THERE ARE VERY FEW occasions where we are able to truly connect with the marine life with which we go diving.
When I first started diving, I had already finished an MSc in animal behaviour, but was still dubious about the intelligence and sophistication of some of the creatures I had encountered on my travels. However, over the years, having dived so many times with so many animals, I’ve been obliged to reassess my beliefs.
Only recently was I finally blown away by the latest in a series of interactions. On a trip to the Revillagigedo archipelago, out in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico, I had one of my most incredible experiences to date.
The crew of Nautilus Belle Amie offered talks in the evenings while we were travelling from one island to another. As you might expect, the main topics of these talks were the giant mantas (Manta birostris) for which these islands are so famous.
I ALREADY KNEW, from research, that these huge fish seemed to enjoy the sensation of divers’ bubbles on their bodies and would approach very closely, but what was suggested in one particular talk was that these rays were capable of far more than that.
We were told that their brains are the largest, relatively, of all fish, comparable to birds and some mammals.
On top of this, they have a circulatory system in which the blood vessels are embedded into the brain to ensure that it stays warm; a sure sign that it is in use on a much higher level than previously thought.
Recent studies have since shown that the mantas are self-aware, and can also recognise other, individual, manta rays by sight. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of these mantas “asking” for help or “co-operating” with divers to have fishing-lines and other jetsam removed.
And yet still I was not convinced. I couldn’t be certain that the mantas we were seeing on every dive, circling each diver in the group, were really trying to communicate or interact with us on any deeper level.
Another talk introduced us to the concept that the cephalic lobes situated at the front of the rays’ heads, and which are usually rolled up “like a burrito”, might be used not only for feeding but to communicate.
We were certainly given plenty to think about. So, while on a dive that saw three of the chevron mantas entertaining the group for more than 30 minutes, I decided to stop taking photos and try to “talk” to a manta.
Just as one of these magnificent creatures approached me to swim past, its huge eye seemed to connect with mine. At this moment, I quickly thrust out both my arms (with camera held at the far end of one) as far as I could, and made myself perpendicular to the ray.
Incredibly, it reacted as soon as I did this, by turning to face me, rearing up, and spreading its wings out directly opposite me. Its action took my breath away, and my excitement was palpable.
There was, and still is, no doubt in my mind that this ocean wanderer was “copying” me, so I brought my arms in, and the manta stayed where it was.
My mind was racing from adrenaline, and I tried to decide what I should try next. Putting one arm out in front of me, reaching towards the manta, I made a waving motion with my hand.
The manta once again held its position, looked at me and then unfurled just one of its cephalic lobes (the same side as my outstretched arm) and made that same waving motion with it.
Surely this beautiful creature was waving back to connect with me – to communicate. I was dumbfounded.
I was left hanging in mid-water, wondering what had just happened, barely able to breathe, and clearly the manta got bored and swam off to find a more interesting diver who might still be blowing bubbles.
It is extremely difficult to remain scientific during moments like this, and it is all too easy to anthropomorphise what happened. Yet something did happen.
And, while I felt incredible lucky and special for having this encounter with a giant oceanic manta ray, it is actually not that unusual to hear similar stories from divers who have spent any length of time with these amazing creatures.
I am convinced that when people relate events similar to this, such as scientists working to prove that mantas are more intelligent and social creatures than previously thought, it can only help in their conservation.
TO TOP OFF WHAT WAS already one of my all-time top-five favourite dive-trips, we decided to use our two days back on land wisely, so rather than spend two days at an all-inclusive 5* hotel, we decided to pack in some more marine adventures.
Our first was to visit the sea-lion colony in La Paz. The young sea-lions there are another animal that will approach divers and even engage in forms of play. They will bite your fins, snorkel and just about anything they can grab. They will zoom around you, making impossible turns and crazy manoeuvres. However, what is the correct etiquette when a sea-lion gives you a starfish?
A single sea-lion had been playing with Nick and I for a few minutes, and we had happily been taking photos. Then it stopped by a rock and appeared to be pulling at something – an orange starfish. Once it had prised it off the rock, it swam up just above my head and dropped it down onto me.
I instinctively held out my hand and let the seastar settle in my palm. The sea-lion then appeared next to me and nudged my arm, just as my golden retriever would.
I held it out, and the sea-lion grabbed it and swam above me to repeat the game. This happened three times, before I then found a safe place to put the starfish back on the rocks. It appeared unharmed.
This is not the first time this has happened to me, either. A Cape fur seal also handed me a starfish while on a dive off Simon’s Town (near Cape Town) in South Africa.
On this occasion, too, the curious and playful youngster prised the starfish off the rock before swimming up to give it to me. It is an interaction with a wild animal that I will never forget.
Of course, I have encountered similar playful behaviour in the UK while diving with grey seals in the Farne Islands and Anglesey, where the seals tug on your fins and roll over on the sand or kelp to get attention.
I have even had, on two separate occasions, seals try to take my camera from me, but these do not stand out quite as much as the experience of being brought a gift by a sea-lion!
I have had sharks “check me out” in a curious way, and plenty of other species tolerate my presence and allow me to approach right up to them, but the only other marine animal that has made me feel sought-out as such was a manatee in Florida.
NICK AND I WERE kayaking and snorkelling in Homosassa, and I was nearly knocked off my kayak by one individual, which was using it as a platform to scratch her back.
When I got into the water and got my camera ready, she swam directly towards me. I kept shooting until she was too close and, having never swum towards her, I dropped my camera and waited.
She kept coming, slowly, until she came to a stop by squishing her nose right against my mask.
I was delighted to see Nick’s strobes go off out of the corner of my eye, and knew that he had got the shot.
I am lucky in that way, that each of these incredible encounters have been captured by Nick, and I can relive them each and every day, as they are surely my most precious underwater moments.