Monthly Archives: March 2016
Garden Eels live in the sand. They are long, skinny, active and fascinating, as well as ubiquitous at our current spot near Isla Cerralvo. We dropped our anchor here and then looked into the water to find thousands of Garden Eels waving gently back and forth on the sandy bottom below Magic.
Of course, we soon went scuba diving under the boat to get a closer look. I mean, these eels were everywhere, how hard would it be to see them?
We descended about 20 feet. The water was clear and calm. Webs of light danced on the bottom just like a swimming pool. But there were no eels. This was very strange. Why would they be everywhere else but not right here? I swam toward a large group, waving gently in the water. When I got there they were gone.
“Oh wait, there’s a bunch of them over there”, I thought, and swam in the other direction. When I got closer every single one of them slowly withdrew into the sand. When I arrived all I saw was a field of dime sized, empty holes.
We lay on the sand at the bottom, waiting for them to end the tease and finally show themselves. We waited several minutes. Some eels were braver than others, and tiny heads began to emerge. They were still at least 6 feet away. By crawling on my hands I was able to get a little closer, but they soon retreated. Any fin kicks would send them right back into the sand immediately.
We surfaced and a couple minutes later saw them again waving wildly all around the boat, back out of their holes again, celebrating that we were gone.
Determined to get a close look at these little teases of the sea, Brian set up our GoPro camera with a scuba weight and pointed it right at one of the little holes under the boat. He got all the photos you see here, plus a great video of a puffer fish surprising the eels! Check it out here:
There I was, scuba diving next to a dark gray pinnacle in the Socorros. I hovered in place, kicking my fins gently to counteract the pushy current. I peered into a crevice full of pale yellow coral. Tiny fish fluttered around it, and then suddenly everything became dark. What was happening?
This island group is known for its large population of sharks. We’d already seen a few, so that was my first thought.
I slowly tilted my head to look up. Instead of a shark I was being pursued by a friendly, curious, Giant Oceanic Manta Ray. The huge, diamond shaped creature wanted to play and continued to glide in slow circles near the pinnacle until I gave it the attention it deserved.
With a couple gentle kicks of my fins I slowly swam up and away from the rock into open water. Now there was enough space for the 15 foot wide ray to approach me at all angles. He seemed to enjoy this, and I was mesmerized by the sight of his thick wings gently flapping as he swooped closer and closer to investigate. After a couple circles he came so close I could see his eye twitching in its socket, following my movements, with wrinkles surrounding it to give the ray the appearance of wisdom.
Sure, it would be easy to think I’m making this up about an animal that is merely acting on instincts. But mantas visited us intentionally, over and over again. They are intelligent marine animals and have the heaviest brain of all fish, with enlarged cerebellum and telencephalon brain regions. These areas of the brain may be involved in higher functions, as they are in mammals. It is easy to see from diving with them that they are curious and have distinct personalities and moods.
They were genuinely interested in us, which is rare in a marine animal. These mantas see divers often, and maybe divers are a fun part of an otherwise uneventful day. So why not say hello?
They tend to be very fair creatures, and in a large group of divers the mantas would be sure to visit each diver as they flew around. These charismatic mantas did not play favorites and instead seemed interested in meeting everyone. When we would dive with a group of two we would receive all the mantas’ attention. These dives were the best of the trip! It feels very intimate to share the water with several mantas who are playing with only you and your partner.
Mantas can swim more than 15 mph and they can choose where they want to be in the water. It felt like such an honor when they chose to come alongside me, gaze at me, and play in my bubbles.
We stayed eighteen days at Isla Benedicto, long enough to observe their moods and natural rhythms. We enjoyed seeing them in different settings and would often ride around in the dinghy near our boat to search for them. Most times we searched for them we would be lucky enough to spot a few at the surface, and often they would swim up to our dinghy like old friends before we even got into the water. We also saw them at a dive site called “The Boiler”, where mantas, sharks, lobsters, huge tuna and a multitude of fish swirled around a pinnacle at the west side of the island. The Boiler is a cleaning station where Clarion Angelfish and other fish nibble on the skin of the manta rays, removing parasites and dead skin. The mantas seem to enjoy this. We always saw friendly mantas at The Boiler and an abundance of diverse marine life. It was a spectacular site and definitely my best scuba diving ever.
The time of day made a difference in the mantas’ behavior around the anchorage. Early mornings meant business for the mantas and they swam with purpose. They would pass close to us and then continue on into the deep blue water. At these times they were usually swooping around with their huge mouths open, cephalic fins scooping plankton inside. When we saw them in the late morning or afternoon, they would often cavort around us and spin in playful somersaults. Sometimes the mantas would furl their cephalic fins into a more aerodynamic swimming position.
The mantas were especially breathtaking in the natural sunlight at shallow snorkeling depths, and would come up to swim just below me or alongside me when I was at the surface. One manta somersaulted over and over while I snorkeled right next to her. I’ve read mantas are indifferent to divers and merely enjoy their bubbles. I don’t think so. When we snorkeled with the mantas they remained just as friendly and curious.
There’s a reason the Socorros are on so many top 10 dive sites in the world lists. The giant mantas are the most charismatic, beautiful and intelligent marine animals we have ever met. And don’t forget huge! I cannot wait to visit them again.
Mantas are being heavily fished and their numbers are declining. You can help mantas by making a donation to the Manta Trust to protect these magnificent animals. Mantas are valued for their gill plates, not meat. These gill plates are prized in the Chinese medicine market. Thankfully Mexico has laws to protect mantas but many other countries do not have these laws in place yet.
These are our favorite manta photos from our recent sailing and diving trip to the Socorro Islands in Mexico!
We did it! We are back from our biggest offshore sailing and diving trip. We sailed 220 miles south of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to the Revillagigedos, a volcanic group of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We spent 18 days at Isla San Benedicto and went scuba diving with giant pacific manta rays and also sharks.
I feel deeply satisfied we pulled off this advanced dream trip. I also feel filled to the brim with love for my husband, who gave me so much support during this journey. It was difficult at times. Sometimes I didn’t handle stress very well. The sharks frightened me at first. Sharing close quarters with family for three weeks was sometimes tense. I was shaken by a couple close calls where I felt our safety was at risk. But through it all, Brian loved me, encouraged me and helped me enjoy this amazing trip. Our relationship was strengthened by this experience, which I think is a good sign for our plans to cross the Pacific Ocean next spring to the Marquesas.
Brian and I will also forever love the giant manta rays which thrive at Isla San Benedicto. We swooned over these creatures so much we made up songs about them. You really do lose your mind a little being at remote islands for so long. We would take Christmas carols about “Santa” and make up a “Manta” version. “Manta, baby…”, “Here comes manta clause…”, etc. I’ll never forget the special times diving with the manta rays and how they would swoop gracefully around us, eyeing us curiously and coming close.
Few private boats venture to these islands. During our stay at Isla Benedicto we only saw two other private boats. We saw about a half dozen large liveaboard dive boats, and this is said to be one of the top ten diving sites in the world. It was absolutely amazing and I can’t wait to go back.
What an intense trip. My comfort limits were stretched in all directions. I watched Magic ride bigger waves than ever before and went scuba diving with aggressive sharks for the first time. We lived on the boat for three weeks with Brian’s mom Sue, and her husband, Tim. We never went ashore on the island, so for the entire 22 day trip our feet never touched land.
It was the most rewarding trip ever.
We left Cabo full of Costco provisions and headed south during the tail end of a wind event. We hoped to have about 10-15 knots for sailing. The wind had been stronger during the previous days, so we got to ride some pretty big waves in the Pacific on the way south to the islands. Our catamaran coasted comfortably and only a couple items flew off the shelves.
A small warbler visited Magic to rest and get a drink of water on the way to the islands. She was very friendly, hopped on our legs as if we were a piece of furniture and explored both hulls of the boat. She certainly made herself at home, then mysteriously disappeared sometime after the sun went down.
After a two day passage we arrived at the beautifully stark volcanic island. Tall cliffs made of jumbled gray and brown rocks formed the north side. There was no sand in sight. Pale green vegetation blanketed the steep upper slopes of the island, which is an active volcano. Its last eruption was 50 years ago, and we regularly found little bits of pumice floating in the water nearby.
We planned to anchor in a cove at the south end of the island, and thankfully there was a tiny, grey sand beach there and good holding for Magic. The beautifully curved volcanic cone rose steeply behind Magic and became a glorious backdrop during sunrise and sunset when pale pink light would paint its rippled slopes. Dark brown fingers of igneous rock reached out from the base of the cone at the south end of the anchorage. This was the wildest and most beautiful place we had ever taken our boat.
The next morning a huge Pacific Manta Ray glided by close to Magic to welcome us to the island. I impulsively jumped in the warm water with my snorkel and mask to meet this wonderful creature I’ve heard so much about. Indeed, the black and white ray was friendly and curious. It made a close pass and my heart somersaulted. It flapped beautifully in the water right past me and kept on going.
Once the manta was gone I looked around and saw a six foot long shark right below me, way too close to my bare feet and I was really not ok with that. I swam about 20 feet back to Magic, swiftly but trying not to splash, my body pulsing with adrenaline.
Brian got our reef fish identification book and we looked at some photos. We hopped in the water to peer at the shark once more. We identified it as a Silky Shark, which the book said was typically wary but considered dangerous. Hmmmm. We would grow to accept this shark as our “pet Silky” over the coming weeks, because most days it could be seen circling our boat. After snorkeling with it a couple times I was satisfied it seemed sufficiently wary, although it was always on my mind when I thought about jumping into the water to cool off.
We saw sharks on nearly every dive, usually White Tip Reef Sharks or Silky Sharks. They were usually mellow and wary, but not always. We aborted one of our dives when three Silky Sharks began showing too much interest in us. They swam around nearby for a few minutes and then one of them circled us a couple times, coming between Brian and I. Brian swam over to me and smacked the circling shark on the tail with his underwater camera, but that is a story for another day.
Our fantastic memories of diving with Giant Pacific Manta Rays will always win out over the memories of aggressive sharks. The rays were the most interesting, curious and beautiful marine animals I have ever met. We’re excited to return next year and frolic with them again.
I will write more soon. It takes time to reflect on a trip like this, to make meaning of all the wonderful and difficult events, and to process all the lessons we learned.
Next Article: Encounters with Giant Manta Rays