Sophie Sims dives headfirst into an encounter with manta rays off the coast of Hawaii
Sunsets off the coast of Hawaii’s Kona islands are spectacular: oranges, reds and purples sinking into the darkening expanse of ocean water. Half a dozen boats have come to rest here, rocking gently in the half-light, their occupants flitting between excitement and slight trepidation as they prepare to jump into the unknown.
Any traces of seasickness are pushed aside during a battle with my wetsuit, as I try to keep my balance in the rocking boat while attempting to pay attention to our guide. He’s telling us that manta rays are cartilaginous, each one identified by the spotted patterns on their white bellies. And while they can reach up to 25ft in size — almost the size of the boat we’re sitting in — they’re completely harmless.
“They have big mouths, but they don’t bite. The males have teeth, but they only use these to latch onto females during mating season. So if one of them bites you, you have bigger things to worry about,” he jokes.
As the final rays of sunlight disappear, we slide fins-first into the water. I doggy-paddle behind our designated guide until we reach the specially modified surfboard that will serve as our life-line for the next hour. Fitted with railings, it provides our only light source — eerie beams from flashlights slotted into its deck. The millions of plankton attracted to the glow make an irresistible feast for the mantas, which have to eat 30% of their body weight on a daily basis.
The environment below us begins to slowly take shape as we lie face-down in the water. A writhing mass of silver surges from the depths, and suddenly a wall of fish envelops us, intent on hoovering up the plankton buffet before the ocean’s larger life forms arrive for their dinner.
Our first visitor glides in out of nowhere, curved fins elegantly cutting through the water below. The divers excitedly re-direct their flashlights underwater, and little by little, more mantas make their way out of the darkness, playfully arcing and weaving through the columns of light.
My vision is suddenly obstructed by a vast expanse of soft white flesh passing centimetres away from my face. I let out a muffled gasp as the curious manta continues to loop-the-loop underneath us, gaping mouth gathering its prize in slow swoops.
I guess this is what our guide was referring to when he said we’d come face to face with the belly of the beast.