Appeared in DIVER July 2006

Far end of MANTA ALLEY

HOW MUCH LINE WOULD YOU LIKE ON YOUR REEF HOOK asks Karl, our dive guide. The question rapidly cleared that early-morning feeling from my brain.
I was on a liveaboard in a remote corner of the Indonesian archipelago and had spent the past few days looking for unusual macro life around Komodo, but todays instructions were to fit a wide-angle lens!
The site we were about to dive in Toralangkoi Bay was described in the briefing as a deep gully that funnels the changing tide at up to 3-4 knots at the top and bottom of the tide, and could still be running at up to 1 knot during our dive at slack water.
We would drop in well upcurrent and dive immediately, so that we could hook in as we entered the gully.
Why am I doing this I asked myself as I struggled to ready my camera on the descent. The answer was manta rays, lots of them. This site was known as Manta Alley. Even as I searched frantically for a suitable spot into which to hook, they were already appearing on the edge of visibility.
Current not only brings the plankton on which mantas feed, but they just love to play in it. They also seem to like an audience, and in this location will come to investigate as soon as divers enter the water.
Mantas were cruising into the channel as we secured ourselves and began to relax a little, but it was soon clear that even simply watching them, let alone doing anything useful with a camera, was going to be challenging.
Streamed out on the end of your reef hook, you are exposed to the full force of the current, so your valve free-flows as you face into it, your hose vibrates like a guitar string and your mask is likely to fill with water whenever you turn your head!
The current also tries to rotate you on the end of your hook. Matters get far worse when you raise your camera and increase the surface area. What seemed to be a rigid flash arm gets swept behind your head as you gyrate above the reef.
After a few abortive attempts, I emptied my mask for perhaps the fifth time and realised that shots would have to be snatched before my ungainly twirling began in earnest.
This meant pre-setting the focus and exposure and being ready for the next manta riding the current towards me, or nonchalantly cruising up beside me against the current.
I would then grip my flash-arm and housing and swiftly raise them to compose a picture. This way I could get two or three shots off before the current got a firm grip on me and the manta had passed by.
After a while, I realised that the mantas were stopping above one or two coral heads several metres ahead of me to be cleaned by various reef fish.
I decided to try to move towards the nearest head and reposition my hook to put me alongside, so that I could obtain images in a more controlled fashion.
For the next few minutes I struggled against the current, clutching my camera behind me with one hand and hooking in with the other, pausing for breath every now and then.
The mantas continued to pass by serenely in both directions, eyeing my struggles with contempt.
I finally hooked in where I wanted to be, got my breathing under control and found that the effort had been worthwhile. The mantas were stopping within a couple of metres of me, and I was able to swing in a bit closer on my line for a shot with a few ungainly fin movements.
Air and film were getting low (I had used both fairly quickly, even though maximum depth was 15m) so I released my hook and went with the current - and a passing manta for a while - before surfacing.
This manoeuvre was executed with far more style than my arrival, and my chosen manta eyed me curiously as we drifted down the gully together.
He banked to the right and I followed, trying to shoot some silhouettes against the sun and the surface, when suddenly we stopped moving.
Peering over my camera, I realised that we had come around the end of the gully, out of the current, onto a shallow plateau and into waters protected by the reef. There was no movement, and ahead was my manta and behind him three others, all seemingly taking a breather!
Once over the surprise, I cursed myself for not finding this sooner, and got down to using the few frames I had left. The rays just cruised slowly in wide loops, passing within a metre to the side or above me, and seemed concerned only when I exhaled bubbles beneath them. I was soon forced to surface for pick-up and a fast return to the boat for new film.
I went back in armed with two systems in anticipation of finding my current-free spot again. The current in the gully had slackened off considerably, but I ignored the cleaning stations and drifted through to the end of the gully, where I found my resting mantas again.
This time I was able to watch more carefully. The mantas seemed to be making a full circuit through the gully against the current, stopping for a wash and brush-up at a cleaning station en route. They would then come around the reef to congregate and possibly rest in this area, sheltered from the current, before making another run.
Several other photographers were keen to check out my discovery, so when they arrived we spread out and waited for the mantas to come closer.
The rays curiosity gave us the opportunity to shoot almost every composition we could wish for. This was a physically more relaxed dive, though the film didnt last much longer!
Can you get too much of a good thing We dived the site five times in a day, and to prove that I could ignore the mantas, I took a macro rig on the last dive.
To be honest, the light was failing by now anyway. We had all but ignored the incredibly rich reef life in Manta Alley, but this dive was equally rewarding.
In Indonesia, where there is significant current you often find numerous gorgonians. Many hide the elusive pygmy seahorse, which needs all your concentration to find and then photograph at high magnification. There are numerous other strange and rare creatures here, and the most dazzling array of nudibranchs imaginable.
Back in the channel, the strong tides attract huge schools of fish - barracuda, dogtooth tuna, jacks and snappers - and the odd turtle, cruising through and then peeling off into the shelter of the reef.
It doesnt matter how often you dive with mantas, the experience always leaves you feeling both awed and totally inadequate in their environment. If you get the chance, grab it!

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You need sharp eyes to spot this orange pygmy seahorse