31 May 2013 Fiji: Freedom, diving and the Manta Ray
The pool was a kid magnet. As soon as school was out we’d make excuses to walk down the street and visit the neighbors. We’d splash and play Marco Polo until our toes and fingers were creased. I’d always steal a few moments away by myself in the deep end. Diving as far down as my eardrums would let me, I’d stop everything and just float.
Hanging still in that warm water was such an exquisite thrill, so foreign and peaceful. Reluctantly I’d push back up to the surface to gulp air. I had no idea that, forty years later, I’d be spending hours suspended in deep, blue seas on the other side of the planet.
I didn’t plan to become a scuba diver. The first resort dive, where you’re taught just enough to try the sport out in one short day, was kind of a dare. Friends were flying into Cozumel the day after I’d arrived. They were experienced divers. My aversion to high tech sports had kept me away, but I didn’t want to spend five days as a beach bunny while they were out exploring one of the richest marine parks in the world, so I signed up for the class.
A family joined me poolside as our dive master reviewed the essentials and showed us how the equipment worked. Within an hour I was walking into the deep end and breathing, haltingly, through my mask. The childhood memories of watery bliss kept me going until we lumbered into the dive boat and headed out to sea. I warned the dive master that my ears were a problem and clearing them for the descent might keep me from joining the group on the bottom. He checked my vest, weight belt and regulator, smiling reassuringly that I knew what to do and to take my time.
That I did after stepping into the water. I held on to my life line, the mooring rope, and slowly slipped down into a magical world. The visibility swept out and away over fifty feet wherever I turned. Watching the other divers descend, suspended with their braids of flashing bubbles, was mesmerizing. It wasn’t until I made it down to the sandy bottom that I started to relax and realized how much wildlife surrounded us.
A lobster the size of a small dog strolled between two coral beds. A gaping eel peered from a crevice. Swirling schools of bright fish I’d only spied in aquariums darted past. I was hooked.
Now, five years later, I’m setting out gear to make my 100th dive. Getting there hasn’t been easy. I’ve made every mistake a new diver can – gulping air and having to surface long before my dive buddies do, dropping my weights, having problems with buoyancy – the list goes on. One friend, who I swear is hiding gills, assured me that it takes at least 20 dives before you get comfortable with the equipment. It took me twice as long, but I didn’t give up.
The encounters have often been as shocking and foreign as I imagine meeting an extraterrestrial could be.
I know exactly where I felt most free – exploring the Astrolabe Reef on my 63rd dive in Fiji. We’d taken a skiff out to find Manta Rays. They feed in water clouded with plankton, so visibility isn’t always the best. While my dive buddies were scouring the reef for fish and crustaceans, I hung out with the dive master. His arm suddenly swept up as he pointed into the vast, cloudy blue. I didn’t see anything but kept peering. Materializing slowly from the depths and winging its way straight towards us, was a giant Manta! I wasn’t afraid and remembered earlier warnings to stay perfectly still, working to keep my breathing steady.
It came closer and closer, larger and stranger than anything I’d ever seen. The wing expanse was at least 9 feet. It slowed right in front of us and pivoted, studying us in the water. I hung still and cried, the tears pooling in my mask, as we studied each other. I felt a rush from the Manta’s conscious judgment that we weren’t a threat. What seemed a lifetime of heartbeats later, it swiveled to glide away and feed, disappearing again. I’d never felt anything so beautiful and freeing, perfectly comfortable and still, witnessing and being witnessed by another species so vastly different than my own.
Photos 1 & 2 – Dave Rudie, 3 – Elaine Masters