I had never seen one in the four years that I have been on island. Manta birostris, sometimes called the devilfish or simply, manta ray, is an elusive resident around the shores of Bonaire. Sure, we often get to see Southern stingrays and lovely spotted eagle rays, but a manta? That is rare. A friend of mine once saw a manta in the rough east coast waters of the island, but only for a few seconds, and she has lived a life in the water here for the past 12 years diving and doing turtle surveys. So when I heard at the Yellow Submarine dive shop yesterday that a manta ray has been spotted recently in the water right in front of my house, I was skeptical. “People have been seeing it in the shallows at around ten in the morning,” claimed Patrick, a dive master, “I went in this morning at that time but had no luck.”
I was all too familiar with the AGG-the aquatic gossip grapevine- here on the island. I often hear rumors about beasts of the deep. Two years ago a rare hammerhead shark had supposedly visited. Last fall, a blue whale cruised by and that sighting was documented on YouTube. So maybe, just maybe, this manta ray was the real deal.
At 9:45am the next day I grabbed mask, fins and an underwater camera and jumped into the blue. I swam out to where the shelf tumbles hundreds of fathoms deep and swam the line between cobalt hue and aquamarine green. This is my usual route. Going south, I stop at the point where I can spot the Venezuelan consulate on shore. To the north, I turn around just past the Blue Water Residence. Returning from either one to where I live gives me a nice ½ mile swim.
Today, with the Blue Water Residence in sight, I turned back. But on the return trip, I chose to swim in the shallows in hopes of encountering the ray. I constantly scanned left to right while heading home. There was the deceivingly deep hull of Sea Star, the sailboat that Yellow Man looks after. And yes, to the left was the severely chimed hull of the homemade sailboat, Screech. Scanning back again at two o’clock, I saw it—the distinctive, enormous form of a manta ray. I quickly plotted an interception course and kicked furiously to get close up. While underway, I got the camera out of my pocket and turned it on.
The manta was heading directly north on a course parallel to the coast. I stopped kicking in order to avoid approaching the ray too closely. I had never been around one and was a bit intimidated by its Darth Vader-esque appearance. No deep breathing sounds here, however. Simply a silent, slow motion running as the creature, perhaps 6-feet across (small by manta standards), deftly moved its “wings” up and down for propulsion. I was mesmerized—black on the top, creamed-colored belly, long, thin tail and two paddle-like lobes extending in front of its mouth. I started snapping pix. But the manta was on the express route and passed by me quickly. I followed but just could not keep pace. The ray simply left me behind as it vanished into the infinite blue.
In one way, it had been so easy. Swim out at the appointed time and the ray appears. But I know better. If my course had been several yards either way I could have easily missed it. Or if the creature passed 10 minutes sooner or later, I would have never seen it. No, this encounter had the perfect alignment in space and time of its life and mine. What a grand way to start a Friday, meeting the manta.