“Where is your favourite place in the world to dive?” Is a question I get asked on almost a daily basis. “Brisbane”. My answer generally surprises people. “Brisbane??” But yes, scuba diving in Brisbane has been the absolute best scuba diving of my life. I have dived in Thailand, Finland, Philippines, Vanuatu, Cambodia and all around Australia, but the dive sites around North Stradbroke Island surpass anything else.
Summer time brings 27 degree water and manta rays, Leopard sharks to create a spectacularly filled dive site with divers not knowing where to turn. While in winter time, Grey Nurse sharks appear in Shark alley creating a fascinating distraction for all my students on their advanced course. Today, I wanted to tell you about dancing with the Manta Rays. The manta rays around North Stradbroke Island may be the smaller of the two species of manta, M. Alfredi, however their wingspans can still reach 5.5m!
What Is A Manta Ray Cleaning Station?
A manta ray cleaning station is a specific section of reef where cleaner fish live, and specialise in cleaning large marine animals such as sharks, rays and larger bony fish. These reef-dwelling cleaner fish eat the parasites, dead skin, bacteria and mucus off of the bodies, gills and even inside the mouth of larger fish. This mutual symbiotic relationship benefits both the cleaning fish receive an easily accessible source of food, while the large animals can get rid of ectoparasites on their skin, or infected skin around wounds to maintain their health. Research shows that on average, a manta ray will spend around 2 hours a day being cleaned, while some enjoy the process for as long as 8 hours! This range could potentially be due to certain mantas experiencing skin infections or various wounds or injuries.
When a manta ray approaches a cleaning station, it generally slows its swimming speed or even sometimes hovers motionless. Their movements slow circular patterns over the reef allow the cleaning fish to gain easier access. The manta rays typically unfurl their cephalic fins and flare their gills to advertise their willingness to be cleaned. As scuba divers, all you need to do is hover in one spot and watch as the manta rays dance around you, hovering around you slowly through out the dive.
During the summer time, it is not unusual to see up to five individual manta rays utilising this cleaning station. They sometimes form trains or even perform complex acrobatic dances, almost to just show off. Even the skippers who stay on the boats during the dives get good shows, with Manta Rays jumping out of the water in enormous shows of power and grace. Until they flop back into the water like a pancake that is.
Identifying Manta Rays
The really exciting thing about Manta Ray Bommie is how many of the individual manta rays return year after year to their cleaning station. This is known as site fidelity. Photos of their underbellies allow Project Manta to keep a record of manta rays visiting the dive sight and surrounding areas. Each Manta Ray has an individual pattern on their belly, which remains unchanged throughout their life. These markings allow Scientists to follow individual manta rays for many years.
If a diver photographs a previously unregistered Manta Ray they get the honour of naming them! Just last year, I photographed a gorgeous adult male who I named Moriarty. Project Manta encourages anyone who has photographs of manta rays to submit them with the date and location, this way they can track not only populations, but behaviours, demographics and learn about these beautiful animals. This is just one of the many Citizen Science opportunities where, anyone can help collect data for scientific advances in our knowledge of the ocean.
Manta Ray Safety
It is vital to ensure proper conduct is followed in cleaning stations for continued safety of the manta rays. Altering an animal’s natural behaviours can have potential negative impacts for their long term life, if for example they get continually interrupted from cleaning processes, people begin hunting or chasing them. It is the responsibility of the Instructors and Divemasters taking customers to see these spectacular creatures to promote proper marine conservation diving practises. For example, touching a manta ray can severely endanger them, as during the contact of human flesh with their bodies, a thin film is wiped off which exposes them to parasites.
Generally though, the divers quickly learn that if they stay in the same spot, and mimic the manta rays slow flapping of it’s wings, many manta rays will actually approach you. They are extremely curious creatures, with their big eyes staring inquisitively at these big black bubble breathing masses. I have had several incredible manta ray interactions where I have danced with them. Reaching that point however, takes years of buoyancy practice and a calm, almost meditative approach. If anyone ever tries to chase a manta, all it needs to do is flap it’s powerful wings once and they fly forward as if shot from an arrow.
Every year I worked as a diving instructor in Brisbane I looked forward to Summer time, because it meant it was the season of the manta. While many of the individuals return year after year, diving with these spectacular animals is always a thrilling experience. Their majestic grace and piercing eyes make every dive unique, and when you finally get to dance with a manta ray. You feel you have been transported to another planet.
Read more from Katt at: www.myveganexperiment.com