Manta Alley

Text and photos by Mike Scotland

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At South Komodo, the cooler waters of the Indian Ocean meet the North Pacific Ocean at Indonesia. Gaps in the Indonesian archipelago exchange seawater, and the upwelling of nutrients from the deeper Indian Ocean creates rich plankton blooms. Blue whales use this path on their annual migrations. Other magnificent creatures come here to benefit from the bounty created where oceans merge. We travelled here on the Seven Seas liveaboard to see the resident manta rays. The magnificent reef manta, Manta alfredi, can grow to a maximum size of 4.5 metres. The far larger Manta birostrus or oceanic manta grows well over seven metres; they are found at Raja Ampat.

During our first dive, our dive guide, Karl, tells us to remain on the sea floor and allow the mantas to glide over our heads. We obey dutifully and are rewarded with manta ray trains, repeated regularly. I counted six mantas in a row reminding me of elephants walking trunk to tail. I took photos to prove it. We had more than twenty-five minutes of manta ray magic here as they circled repeatedly. Happiness is a line of huge manta rays coming toward you!

One Manta was all black except for a few tiny white marks. Manta rays can be identified by the pattern of black and white spots on their body. Scientists use photographic records to create databases of individuals for recognition. Manta Ray researchers like Dr. Kathy Townshend and Professor Armstrong from the University of Queensland have recorded individuals at Lady Elliot Island on the Southern Barrier Reef. The count was 450 in June, 2015 and growing.

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People say that the mantas actively seek out human interaction, and I agree. I have seen mantas showing off, doing reverse somersaults in front of me and hovering over my bubble stream. Many mantas swam right over our heads. I could tell that one was a female as I photographed her underbelly. I noticed her mouth was closed, and she was not feeding. Was she here to visit the cleaning station or to feed when the tide was right? This is a known manta ray cleaning station.

We watched in amusement as some divers from another boat swam up in the water column and pursued the mantas without restraint. Fortunately, this happened at the very end of our air supply. This is one time when the ability to curb your enthusiasm is rewarded with a longer and far more exciting encounter.

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After this sensational experience, we head up for our safety stop. I saw a large female Hawksbill turtle browsing on the rocky reef. I stopped six metres away and observed it for five minutes. She continued to forage. I then slowly swam parallel to her. I decided that it was prudent to approach her. She clearly recognised that I was a ‘friendly’. Before long, I was within two metres of her. My breathing had slowed to what felt like a few breaths a minute. She accepted me and allowed me to swim with her for a further ten minutes at a snail’s pace.

I have seen this type of behaviour on the Great Barrier Reef many times and in New Guinea. At Father’s Reef, tame Hawksbill turtles come to greet our dive guide, Digger, at the start of each dive. They love a titbit of a yellow sponge that grows under the coral rubble and a gentle scratch on their shell, just like puppies.

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However, the dark reality of Komodo Marine Park is that illegal fishing is rampant.  Marine life is under constant threat. Many people such as marine biologist, Jos Pet, have fought for more than thirty years to get protected status to Komodo Marine Park. The struggle continues.

The southern tip of Komodo Island is a real jewel in the Indonesian seas. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is brilliant to be able to come here knowing that one can reliably encounter manta rays, year in and year out. All thanks to Jos Pet, the Nature Conservancy and WWF.

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Ocean Geographic Explorer (OGX) is a diving adventure resource with a special focus on marine photography and ocean conservation. Our content is divided up into six primary categories: Travel, Sea Science,  Equipment, Photography &Video, Conservation, and Lifestyle. We endeavor be a portal for people with all levels of interest in the marine environment  to learn about and become part of a community of like-minded ocean lovers who enjoy sharing their knowledge of and experiences in our fascinating ocean world.

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