United States of America
Ray of Might
I submerge my face under the water and the romance of the moment is unexpectedly lost. There are no rays, just a bunch of slender needlefish stabbing their beaks into the dark.
Ten minutes pass. In my peripheral vision I spot the white mask of a scuba diver and am a bit miffed. He’s not with our party and is hogging our light – the very thing that attracts manta rays at night. He propels himself underneath us and suddenly I realise it’s not a mask – but two cephalic horns.
Ladies and gentleman we have our first manta ray! She’s huge – about 2.5 metres across, with a body like a toasted marshmallow: dark and speckled on top and gleaming white underneath. She circles us cautiously, like a circus animal surveying the crowd, then executes a backward roll, mouth wide open, fins graciously flapping like a giant underwater bat. Soon she is joined by two friends.
Manta rays have been making regular appearances at Keauhou Bay, on the Big Island of Hawaii, since the 1970s, when one of the resorts began illuminating the water with floodlights at night, inadvertently attracting high concentrations of plankton.
For snorkellers there’s a strict ‘no touching’ policy, and I feel like a teenage boy visiting a strip club for the first time. “But they can do what they like to you – and if they touch you consider yourself kissed by a manta ray,” our enthusiastic guide says, adding that sometimes the rays rub bellies with their wetsuit-clad admirers.
I’m determined to press belly flesh with a manta ray. The big ray, who I later learn is called Melainah, approaches me head on. Her cavernous mouth looks like a glowing skeleton and I can see right down to her oesophagus. My head would just about fit inside her mouth, but she has no visible teeth and no barbs. She is like a big aquatic teddy bear – completely harmless. Just when I think we’re about to clang foreheads, she tilts herself upwards and begins a majestic sequence of backward rolls, filtering the plankton into her gizzard like a massive sieve.
This feeding cycle is repeated for about an hour, before it’s lights out and the darkness of the ocean draws the curtain on the mantas’ spectacular performance. I clamber aboard the boat, cold and giddy from the experience.
Did a manta ray single me out for special tactile attention?
Like I’d ever kiss and tell.