Marine Research

Liquid midnight

Searching for the ever graceful giant manta ray in the remote depths of southern Myanmar’s Mergui archipelago

Patrick Carpenter
June 17, 2015
Liquid midnight
Close encounters: a diver from the Ray of Hope expedition gets a close-up of a giant manta ray. The giant mantas are known to frequent plankton-rich areas of the Mergui archipelago. Photo: Patrick Carpenter

The captain cuts the engines somewhere deep in the Mergui archipelago, at a rock that is no more than a speck on Myanmar’s nautical map. The nearest community – that of the Moken sea gypsies – is more than six hours away by speedboat. Lonesome fishermen speckle the horizon in longtail boats – some with nets, some with explosives, all with only the most meagre protection from the elements.

Below the rock is the reef. It is a diver’s paradise, with giant and white-eyed moray eels, octopi, zig zag oysters, the beautiful but horribly named varicose wart slug, glassfish, angelfish, emperor fish, parrotfish, fusiliers and snapper. But this dive is all about the giant manta ray.

sea anemones, mergui
Blue on blue: gardens of sea anemones cover sections of the Mergui reef. Photo: Patrick Carpenter
False clown anemone fish, Mergui
Not Nemo (top left): a false clown anemone fish guards his territory. Photo: Patrick Carpenter
manta, mergui
Man meets ray: a manta eyes a diver warily. Photo: patrick Carpenter
manta, mergui
Gliding by: a giant manta’s wingspan can reach up to seven metres. Photo: Patrick Carpenter

She stays just a minute, then disappears back into the void, practically dissolving into darkness. Her timing is perfect: come late, leave early, leave us wanting more – like all the most desired guests.

Black on top, white on bottom, mouth forever open, the giant manta doesn’t swim – it soars. A giant manta’s wingspan can exceed six metres, with the largest reaching a seven-metre span. Dolphins, whales and fish all give some sense of the effort it takes to be in motion as their tail fins push through the water, but the manta glides in hydrodynamic grace and can easily outswim a shark.

Stepping off the Deep Andaman Queen, we drop down to 30 metres and beyond. At this depth, colours dull as the light fades. Everything goes from light blue to violet to midnight. The drop into this blue-on-blue world has been made as the spot is a prime feeding ground. Mantas, being plankton eaters, cruise the world’s tropical waters, harvesting this floating food.

As part of the Ray of Hope expedition, made possible by the Marine Megafauna Foundation and Thailand Dive and Sail, we are here to identify mantas for research purposes. Like fingerprints, no two mantas have the same colour markings around their gills. This enables researchers to identify and trace individual migrations by processing photographs through pattern recognition software similar to facial recognition technology.

We drift and spread out like sentries, staring out, straining to see something emerge from the abyss. Time and air reserves escape in bubbled plumes rising toward the surface. Anxiety begins to creep in, and the body language of the divers shows signs of resignation and disappointment. Not today. Not this time. Then, from inside the liquid midnight, a flicker of white. The dive leader taps on his tank with his metal baton – sound travels faster through water than air – and all masks align like searchlights, first to his outstretched arm, then straight on from his finger to that tip.

The manta emerges. She banks, then spreads out in full view like a rock star before somersaulting and gliding back the way she came. She stays just a minute, then disappears back into the void, practically dissolving into darkness. Her timing is perfect: come late, leave early, leave us wanting more – like all the most desired guests.

fish, mergui
The light fantastic: light, air bubbles and a school of fish converge near the surface of a reef. Photo: Patrick Carpenter
moken, mergui
Welcome committee: Moken children row out to greet the Ray of Hope expedition. Photo: Patrick Carpenter
Scorpion fish, Mergui
Find the fish: the scorpion fish is known for its camouflage and the sharp, poisonous spines on its fins. Photo: Patrick Carpenter
moray, mergui
Out for a stroll: a giant moray eel moves out of its cave in search of food. Photo: Patrick Carpenter
grouper, mergui
Spotted: a grouper peeks out from his shelter in the coral. Photo: Patrick Carpenter
Moken, Mergui
The young boy and the sea: a Moken child sits in his father’s boat
coral, andaman sea
Down is up: a lone fish splits the reflection of blue coral on the surface off a beach in the Andaman sea. Photo: Patrick Carpenter

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