On the publishing front, I just received word that Brittians largest dive publication, Diver Magazine has agreed to publish my story, Wreck Denizens of North Carolina. Based on the title I suppose you get an idea on what this story will be about. I will have more details on what issue it is to appear in very soon.
"Manta Heaven" - Caribsea, North Carolina
"Unfortunately, this story took place before I became interested in underwater photographery. I do not have any photos or video to share with you of this encounter.
I hope the story and your imagination are enough to satisfy."
In 2002, I was the first mate on board the dive vessel, the Midnight Express out of Olympus Dive Center, North Carolina. The very same boat I'm presently captain of. After diving and traveling in many locations around the world in the past 15 years, the dive story I am about to tell is one of many that explains why I keep coming back to North Carolina to live, dive and work.
The charter on this summer day in 2002 was nothing out of the ordinary. The group we had on board from New Jersey was just thoroughly entertained by their dive on the Atlas tanker. The Atlas is one of those 'go-to' wreck sites when folks want to see sharks up close and personal. After the passengers completed their first dive we decided to head over to another wreck.
We picked up anchor and went to the wreck of the Caribsea, a WWII casualty ship that was sunk by a German U-Boat in 1942 about five miles from our present location. It was my turn to tie us in to the wreck upon arrival.
Captain Robert hovered the boat over the wreck and told me to jump. Wearing a full face mask equipped with surface communication, I followed his orders and leapt over the side with anchor in hand. A few minutes later I had us secured to the wreck and reported we had about 30-40 of visibility on the bottom, but a little clearer in mid water. Robert said he would call me back in a few minutes to find out if I had seen any sand tiger sharks. Diving with these sharks was the main reason why we came here.
I began swimming around the wreck and saw the usual suspects wandering around the bow section. Robert then called me back on the com where I began to tell him about the shark sightings. I said something like, "We have about a dozen or so sharks a slight ways out holy !@#$% a manta ray just swam up behind me. " Wow" replied Robert, "I will tell the others". As he went back to deliver the news and brief everyone on the dive I began swimming about the wreck with this inquisitive manta ray. The ray would swim out of view only to return moments later and swim right up into my face checking me out. Needless to say I was elated at this.
As I rounded the bow and started swimming towards the boilers of the wreck, mid way down, there were yet two more Manta's that came out of the bluish green water. Robert then calls me back and asks if the Manta was still there where I told him there were now two more.
If I wasn't so focused on what was happening before me I may have imagined the melee of divers up on deck struggling to get in the water to get a glimpse of one of the oceans most popular and beloved creatures. I'm sure they were tripping over themselves.
It soon became apparent that these three mantas weren't going anywhere, for the show was just beginning. All one had to do was hover in the water and watch them perform there graceful ballet act. Each of would do barrel rolls, twists and spins in what seemed like a joyful event. Mantas commonly do rolls and flips with their mouths open in order to scoop up the tiny crustaceans that are a part of their diet, but none of them were feeding. I'd like to think that this act was a playful one and these rays wanted to interact.
Some would swoop down at me coming within arms reach where I could reach out and gently touch them on the belly just as they would peel off like a dive bomber. Before any of you get upset because I touched the manta please note that this was the year 2002; a time before touching marine life was so greatly frowned upon. Besides the Manta was enjoying the heck out of this cat and mouse game.
Within a few minutes the divers began showing up on the scene to partake in this gala event. Unfortunately for me, it was time to head up and tend to activities from the surface. I would have to leave the divers in the care of the manta rays.
After I returned to the boat, I filled Captain Robert in on the events taking place down below while he got his gear set up to go for a dive once everyone had safely returned. After about 45 minutes or so the ecstatic divers returned one by one and clambered up the ladders with grins stretching from ear to ear. Each and everyone of them had a continuous encounter with all three of the manta rays for the duration of the dive.
It was now Roberts turn to head down for a dive and no one had to convince him to go. Judging by his long absence from the boat I suspected the rays had stuck around and he was having the time of his life down there.
Eventually he did return, but then suddenly the unthinkable happened. One of the mantas accidentally became entangled in one of the hang lines strung up underneath the boat that divers use as aids in ascent and descent to the wreck. The manta was panicking and wildly thrashing about. In a flash, Robert was back over the side with a knife in hand and swam down to the hapless manta struggling to free itself. Within a few moments and a swipe of the knife, the manta was once again free.
We all figured the frightened fish would swim off in to the blue away from us humans, but this was not the case. As I jumped in to unhook us from the wreck in order for us to head home, all three of the mantas were still there and dancing about even more joyously than before launching backflips and barrel roles over and over again.
I unhooked the Midnight from the wreck and radioed up to Robert that I might be a while down here. He understood. Any other day we would have been in a rush to return home, but not on this one. I was alone on the Caribsea with three beautiful manta rays all around me. The boat and passengers would have to wait.
Now, here is where it got interesting. One of the mantas in particular took a special liking to me. This ray would swim in close proximity performing its aquatic dance. After a while I couldn't resist and swam up over it's back and held on gently to the manta with only a few fingers and took a ride. My eye was a mere 12 inches away from the sentient eye of this majestic creature. Not wanting to stress the manta out I would let go after a few seconds and to my dismay it did a flip and a spin and immediately came right back swimming directly at me, stopping less than two feet away from my face before it stared at me and waited.
I once again gently climbed back on the mantas back and away it went. I assisted the manta and kicked my fins as well so it would not have to pull my full weight. This manta ray was clearly enjoying this interaction.
This routine went on for another 30 minutes. Every time I would let go, the manta would return, stop dead in front of me and allow me get back on board and continue the ride. At one point the ray laid down in the sand near motionless while I hovered over it. I gently touched it once or twice while it twitched its massive fins as though it were in a dream state. I swear it seemed as though it were ticklish. While all this was going on the other two manta's could be seen in the backdrop doing there barrel rolls and back flips like back up dancers. The image was surreal.
Eventually, I took my last ride and hovered in mid-water and watched all three of the mantas continue to flit about the wreck while the one kept circling me as if it wanted to keep playing. After about 30 minutes I felt the need to surface and head for home. As I made my way up the manta ray followed me nearly to the surface before I had to sadly say goodbye. It was time for me to leave it's realm so I could return to mine. I wished this wasn't so.
Interactions like these in the natural world with untrained, unfed and unconditioned wild life are extremely rare occurrences. For a manta ray to knowingly and purposely allow such close interaction with a human, for what appeared to be an act of pure playfulness, was an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my days.
As years went on I became more educated as to the possible harm that I could have inadvertently caused to this manta ray by touching it. Most fish species have a thin coating of slime that covers and protects there skin from parasites and infection. By touching the ray I could have removed some of this valuable slime thus exposing it to possible harm.
Knowing now what I didn't know then; I would not repeat this act again. I would content myself on merely taking pictures of these beautiful creatures regardless of how much the manta begs me to play. I encourage any of you reading this to follow suit and feel privileged just to watch if you should ever have a manta ray encounter.