My first encounter with a manta ray was while reading “The Girl of the Sea of Cortez” as a teenager. This novel by Peter Benchley is about a young woman that befriends a manta ray on a sea mount located off the coast of the Baja peninsula.
In an uncharacteristic Benchley style, there are no sea monsters or predator sharks in this tale. It is instead the story of young Paloma's struggle to protect the sea life that makes the mount its home. Fishermen, including Paloma’s brother, are eager to exploit the richness of the sea mount and her only help in foiling their attempts is her friend, the manta ray. Benchley's vivid descriptions of the underwater world make this book come to life. It is good stuff, especially for impressionable young women that love the sea.
Thus began my own quest to meet the larger, less threatening cousin of the common sting ray, the Manta birostris. However, it wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I had happened to chance upon a manta ray in the wilds of the Gulf of Mexico.
My father and I were out fishing in the relatively deep water at Coast Guard Marker 18 on the gulf coast of North Florida. It was a hot, lazy, beautiful day. We both had lines in the water, but we were more focused on conversation and philosophy than fishing. I was perched on top of the motor box looking south and he was lounging in a chair on the deck in the bow facing me.
The conversation had just turned towards the difficult choice between jalapeno or smoked sardines, when all of a sudden - with no warning - something huge leaped out of the water just south of the boat about twenty feet behind where my father sat.
My mouth opened in a big O of wonder as the big black manta ray came completely out of the water, high enough for me to see the bright white of his belly. He hung high in the air for just an instant, then crashed back on the surface, splashing my father with enough water to make him yelp in surprise.
Papa did not get to see the ray in the air, but he quickly turned around and we both saw it sport on top of the water for a few moments before diving back down into the depths, leaving only swirling water behind. It left us speechless and we did nothing for a while but smile at one another, delighting in our shared experience.
My next close encounter with a manta ray was alone. It was just after sunrise on a calm, early May morning in the year 2000. My husband and I were staying at our place at Keaton Beach and I decided, since it was such a beautiful morning, to take off by myself for a quick trip on the wave runner. My destination was a small, marshy, barrier island a few miles down the coast.
When I left the Keaton Beach channel, the gulf had not yet woken up for the day. The air was crisp and still, the water slick as glass and there was not a boat on the horizon. Fish breaking the surface could been seen for a half of a mile.
After a few detours to check out the swirls, Grass Island soon came into my view. Sometimes called just Grassy, it is uninhabited island, less than a mile off the coast and consisting mostly of marsh grass meandered with creeks, with a small shifting beach and adjoining sandbar. Although the island is surrounded by shallow water and home to mostly crustaceans and small fish, there is a deep tide-fed channel running along its southeastern end attracting larger marine species.
It was high tide and I could have cut across the sandbar on the back side to approach, but I chose to come around the front side of the island. When I neared the channel coming around the end, I cut the motor and drifted over the deep water, looking down hoping to spot a school of mullet.
All I could see below me was black in all directions and at first I was puzzled because the water was clear. Then, I realized what it was and from right under me came the humongous manta ray. He surfaced just in front of me, dwarfing and rocking my vessel. Then he looked me right in the eyes and roiled the water foamy before he banked gracefully to the right, and lazily cruised off towards the south. I could see the big upside down W trailing him in the water as he headed to Steinhatchee.
When my heart slowed, I drifted for a while and flirted with the idea of following. But then I reconsidered. Paloma was a lot braver than me. If I was going to befriend a manta ray, I was going to need a bigger boat.