did our best to hold position in the current. A safe zone of about ten by ten meters right next to the dingy had just enough less current tot kick only slightly instead of vigorously.

manta in tropical waters

Whether it was the strong current or familiarity that made the mantas less shy today is unclear. One individual without a tail and another with a clipped wing seemed the least cautious. Each would pass closely, nearly running us over, or fly overhead as we ducked below the surface. At one point one cruised so closely overhead I could feel the pressure change in the liquid between us. I did make the mistake of letting one bump me. I felt bad because he got a bit spooked but I genuinely though it would move away like the times before.


Hours went by and it only left us wanting more. Truly hoping more mantas hang with us tomorrow.


The rest of the day was lazy. We napped, read, talked with one another, ate dinner, played some games, and will now head to bed.


4/16/23

4am – I feel my bladder poking at me to get up. I clumsily stumble from the coffin to the head, doing my best not to wake Josh. He is sleeping on the bench mid cabin. I guess it doesn’t matter much if I make noise. The hand pump on the toilet is loud enough to wake everyone when I flush.


I crawl back into the coffin head first. Doing my best to position myself so the small fan blows air on me. It’s not refreshing. It feels more like my little fan just throws the hot air on me. Moving the warmth around instead of cooling me off.


Trying to doze off a flash penetrates my eyelids. A low grumble extends through the air. Another beam hits my eyes, tinted red from the blood vessels in the lids. I open my eyes to see tall, dark figures moving through the blackness inside the boat. Joshua’s silhouette occasionally illuminated by the light show outside. He hustles away back to his cabin at the bow.


The squall is like a symphony. Pellets fall from the sky beating down on windows like a cacophony of brass symbols. Wind whipping around the side of the boat catches corners and pipes making a whistling tune. The thunder here seems to go on for eternity. Rumbling loudly at first and then growing quieter and fading into the distance. A sort of diminuendo of banging drums.


The storm passes and I drift back to sleep.


We wake up to wind. The sky above our heads a bright shade of grey. Darker clouds loom in the distance past the motu.


The plan last night was to start the morning off with an early spearing mission along the ledge. I start to get everything loaded in the dingy and ready to go while everyone gets moving. Josh comes out on deck while I’m working. He helps me finish up but we both chat about if we think we will still go.


Joshua and Rachel get up and start the coffee. Rachel decides to stay behind. That ends up being a good decision.


The boys and I head out on the dingy eager to take on the rough seas for a chance at a dogtooth. If you haven’t noticed by now that is the prize fish of the Tuomotu.


This time we bring the small dingy anchor. None of us wanted to tow the dingy around in the high winds. The surface of the ocean moved and grooved, white bubbles edging rolling waves. Moments after plopping in Josh spots a doggy swimming below. The fish is in an unusually shallow spot, bad for the fish but good for us. The roll of flashers still in Josh’s hand he dives down. Not close enough. He resurfaces, I take the flashers, he throws the one in his pocket, and takes a dive back down. The dogtooth, unable to resist the shiny cylinder drifting down towards the bottom, comes nosing in. Josh closes the distance and lands a shot through the gills.


The fight is on. Josh pulls on the line with all the force he can manage. The tuna takes off between Joshua’s legs who had poorly timed a dive to reposition the anchor. The fish vibrates through the water speeding around, practically ringing the dinner bell for the sharks. A mixture of small and large greys come barreling in from all directions. Josh continues to work the fish up to the surface but it swims itself around our anchor line. I dive down to defend our fish from the sharks. It swims itself back around the anchor line and basically into my arms. I grab the shaft just below the fish and kick to Josh just a few feet away. He swiftly gets the dogtooth into the dingy.

spearfisherman with dogtooth tuna

A whole five minutes on the water and there is already a fish in the boat. We all joke that fish like bad weather.


We spend the next hour or so along the ledge looking for fish. After repositioning down a ways we get back in and again we immediately see another dogtooth. This one is much smaller. Maybe half the size of the one Josh just landed.


I dove down and made spirit fingers and grunting sounds to attract him closer. His silver body came slowly into detail. A slight aqua shimmer dusted across his dorsal, distinct white spot at the base of the tail, and triangle sickles mirrored on the dorsal and ventral sides of the caudal muscle. My impatience got the best of me. I shot and missed.


The fish stayed within view for the next bit of time, never allowing any of us to get close again. He’s now wiser because of my mistake.


Rachel had given us a strict deadline for when we needed to be back. She wanted to join us for a drift through the pass for a chance of seeing the mantas again.


The ride back was rough. Wind was beginning to violently rip the tops off the waves, causing white bubbles to rush into their troughs. I sat at the front of the dingy to help balance the weight. We alternated between slamming off steep peaks and taking the ocean in full force to the face. We each eventually put our snorkel masks on to alleviate the discomfort of having salt water forced into our eyes. Joshua drove us as fast as he could, which wasn’t really, against the incoming squall.


Rounding the corner of the motu we passed the other cruisers anchored in the lee of the island. The wind was coming from an unexpected direction, leaving the anchored boats to pitch heavily in the meter-high standing waves. Still the crew members inside looked out on us from inside their cozy fortress, surely wondering what idiots were out in this weather. A couple sitting in the comfortable cockpit of their large catamaran shot us a concerned wave as we practically swam through the air. Josh held up his fish and we received two thumbs up. Not sure if they were smiling with us or laughing at our decision.


The palm fronds blew out sideways, perpendicular to the scrawny trunks somehow holding them in place. A wall of grey left the surface bubbling in the distance. Like a pot of water boiling in a straight line and moving closer by the second. Deep grey walls closed in on Agape from the West. Rachel sat in the cockpit, riding the bucking bronco of a boat.


We waited out the storm and the sky turned from dark clouds to a sort of dim, hazy blue-grey. The wind calmed and the surface of the water laid flat.


A quick fly by with the drone revealed two mantas cruising in the pass.


We attempted a few drifts with not much success. A little unwilling to work so hard after such a wonderfully easy day of encounters yesterday, we moved to do a drift out and around the outer corner of the pass.


Soaring over shallow corals in fiery yellows and brownish, mustards a large black figure came sneaking in from behind. We followed the manta out and around the corner. Us humans got in a nice little workout while the manta somehow effortlessly moved through the water without even moving its’ wings.

underneath manta

As I swam behind and above him (he had dropped deeper just to the side of the point where the ledge plummets to the deep) I thought to myself, “Take me to your leader.”


I’m curious where the mantas go when the tide isn’t flooding. Why weren’t they around when we were near the passes the first few days?


Checking the weather forecast we decide it is best to move back across the lagoon. Or rather Rachel decides it is best to move. I trust her decision and as we make our way across the lagoon Joshua confirms it was a good call.


Assuming the forecast stays the same we will cross to another island tomorrow. But we will see where the wind takes us.

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