Go on a night dive with Manta Rays in Hawaii? Check.
My mantra about coexisting peacefully with sea creatures goes like this: “I do not look like food to anything underwater. I do not look like food to anything underwater.” Comforting because it’s true. Except that the day before this dive I was bitten by a Humuhumunukunuku’puaa, which is Hawaii’s national fish. It super-bit me and made me bleed, presumably because I was hanging out over its turf. Sorry Humuhumunukunuku’puaa, my bad. And thank you for the reminder that sometimes animals bite you precisely because they don’t recognize you. Thank you for that reminder mere hours before I got in the water with fish the size of houses:
The dive did not go as expected.
I got open-water certified about eight months ago for my birthday, but I haven’t been diving since, so I was eager to get back in the water. A while ago, Liz Stanley posted about her night dive with Manta Rays in Hawaii, and I added it to my Life List without knowing much about it. I booked the dive, and then watched the creepy Skeletor video.
So I was a little hesitant, but by the time I got on the boat I was downright uneasy. Eight months between dives is a long time for a newbie. I didn’t remember much about my equipment, and I was going by myself, so I wouldn’t know my dive buddy. Plus, I’d never been on a night dive, but I’d heard there’s darkness involved. The only thing more vast than the sea is darkness. Everyone knows monsters like to hang out in the dark and in the sea. That’s Monsters 101.
The boat ride was gorgeous and we waited aboard for sunset. We were given dive lights, and told that we would sit on the bottom shining our lights upward, while snorkelers floated above shining their lights down. The mantas swim in large looping arcs in the space between, doing backflips to scoop up the plankton that’s attracted to all that light.
I was introduced to my dive partner, Chris, a few minutes before we jumped in the water. She was an affable Australian, and because I find Australians and their mortality-awareness comforting, I took this as an auspicious sign.
Then the wind picked up.
The water was bashing against the shore and shooting spray into the air when the dive master lined us up. We jumped in to the choppy water, and suffice it to say I was not chill. I was unsure of myself already, and the rough water only made me more anxious. There was a slight drag on my air line, which made my panicky breaths more arduous, and surprise! It was dark.
There was a strong current underwater that I’d never experienced before, sort of like swimming upstream in a river. When we got down to the bottom, we were supposed to settle into a seated position to shine our lights upward, but the current made it tough to stay in one place. The dive master showed us how to hug a rock underwater, but several of us weren’t strong enough to hold on.
I was freaked out, getting knocked around by the current, battling to find a means of staying put without cutting my hands on the rock or bashing my tank into the reef. At one point the dive master approached me a wrote on his slate, “Lay down better.” Pro tip, dive master. I refrained from flashing him the most unequivocal of hand signals. Mostly because I was using my hands to hold on to a rock under which something bitey was surely sequestered.
In the midst of all the struggling, I managed to look up a few times to see the rays swooping through beams of light and the bubbles floating up from our respirators. Those few moments were breathtaking — so alien and peaceful. But after a few minutes the dive master signaled that we should surface because the situation underwater was too rough. He apologized for not being better able to control the sea, then offered us a chance to snorkel, because at this point the surface had calmed.
We climbed back in, and that was when everything went magic. The water was glowing from all the light, and the Mantas were huge swooping shadows cutting through the beams. One of the rays started backflipping, circling closer to me each time he looped upward. I was sure he would touch me, I could feel the water washing against me from his wings and I couldn’t stop laughing.
I laughed every time he approached, and my mask would fill with water. I’d clear the mask just as he was looping up again, and then I’d laugh and my mask would fill.
Gorgeous. Do this, my friends. It will make you happy.