DIVING WITH MANTA RAYS WAS SORT OF A DISTANT FANTASY. I just wanted to see them. The giant Atlantic mantas I had seen in the past were fast-moving and, mouths agape, totally focused on sweeping up the plankton they make their livings on. Suddenly here, there, gone.
Spending extended time in close-up choreography with one of these gentle giants was not in my vision. Until it was. The dive was at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, about 100 miles off the Galveston coast.
FLOWER GARDEN BANKS – MANTA CENTRIC
Flower Gardens has long been renowned for its manta rays (Atlantic giant mantas or giant ocean mantas, species Manta birostris). Mantas are (theoretically) identifiable by their markings, and the sanctuary maintains a catalog of dozens of known Manta birostris specimens.
On the other hand, there is a great deal that’s not known about the lives of manta rays. A case in point: a study published in mid-2018 that determined that the sanctuary constitutes a nursery for juvenile giant Atlantic mantas – a fact previously unrealized (see “Flower Garden Banks – a Manta Ray Nursery”).
HANGING OUT – AND DIVING WITH MANTA RAYS
It was a throwaway line in a news story about the discovery that struck my fancy. One of the staff was quoted as saying: “I’ve had many manta rays hang out with me on fish surveys. Sometimes it’s almost annoying. Like, ‘Dude, get out of here, you’re scaring away the fish!’”
I thought: “How cool would that be, hanging out with mantas?”
On a dive with the liveaboard M/V Fling over Labor Day Weekend, I hung out with a manta. And, diving with manta rays was very cool.
DANCING & DIVING WITH MANTA RAYS
My giant Atlantic manta showed up as soon as we were in the water, coming towards us, passing over, going away. Except that this one turned and circled us. I was so discombobulated as it approached, I pushed all the wrong camera buttons and only started videoing as it went away.
Not to worry. It circled and came back around. And kept doing so. For some reason, everybody else in my group seemed to think this was a passing event and, after a bit, went on down the reef, like it was a normal dive.
I did what I always do in spectacular encounters, especially one diving with manta rays. I kept shooting. The manta kept coming back, passing directly above me several times. True or not, I read that they like divers’ bubbles.
MY MANTA RAY FRIEND
Flower Gardens may be a nursery for juveniles but folks on the boat who were familiar with mantas said this giant Atlantic manta was an adult. It had a “wingspan” of about 15 feet. So far as I can tell, it was a female. Juvenile male mantas sometimes don’t have their claspers well-developed, but none at all were apparent on my new friend.
I did try to identify her from the sanctuary catalog but couldn’t correlate the markings on her abdomen with any in the gallery. In any event, they’re all identified by catalog numbers like M80, not with names. I like to think my friend would be named “Roxy.”
We continued our ballet of circling and shooting for 15 or 20 minutes. During this time I realized I was totally separated from my group, and also had no idea where the boat was.
So far as I know, we could still be down there, circling, shooting and everything else involved in diving with manta rays. Finally, I had to give up the dance, do a safety stop and look for the boat. Roxy went lower in the water column and finally I lost sight of her.
A SAFETY SAUSAGE & A TAXI RIDE
On the surface, I found that I was a whopping distance from the boat. No way I was going to swim back. For the first time in my decades of diving, I inflated my safety sausage, waved it around and they sent the dinghy to pick me up. It turns out that, on the boat, they were watching my bubbles the whole time and they knew where I was anyway. I heartily recommend the Fling as a dive boat.
To learn more about giant Atlantic mantas, read “Manta Ray Facts: By the Numbers.”
PRINCIPAL SOURCES: Manta birostris, Florida Museum, University of Florida; “Research raises possibility that Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary is part of manta ray nursery,” NOAA: “Nursery For Giant Manta Rays Discovered In Gulf Of Mexico,” NPR; “Rare Manta Ray Nursery Discovered,” National Geographic; “Rock-a-bye manta ray, in the ocean: The first manta ray nursery is found,” Durham Herald-Sun; “Manta Catalog,” Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary; Manta Ray, Reef Manta Ray, Wikipedia.com; “Important juvenile manta ray habitat at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico,” (Abstract) Marine Biology.