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.