We’re underwater, kneeling on the sand below Koona Jetty. It’s our last night dive on a trip around Ari Atoll in the Maldives, and we’ve been promised “something special”. Special it most certainly was.
When we started diving, a friend gave us a copy of David Doubillet’s “Water Light Time”. It’s a beautiful collection of underwater photographs, including a set showing manta rays feeding on plankton. Those images had stuck with me, and the manta was firmly on the must-see list. Despite having had years of great diving, though, they’d eluded us. Not for want of trying, either. We’d been to places were they were “quite likely” including a dive in Hawaii with Keller Laros — the Manta Man — at the very spot where Doubillet had shot his pictures. Nowt. How was it possible not to see one and a half metric tonnes of fish?
For a couple of days leading up to Koona, the crew had been alluding to some kind of treat, but without letting on exactly what. At last, they revealed that we’d be taking a night dive under the jetty by the hotel on Koona. The jetty is floodlit, the lights attract plankton, and, well, I’m sure you can guess the rest.
We jump in, and swim through the dark to the shore. The light from the jetty is bright enough that we don’t need our torches, and we’ve been told to kneel on the bottom, remain still and wait. So we wait. And wait. Five, then ten minutes go past, and there’s nothing. Surely it can’t happen again? Wildlife encounters are a matter of luck — they’re wild animals after all, and there are never any guarantees. But how unlucky can we be?
And then that longed-for diamond shape appears, and a manta passes over our heads. Then another, and another, swooping through the water above us. They take turns to barrel-roll through the clouds of plankton, turning tight somersaults with their paddle-like lobes funnelling the water through their mouths. They are huge — up to four metres across — but move through the water with an effortless grace, their wings barely moving as they glide past, turn and come around again. Each animal has distinct markings on its skin, and we have at least half a dozen dancing around us. The show goes on for nearly forty minutes, then, just as suddenly as it started, it’s over and they head back to the open ocean. As we swim back to the boat, a ray takes a last turn around, ducking underneath us and giving a last chance to enjoy these beautiful creatures.
We’d waited over thirteen years for this, and I’d wait another thirty if I could do it again. And if you’ve ever wondered whether it’s possible to shed a tear in a dive mask, it is.
Editorial Note: This is a piece that I wrote as an entry for the Guardian’s Travel Writing Competition in 2013 — 500 words on “an encounter”. It didn’t win, but I didn’t want it to go to waste! I also wrote on swimming with sharks.