Boarding the boat early Tuesday morning, I found that I was only one of two Americans on board with the majority being a dive club from the UK, and the rest a mixture of manta ray researchers and support divers.
Dr. Bob Rubin from Pacific Manta Ray Research and Guy Stevens, a biologist from the Maldives Manta Ray Research Project led the team. They are amongst the top researchers in the world, even shown on BBC specials, so we were in for a treat - having lectures and slide shows from the experts each night on various aspects of these huge pelagics.
We would learn that there are now two distinct species of manta rays. The Reef Mantas, smaller and usually more numerous, that frequent the inner islands of places like Hawaii, Palau, Yap and the Maldives. The Giant Manta Rays found in Mexico, are true pelagics, believed to travel great distances in the open ocean before showing up at sea mounts near deep water in places like the Revillagigedos Islands and the Cocos. These fish are much larger - up to 22’ in wingspan. Scientists have now found physiological evidence of to separate these species like the remnants of a stinger in the Giants. All Mantas are filter feeders, only about 200,000 years old as a species, with advanced physiology like warm-blooded brains for faster brain activity in the cold 350-meter depths they dive at night.
“But would we see many rays?” was the question in our minds on the 26-hour ride out to the islands.
Arriving at San Benedicto, our warm up dive at The Canyons was so-so, a few folks saw some hammerheads in the distance and I saw only one Silky shark. Our next site was El Boiler, probably the most famous spot on San Benedicto Island, and certainly the best spot in the islands for interacting with Giant Manta Rays. We were not disappointed. Each dive had up to four at a time playing with us, delighting in “bubble baths”, and letting us pet their bellies.
It’s truly one of the most awesome experiences of my life to come eye-to-eye with large animals like this and have them literally stop, lift a wing, and wait for us to come tickle them. All of the 36 different mantas we would see on the trip were females and the scientists confirmed that most that are seen in shallow waters are female. Nobody knows why. The scientists were busy, retrieving their recorders and tagging new mantas with sonic pingers.
The weather was with us and after debating about making a break for Roca Partida, a rock another 50 miles out to sea, we dove most of the next day with large numbers of mantas and a few dolphins around us.
It was a bit windy as we arrived at Roca Partida, but the currents were pretty reasonable (by blue water standards anyway) and we ended up spending two days there, doing eight dives. Although visibility was a bit limited at times, we saw nearly every large animal you can imagine (except a Whale Shark, damn it). More mantas, dolphins, white tip reef sharks, schools of oceanic white tips, schools of scalloped hammerheads, huge schools of tuna, trevaly, and every imaginable bait fish came by. If there wasn’t action looking out into the blue, there were green morays, small octos and other animals on the rock.
Though the currents had most of us clinging to it’s sides, I found a spot I dubbed Jack’s Nook, just a narrow cut in the rocky wall on the south end that I could duck in and watch the world go by. We saw large schools of oceanic white tips, and once a hammerhead got so close that I had to kick it with my fin (they are normally very shy). One manta followed us around like a puppy dog, until we’d go around the rock (it was possible to do three loops on a dive), and then swam up with a big greeting when it saw us again.
After diving Roca Partida, we were afraid that Socorro Island would be a let down. Boy, were we wrong. Punta Tosca had tough conditions, very strong currents, real mask rippers, strong surge and so-so viz. However, on the first dive hunkered on the rocky ledge at 100’, we were surrounded by a couple of hundred hammerheads, literally swimming through our group! There were also silky sharks, a pod of curious dolphins and more. I left that vantage spot to swim back up into the bay and saw a pod of dolphins swim overhead a bit in front of me, with a huge shark following them. It paused behind for a few seconds, just long enough for me to make out the blunt head of a 16’ Tiger Shark. It was at least twice as big as the dolphins, which were totally unconcerned. I, however, decided to become one with the rocks.
After they swam off, ok long after they swam off, I headed up to the point. Seeing breaking surf above me, I turned to spot a very curious silky shark behind me. Even after I turned towards it, it kept coming, making me take a defensive position again in the rocks. Damn, I hate being on the bottom of the food chain. After it left, I swam all the way back to the boat, alternatingly happy that I left my large DSLR rig in the boat, and pissed that I hadn’t taken a shot during one of the best dives I’ve ever experienced.
Cabo Pearce also on Socorro would be yet another great site, with amazing encounters, over two days, with a school of dolphins. One female was delighted to spot us, and 250 miles from civilization, swam up to us and presented her belly for a good rub and even a close hug. She would not leave until everyone had petted and rubbed her, completely taken with us. They repeated this behavior the next day, and even drove off a large silky shark as it swam by chasing a bait ball. She came back and invited us to rub her tummy some more. This was again a life-changing dive for me. There was most definitely communication going on, on a mammal-to-mammal basis, and I will never forget it.
The last day we went back to San Benedicto and El Boiler for another 3-4 dives with the mantas. The last dive, in the last 10 minutes of a setting sun, proved to provide me the best photo opportunities of the trip, as I inverted the contents of my tank and refused to come up.
My thanks to the Nautilus Explorer, it’s great crew and guides, and my new dive buddies in the UK and elsewhere!
Photos were taken with a D300 in a Nauticam housing with Tokina 10-17, Sigma 17-70 and Nikon 60mm lenses, and two YS-110a strobes.