In this retrospective I’ve focused on events and photos that were uplifting for me during the difficult year that was. Most of these photos haven’t run before, but were taken at the same time as those in posts that ran in 2020. Links to the original posts are at the end of the captions.
My usual posts feature a single photo or perhaps two or three, but today I wanted to give an idea of a recent encounter I had in the water with this manta ray. The photos are a sequence, top to bottom, from the time I first saw it, to it fading from sight into deeper water, about a 10 minute period. The ray swam quite slowly during that time, allowing me to keep up with it.
There are two kinds of manta rays. M. birostris, also known at the ocean manta, is the larger of the two species with a wingspan of 20 feet or more. The manta in these photos is M. alfredi, or reef manta, with a wingspan of 18 feet or less. This one was probably around 12 feet across.
On a recent snorkel, this large manta ray made an appearance. It cruised around close to the coral outcroppings before heading north. I don’t chase mantas, or any other fish really, as most anything in the water can leave me behind at any time it wants to.
This week’s Friendly Friday challenge theme is ‘Comfort Zone.’ (See more responses here.) In my youth, swimming in the sea wasn’t something I enjoyed. This wasn’t because I was afraid, but rather that I was so skinny, I was instantly cold when I got in. Here in Hawaii, that’s no longer a problem. I’ve added a few pounds and the water’s warmer, so when I go snorkeling, I feel at home. There can be strong currents, big waves, and sharks with more sharp teeth than seems necessary, but I don’t worry about any of this. I try not to do stupid things in the water, but instead enjoy putting along and watching the fish.
Lately, I haven’t been able to get in as much and, because of a series of large swells, when I have, the water quality hasn’t been great. A couple of days ago I popped down hoping to cash in on some calm waters before a new swell filled in. Alas, the swell was bigger than the previous day, with some large sets rushing in and crashing ashore.
I thought the day was doomed, but got in anyway and immediately couldn’t see a thing. The water was all stirred-up sand. But visibility is often better farther from shore so I swam out. It did improve and by the time I got to one of the areas I usually visit, the visibility was OK, if not exactly great. By way of compensation, lots of fish were active, milling around near the surface and in deeper waters.
I was checking out these fish when I glanced to one side and saw this manta ray coming my way, not 20 feet away. It was a big one, with a wingspan of 8 to 10 feet. I hadn’t seen it before, but it was traveling fast enough that I wasn’t surprised by that. I snapped a couple of quick photos (including the one below) and then it was past and heading into the murk. I turned to follow.
One thing I’ve learned is that it’s mostly a futile activity chasing fish of any kind. In the water, I’m a model T Ford in a world of turbocharged Ferraris. The manta was swimming with little effort but easily outpacing me. But I noticed that it was heading into the bay and I thought that if I cut straight across the bay, I might see it again as it swung out.
Sadly, the visibility got worse the farther I went and I resigned myself to not seeing it again, right about the time the manta emerged from the gloom heading toward me. It cut across in front of me and I took the middle photo. It says something about how close the manta was that I was able to get a decent photo in such murky water.
Once again the manta disappeared with languid ease, heading south. I followed for a bit before I gave up and started looking around to see what else was in the water. Moments later the manta reappeared, again heading my way. Again it slipped by in front of me (top photo). Again, I followed, lost it, and then saw it coming toward me. The manta ray was clearly curious, checking me out, wondering this thing what in the water was that apparently could barely swim.
After it disappeared again, I waited a while but didn’t see it again and headed back to shore. When I got out, I saw another swimmer about to get in. “Did you see it?” he asked. I told him what had happened. “It’s still there,” he said, and then got in to see if he could find it.
Sure enough, the manta was visible from shore, its back showing through disturbed water, and its wingtips occasionally breaking the surface. As I watched, the manta ray swam back and forth, staying in the center of the bay, not that far from shore. I’d been in the water with it for about half an hour, and watched from the shore for another 20 minutes. When I left, it was still there.
I’ve been on a manta ray tour and there are others that take snorkelers to swim with the dolphins or to watch whales, but there is nothing quite so exhilarating or rewarding as a chance encounter. I headed out with low expectations and little enthusiasm, and returned energized. It’s moments like this that make living in Hawaii, indeed just living, worthwhile.
Most weeks I post something in response to the WordPress photo challenge. This week’s theme is ‘evanescent,’ a word I wasn’t familiar with. The definition provided is “soon passing out of sight, memory, or existence; quickly fading or disappearing,” or, put simply, ‘a moment in time.’
To me, this is what any photo is, a snapshot of a given moment. Even the look of a fixed object, a landscape, a building, a monument, is always changing. It could be the light, weather, activity around the subject. Everything is in constant flux, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes only in the detail. With birds, animals, bugs, even plants – blowing in the wind – those changes of passing moments are more obvious.
So I thought I’d take this week’s challenge as my theme for the week (or at least the remaining six days of the challenge). I start off with this photo of a manta ray. One of the great joys of snorkeling is never knowing what I’ll see that day. It could be a common fish engaged in some activity I’ve never seen before. It could be a glimpse of something unexpected. It could be something seen only at a certain time of year. Whatever it is, it almost always gives me a little jolt of ‘wow.’
While out snorkeling, I got a jolt of ‘wow’ when I saw this manta ray gliding along in the opposite direction. I turned and followed its effortless progress for several minutes until it headed into deeper water and disappeared. An evanescent experience? I think so, though it won’t soon disappear from my memory.
One is, it’s the first manta ray I’ve seen outside of a tour where they set up lights and an unruly mob of people hung onto floats while the manta’s fed off plankton attracted by the lights. The manta’s were fabulous; the rest of the experience was weird, bordering on unpleasant. To top it off, I didn’t get any photos.
The second reason is how I came to spot this manta in the first place. A group of three women was swimming about 100 feet ahead of me. They had masks and snorkels but not fins. I happened to pop my head above water and heard a scream from one of the women, followed by a huge froth of whitewater in their vicinity. They’d obviously seen something dramatic and my first response was to find out what it was, never mind that a scream and churning water might be a strong indicator of a shark attack.
As I swam forward, this great creature came into view, angling across my path. At first it wasn’t clear what it was, but then the two distinctive cephalic flaps became clear. Manta’s use these to funnel water into their mouths when feeding. Manta’s are plankton feeders and harmless. Many rays have stingers in the tail area, but manta’s don’t. John Hoover says an 8 to 12 foot wingspan is most common for manta’s in these waters and this one certainly fell in that range.
With little effort, it glided past me toward deeper water. As it did so I saw a second manta join the first, then they disappeared into the murk.
A few minutes later I talked to one of the women who’d been in the group ahead. She said she’d screamed because she was startled by the sudden, unexpected appearance of this huge creature. I sympathized. I’ve had a similar response when unexpectedly meeting sharks and eagle rays at close quarters. But at the same time, such chance encounters are magical and memorable and I am grateful for them.
In my attempts to identify what I see in the water, I use John P. Hoover’s book The Ultimate Guide to Hawaiian Reef Fishes, Sea Turtles, Dolphins, Whales, and Seals. His website is hawaiisfishes.com.