After spending so much time on the water it’s become second nature to see things and feel things in an almost hyper sensitive state of awareness while I’m out there. I use a small Naish SUP board and conditions change quickly so not only are my eyes always peeled for wildlife, but I keep a lookout for wind shear approaching on the horizon and I monitor the surf reports for tides and expected change in wind patterns every day before going out.
Paddling is like my own little personal meditation time and I get in a zone out there whether on top of the water, or when I duck underneath to take photographs. It’s relaxing and rewarding all at the same time when things go smoothly.
I’ve been super lucky this summer that more often than not when I paddle out I can manage to find a few manta rays to follow around and swim with. They’re such cool creatures and it’s taken some time, but finally I’ve gotten pretty good about reading their patterns and judging how comfortable they are with me joining them in the water. Just like any animal, they all seem different and some are really social and others take off as soon as you get anywhere near them. I’ve had rays jump out of the water in front of me, jump next to my board, fly around upside down in a kind of manta ballet and let me paddle within a foot or two above them while they calmly feed at the surface.
The week this photo was taken I had a bit of a break in my work schedule so I was able to get out several days in a row and sure enough without fail, I found the rays within only a few minutes of being on the water. I was finding two or three within a pretty close proximity of eachother and they’d go about their business feeding and flying, sometimes to circle back and interact with eachother before flying off again. Mostly I’d swim and interact with one at a time, but every now and again one of its manta friends would come flying over to join in the activities and give me a once over before heading back off on its way.
The visibility had been fairly good and I was actually surprised to find the mantas in such shallow water with the plankton levels seemingly low. But this day, the visibility was terrible. I mean absolutely awful. Both murky and filled with plankton and a few jellies. There were sunny skies which helped, but there was no way I would have gotten in the water had the mantas not been out and about as well as the honu. I have a little rule that if the turtles aren’t up I don’t go down. But with that said, it’s still undeniably the murkiest water I’ve jumped in for probably a couple of years.
I spent an hour with this particular ray and several times when we were swimming near eachother I got a strong sense that I was being watched by something else. About the same time as my “spidey sense” would go off, the ray would bolt like a bat out of hell and then reappear 50 yards or so down the bay.
Not that there aren’t other reasons for rays taking off like this, but the only time I have seen one do it consistently I looked down below me to find a huge tiger shark just floating there, probably 15 feet down, and directly underneath where I was swimming with my camera and where the manta had just been. I hopped immediately back on my board without incident but always remembered that as a good example to take my cues from the little critters who live in the ocean. If they go, I go.
After about an hour in the murky water, I got that same strong feeling that I was being watched for the third time and I swam in a circle trying to see any shadows that would validate my feelings, but never could see anything as the sun went behind a bank of clouds. I decided then to call it a day and head in rather than taking any more chances and considered myself lucky to have had that good hour with the rays, even if they were behaving a bit more erratic than usual.
No sooner had I gotten home than I got a message from a good friend who had paddled their canoe into the bay where I’d been maybe 10 minutes after I’d left – we just barely missed eachother. Not having any idea I had been there swimming with the rays, he wrote to tell me that as soon as he got to the center of the bay (and gave the exact coordinates where I’d been) he was approached by a very large dorsal fin as a shark followed along with his canoe and was checking him out. He said that he didn’t feel in danger per se, just like it was curious and watching him, which is the same feeling I was getting under there. Not necessarily in danger, but that something was there watching me.
It was a very clear and timely reminder to me that in a world which often makes you doubt yourself and your instincts, they exist for a reason and time and again my instincts are right on point. With animals and people alike.