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.
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.