Humbly Report: Sean Bechhofer

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Something Special

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Manta!

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.

Written by Sean Bechhofer

January 14, 2014 at 5:23 pm

Posted in diving

Swimming with Sharks

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Maya Thila Dives

It’s an hour after sunset and we’re standing on the back of a boat, staring down into the black waters of the Indian Ocean, wondering what lurks beneath the surface. Except that we know what’s lurking beneath the surface. Because this is Maya Thila in the Maldives, and what we’re going to find down there are sharks. Lots of sharks. Hunting.

Scuba diving takes you into an alien world, with easy movement in three dimensions, communication restricted to hand signals and flora and fauna quite unlike anything you’ll encounter on the surface. On night dives this becomes even more so, as that’s when all the really weird stuff comes out. Worms, slugs, crustaceans, feather stars, anenomes. Tonight though, we’re here to see the resident population of white tips out looking for their dinner. On earlier dives, we’ve seen plenty of sharks. During the day, they tend to be fairly sedentary, snoozing in the sand, or cruising slowly past the reef. At night, it’s all change, and even with these small reef sharks (classified in our fish book as “usually docile”), you can see just why they’re apex predators. As we circle the reef, there are sharks everywhere, flashing out of the gloom and through our torchlight, darting in and out of caves in search of their prey.

It’s a wonderful opportunity to see “Nature red in tooth and claw” close up. Where else could one be within touching distance of an animal that sits at the top of the food chain (other than humans of course) and watch as they demonstrate their rightful place at the head of that chain?

And contrary to all those years of bad press, they’re really not interested in us. Not that the adrenalin isn’t flowing. It’s like being immersed in an episode of the Blue Planet, and at times there’s almost too much to take in. Not only are there hunting sharks, but moray eels, lionfish and snapper are joining in the fray, making the most of the light from our torches to track and target.

After what seems like ten minutes, but is closer to an hour, the dive is done and it’s time to make our way up the mooring line. We break the surface and Jacques Cousteau’s Silent World is replaced by a hubbub of excited voices as buddy pairs dry off, sip hot tea and swap tales of the deep.

Editorial Note: This is a piece that I wrote as an entry for the Guardian’s Travel Writing Competition in 2013 — 500 words on “wildlife”. It didn’t win, but I didn’t want it to go to waste! I also wrote about an encounter with mantas.

Written by Sean Bechhofer

January 14, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Posted in diving