I think it’s the mixture of fear & awe that creates the adrenalin that makes encounters with large marine creatures such exciting & memorable underwater events. You are after all, just a temporary visitor to their environment, in which they are in full control and gracing you with their presence.
Fear is a function of experience & knowledge and I can vividly remember my first encounter with a large shark, an inquisitive sand tiger, in the Seychelles over 20 years ago and I really thought I was going to die.
I now know that I was in no danger at all, but the fact is that perception is reality and I clearly perceived that my life was about to end!
Since then I have been fortunate to have numerous encounters with a variety of large creatures and while I no longer fear for my life, I still experience a strong tinge of fear, mainly of the unknown and what could happen if I judge the situation wrongly.
Awe is the emotion that I feel most strongly during such encounters, because it’s a basic fact that over fishing, pollution and climate change are dramatically effecting the marine environment.
Opportunities to interact with large marine creatures are occurring less & less. So being in close proximity to such creatures is an experience that always fills me with a sense of wonder at the grace and perfection that thousands of years of evolution have created.
Diving Papua New Guinea: Diving with the Milne Bay Mantas
I have to say I was rather skeptical when I arrived in Alotau to board the MV Golden Dawn for a 10-day trip in Milne Bay and heard the boats skipper & owner, Craig de Wit, describing the manta encounters the last party of divers had experienced.
Craig was waxing lyrically about how large numbers of mantas frequented a cleaning station just off the beach of a small island near the former provincial capital of Samarai Island.
Not only were they there on a reliable basis, but they had learned to like the feel of diver’s bubbles on their underbellies and would just hang there savoring the experience.
Plus some liked to have their bellies scratched, which was done by reaching your hand upwards prior to the manta coming in and as they approach they rub their belly on your hand!
I kept my thoughts to myself, but was convinced this would turn into one of those “you should have been here last week” situations, but I was wrong, completely wrong!
The island Craig was referring to is Gona Bara Bara, located just up the China Strait from Samarai Island at the south-east tip of Milne Bay, and the discovery of the cleaning station is a story in itself worthy of telling.
Golden Dawn had been charted to search for mantas and Craig had gone to all the known Milne Bay locations but did not find a single one. Then in an act of inspired desperation he responded to the pleas of James, the boat’s engineer, to check out his home island where there were “lots of mantas just off the beach”.
Here is how Craig described finding them:
“I discovered the cleaning station when we went to the island, James my engineer kept insisting that he had lots of mantas at his island so we went in search of them.On arriving we saw them around the place on the surface so most of the group went for a snorkel in hope of getting close to them.
I went for a dive along the beach hoping to get close and while drifting along in the current came across the cleaning station and I guess the rest is now history.”
Golden Dawn managed to keep the site largely to itself for about two years and during that time Craig identified about 30 individual mantas. Then as word spread about the cleaning station and other boats started to visit the site, Craig expected the mantas to move away.
But it seems the opposite happened and as the mantas became more familiar with divers their aversion to the exhaust bubbles produced by scuba gear went away.
On that trip we spent two days with the mantas on that trip & everything that Craig told us at the airport was indeed true and when I went back the following year on Rob van der Loos’ boat MV Chertan, we had a similar two-day experience.
The cleaning station is actually a solitary bommie in about 9m of water, standing in an otherwise featureless sandy area just off the beach at Gona Bara Bara.
The bommie rises up about 5m and is inhabited with a variety of soft corals and fish, including many small cleaner wrasse that provide the parasite removal service that the mantas need.
When the current & tidal conditions are right the mantas are at the bommie when you descend and the key is to move slowly and get in position to photograph them as they take turns coming in to be cleaned. If you are really careful it’s possible to get in really close to the bommie, but you need to be sensitive to getting in the way of other divers as they try to get their images.
Also the cleaner wrasses assume you have come to be cleaned and start to look for edible parasites on you & I had wrasses trying to clean my yellow gloves. On the previous trip a female diver had one of her earrings removed temporarily by an over zealous wrasse, only to see it spat out again!
Diving Papua New Guinea: Milne Bay Manta Image Gallery
Milne Bay Manta Rays Image Gallery
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