The sunset that night does not spread itself out like a stain across the sky; it does not explode into great symphonies of crimson and mango but remains strangely minimalist, like a Japanese flag, a simple red disk descending beyond the Pacific. Our boat captain signals its primal retreat with the call of a conch shell and on its note we prepare our own descent into the waters below.
On our journey out to this spot, earlier that afternoon, just off the black lava cliffs that edge the Kona airport, a troop of dolphins had raced our hull, breaking away to leap and spin in the air like exclamation points to the anticipation that we all shared staring out over the bow. For we were going out to night dive with manta rays, a major notch on any diver’s bedpost; an experience that defied comparison I had been told, that was “of an other world.”
“Mantas are most commonly black dorsally and white ventrally, but some are blue on their backs. A manta’s eyes are located at the base of the cephalic lobes on each side of the head, and unlike other rays the mouth is found at the anterior edge of its head. To respire, like other rays, the manta has five pairs of gills on the underside…Distinctive “horns” (from which the common name Devil ray stems) are on either side of its broad head. These unique structures are actually derived from the pectoral fins. During embryonic development, part of the pectoral fin breaks away and moves forward, surrounding the mouth. This gives the manta ray the distinction of being the only jawed vertebrate to have novel limbs … These flexible horns are used to direct plankton, small fish and water into the manta’s very broad and wide mouth. The manta can curl them to reduce drag while swimming.”
We have placed lanterns on the ocean floor within a tight square of rocks. Like a campfire around which 20 of us will swim down to and sit, each with our own torch shining up towards the surface; meanwhile, a handful of snorkelers circle above us, they too baring torches that they shine down, all of this creating a concentrated single column of light amidst the fathoms of black. Into this column swarms plankton, the moths of the deep, tricked into the worship of a false god, they in turn become the evening’s sacrifice as we summon our own winged spirits.
And they come, appearing like phantoms from above, like the bat signal over Gotham, soaring in and out of the light and then, suddenly, they are directly in our circle, two rays spanning 8 and 10 feet across swoop down, at times mere inches away, their wide gaping mouths all but swallowing us up along with their microscopic prey. So eerie in the glow of the torches, our campfire ghost stories come alive. And yet they are gentle, nonthreatening, even delicate in the way their hulking bodies navigate the space. At one point the larger of the two begins swimming in grand backward vertical loops, to such an extent that one could almost begin to believe that it was for our benefit.
Our two species make strange bedfellows, and yet there is an amiable exchange between us: an easier night’s meal traded up for a glimpse into a different realm; Never has the world seemed more alien to me and yet at the same time never have I felt more aware of its wider plan. To be a stranger in this world and realize that it is not ours. To be the humbled guest in another creature’s sphere. And so, with our tanks at half, we bid farewell and kick back out into the jet black depths.
Photos (hopefully) to follow. In the meantime, makai.makai’s collection of videos on Flickr does a damn good job of capturing the surreality of the evening. For more info, rates etc. check out Jack’s Diving Locker