I dwell in a quote by Loren Eiseley, "If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water." He was referring to the interactions of a water pubble froma terrestrial point of view. for me, it lyrically sums up the beqitching fantasies in our ocean, expecially of my time in the blue waters of the Revillagigedos Archipelago.
I was the first in the water. Dropping to 18 metres, I swam towards "The Boiler", a submerged sea mount about 80 metres wide on the top. Reaching the far edge, I looked around for the distinctive orange coloured Clarion angelfish amidst a rather dull rocky seascape. These are the beauticians servicing the pelagic giants. For the underwater explorers, the Boiler is the most predictable site for encounters with oceanic mantas. From two previous expeditions, I can corroborate that the mantas here are the most approachable in the world. This seamount is really a bewitching sanctuary where you can see and feel the magic of our ocean. The Revillagigedos Archipelago or simply, Socorro, should be on everyone’s bucket list – Mount Everest would be dreary by comparison.
I settled down to photograph an octopus being hassled by few hog fish but was distracted by the few Galapagos sharks swimming leisurely a few metres off the ledge. I framed a shark in my S45 viewfinder then followed them off the wall. Quickly, they swam off into the distance. I was searching the blue, when lo behold, a massive silhouette emerged from some 50 metres in front of me. I had no doubt it was an oceanic manta flapping its majestic wings and heading my way.
Subliminally, I raised my Seacam D5 camera rig to face one of the most graceful animals of our ocean. She slowed down and stopped just three metres in front of me. Slowly, she rose, revealing a belly festooned with exquisite pattern of black and white. Instinctively, I perused her entire belly from head to tail - she is a big girl. By nature’s design, she was amazing. Every manta has its own unique markings, much like the markings on whale sharks, or whale flukes, or a human fingerprint.
Hypnotised by the aura of an ethereal being, I lowered my camera to face an angel of the sea. The gravity of her size pulled me closer and we glided assertively into a dance. In the sound of a silent sea, I felt an electrifying sensation vibrating through every tissue of my body, from my head to toes. It was a blend of fantasy and reality; a euphoric moment that took my breath away. I raised my hand and she lowered herself onto my open palm. I felt the smoothness of her skin, she shuddered. I removed my hands for a second then touch her again. She shuddered once more and becomes motionless. I look into a curious obsidian eye and psychically, we talked for a while, albeit silently. It was magic.
We started free falling slowly. I raised my camera to shoot and the spell broke. Slowly, she glided away, towards the cleaning station as a second, then a third, then forth and then the fifth manta emerged. That was one of the many splendid days from my recent trip to the Revillagigedos on the Nautilus Explorer.
The oceanic mantas of Revillagigedos Archipelago have been interacting with humans for a very long time. In the days before restrictions, the time of Peter Benchley and the legendary younger Stan Waterman, they would have been seen riding on the back of these mantas using the two remoras as handles that are commonly attached firmly with their suckers to the back of the manta on each side of their head. Stan and Peter would be resting their bodies on the back of these powerful giants like Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) riding the ikrans, mountain banshees, in James Cameron’s Avatar. However, instead of the forests of Peru, these mantas soar over, down and around the sea mount. These are all true as many intrepid divers of their generation have shared similar adventures.
Modern day activists and nature lovers will certainly object to humans consorting with wild animals in this manner. However, these winged giants, like many animals such as seals, dolphins and whales in other part of the world are known to seek out the company of humans. In the 1990s, I have seen these mantas hovering just beneath divers, inviting them to hop on for a ride. I have witnessed these animals so manifestly enjoying the experience, returning over and over again to take on the willing riders that there can be without doubt that the touching and riding provided reciprocal pleasure. Sadly, such magical moments with the mantas are long gone because they have been targeted by fishermen for their gill plates (branchial filaments), driven by the high demand in the Asian trade which has significantly increase over the last few decades.
Fortunately, the Mexican government has declared the islands of the Revillagigedos and its surrounding waters, a marine protected area. The mantas of my recent encounter are new, taking over the old but share the same peculiarity, seeking out the company of humans, enjoying the bubbly massage divers provide.
The Revillagigedo Archipelago or Islas Revillagigedo is a group of four volcanic islands in the east Pacific Ocean, starting at about 250 nautical miles south of the tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. San Benedicto is the closest island to mainland, Socorro Island is 22 nautical miles further south and to the west is the famed Roca Partida, whilst Clarion Island is the furthest away. The islands are all uninhabited except for a Mexican naval base on Socorro Island.
Spanish explorers in the late sixteenth century ventured here in search of gold. But they never discovered the treasures that comprised of luxuriant megafauna hidden by the waves in these remote islands which are only accessible between the months of December to June. Islas Revillagigedo was proclaimed a domain of Mexico Constitution in 1971 and like many islands in the Eastern Pacific, became a focus of scientific research for adaptations to the trials of survival and evolution that can occur in isolation. It is now established that this distinctive sea mount ecosystem is home to many endemic plant and animal species, and the Revillagigedo Islands are sometimes referred to as “Tthe Galapagos of Mexico”.
Being remotely located in a vast ocean, these seamount islands are like an oasis to large pelagic animals. Schooling hammerhead sharks, Tiger sharks, dolphins, silky sharks, Galapagos sharks, clouds of jacks and barracuda, tuna, wahoo, oceanic white tips sharks, whale sharks, and of course, the oceanic mantas.
Humpback whales are frequent visitors during the winter months of January through April but for the adrenaline aficionados, May and June is the season of tunas and bait balls. The topography underwater is comprised of rocky outcrops, large boulders and sheer cliff face walls that fall into the abyss. The gateway city is Los Cabos San Lucas and the crossing on the Nautilus vessel takes about 26 hours. I find the long crossing perfect for preparing equipment on the way out, repacking and off gassing on the way back.
There are two known species of mantas. Those frequently encountered in the Maldives, Indonesia and Australia is the Mantas alfredi, the reef mantas. They are smaller in size but greater in numbers. I was told there are about 50,000 of them in the Maldives. The species predictably seen in the Revillagigedo is Manta birostis, the giant or oceanic manta. Their wingspans can reach seven metres, they can weigh up to 1,300 kilograms, and they can live more than 60 years. While the oceanic species is commonly seen here, they are rarely seen elsewhere, not even in the not so-faraway seamount islands of Cocos and Galapagos. In a nutshell, one can encounter hammerheads, whale sharks, Galapagos sharks in the Cocos island, Galapagos and the Revillagigedo, but the oceanic manta is mostly only seen in the latter, and in much greater numbers.
In my experience, the the oceanic manta ray has the largest brain of any fish; some scientists speculate that their brain may have evolved with highly developed cognitive abilities empowering them with an advanced form of social behaviour. mantas here are more curious than others encountered elsewhere. They are also the most expressive of mantas I have ever seen in 35 years of underwater exploration. For me, there is another significant reason why the mantas at Revillagigedo are the most unique in the world: only here are the mantas clean by the endemic orange-coloured Clarion angelfish (Holacanthus clarionensis). For the underwater photographers, the orange, black and white subject against a deep blue canvas provide superlative contrast!
Even though there are many sites located around San Benedicto and Socorro Island, Roca Partida is the signature location for encounters with the big animals of Revillagigedo. For the Nautilus Explorer, it was an eight-hour sail to the island which essentially is a “split rock”, capped with white guano. The rock rises from a depth of 3,000 metres in the open ocean, and is literally a pit stop for pelagic megafauna such as silky sharks, tunas, wahoo and schooling hammerheads. Along the east side of the rock, at 25 metres, is the ‘shark condominium’, home to a dozen whitetip reef sharks. These eroded crevices on the face of the wall may be occupied by as many as 8 - 12 sharks, which I found easy to approach. Large schools of creolefish and trevallies hang just off the rock. Galapagos sharks are frequently seen patrolling around 25 metres, though the hammerheads tend to stay at greater depths where the water is cooler.
Again, I was among the first to enter the water and literally back-rolled into a pod of bottlenose dolphins. Moving with ease and fluidity, the dolphins happily frolicked in front of me against a vivid blue canvas. It was another one of those magical moments in the sea that has captivated me. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, they left, leaving an empty ocean. Though Roca Partida is the epitome of action for many Socorro adventures, it is not an aquarium. It was to be a fairly mundane day with just a few silkies and Galapagos sharks. Roca Partida is completely exposed to the elements, with no place to shelter from foul weather. As the sky turned a steely 50 shades of grey, the sea became choppier the captain decide to take us back to San Benedicto after just three dives.
It was a very good call. After a day at an underwater canyon where I encountered a school of hammerhead in rich nutrient cool water at 30 metres, we headed back to the Boiler where we interacted with six mantas, often three at a time. The Boiler was boiling hot! The guides enthused that it was the best day ever of the last three seasons. Gerry Allen, one of the world most renowned ichthyologists, once told me that are only two reasons fishes congregate – to feed or to procreate. The mantas here however, were neither feeding nor mating; most did not even go to the cleaning stations. They were happily cavorting among the divers, enjoying the company and the bubble baths! Time and again, they were seen hovering directly above our heads to relish the sensation of our exhaust bubbles rising into their bellies. Unlike bony fishes, mantas are not endowed with air-filled bladders for buoyancy but they have incorporated the physical principal of lift, much like an aircraft, into their body design. They are fish that glide and fly through liquid space.
Each manta seemed to have its own personality. Some would swim towards us from below, rise sharply and flip past us while others would deliberately approach, adjusting their altitude in water to be at eye level when they reach us. The largest of the group, which I estimated to have attained over a seven-metre wing span, liked to come by, turn and look at me in the eye. I know he was figuring me out. As I looked into an inquisitive eye, I felt the mystical sense of an intellectual being that had been on this planet long before us. The words of Henry Beston came to mind: “We need a newer and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical sense of the animal. Remote from universal Nature and living by complicated artifice, man - in civilization - regards the animals through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather, greatly magnified, and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate in having been formed so far below ourselves. And thereby we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they live finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren. They are not underlings. They are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and the travail of the earth.”
On that day, the mantas were with us from our first dive at seven in the morning to our last at 5 p.m. As we surfaced from our final dive, a couple of mantas came to the surface and flapped around the zodiac, watching us and for all the world we know, inviting us back into the water or perhaps just to say goodbye. Blessed with its remoteness and rich marine life, the Revillagigedo Archipelago is one of the most amazing wild places remaining on our planet. I dwell in the moment of magical reverie, living in an enchanting spell. I am coming back next year! I am counting the days.
by Michael AW ( OG 38)