I’d last scuba-dived a decade ago, off a boat, far out on the Coral Sea off the north-eastern coast of Australia. That was the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living “thing” on Earth, visible from the moon, 2300 Km long, and absolutely stunning.
I’d done a 5-day certification course with PADI, an internationally recognized diving outfit, and gotten my open-water certification between 2 days in the classroom and 3 days out on… well, open water.
To get certified, we’d lived on a boat out on the open ocean, done dives in sandy shallows, dives around tall coral buoys, beautiful, calm dives at dawn, dives in the pitch dark of a midnight ocean, dives along underwater streets lined on both sides with stories of coral, fish, eels, sharks, molluscs… you name it. I’d swum like a floating angel over a swimming sea-turtle, which in turn was swimming over a deep, deep trench; swum through a dreamy shoal of pearly, baby jellyfish; chased reef sharks for a photo; avoided a few barracudas, and stood on the seabed like a true adventurer next to giant clams the size of full grown people.
With a visual buffet of that quality, there are a rare few places on earth that can rival an experience that intense. I’d seen so much, and so beautifully much! And maybe for that reason, I didn’t chase scuba diving for the next 10 years.
That is, until this July, off the coast of Ishigaki Island, part of the Yaeyama Shoto (archipelago), in the far south of Japan and somewhere in the East China Sea, I decided to dive again.
The main attraction of diving off Ishigaki Island is the chance to watch Manta Rays. These spectacular fish are known to grow as large as 20 feet in width. They glide peacefully through the water, gently flapping their huge, triangular pectoral fins, flying through the silent blue peace of the under-ocean like mysterious, otherworldly beings. I’ve seen Rays in aquariums, and they’re always beautiful to watch, but being down there with them in the vastness of the water, there’s a thrill that’s hard to fathom. Your imagination drifts away into the blue beyond somewhere on those pale white wings. There were three dives on this day-trip, each building on the last, until the final beautiful culmination of all expectations.
The first dive was near an island called Kayama, we went down about 50 feet, in the blub-blub of bubbles and the fragmented blue sunlight under the water, I reacquainted myself with life under the sea. Corals grew in patches, some bleached, some recovering nicely, some in full splendor. Angelfish, butterflyfish, parrotfish, damsels… the names danced in my head – which was which now? Being underwater, concentrating on your breathing, being conscious of how fragile you and everything in the world is, gives you a new perspective.
The star of the first dive was a crocodile fish about a foot and a half long, speckled brown on brown, camouflaged to look like sand and coral, we wouldn’t have given it a second look until our dive-master pointed it out! He was a silly looking fellow once discovered, looking quite pointedly away, as if not to make eye contact, and shuffling from fin to fin, as if to say “go away, you didn’t really see me”. A few seconds later, we saw a yellow trumpetfish, like a lost, golden flute, magically floating off a shelf. Then, an upside-down jellyfish, gently sproinging through mid-water as though on invisible springs, it was also brown on brown and looked like a tiny garden of florets on a tiny round plate. We snooped around the corals a bit before heading back up, and found pretty little spotted red coral-crabs hiding amongst them.
Our next dive was off Iriomote Island at a place nicknamed Nobaru Drop. Our dive-master took us down about 60 feet and through a rocky old coral alleyway, we saw a Sting Ray zip by on the sandy bottom like a fast car on an open highway. We followed a small shoal of shimmering fish to the end of the coral alley, through an archway, and suddenly, we were in an underwater cavern thick with hundreds of fish!
The small shoal we’d followed merged with the bigger shoal which stood tick-tick-ticking like a million tiny flashing points, in a whirlpool of a column that filled the inside of the cavern and stretched up several feet through its roof-opening, out towards the surface. We moved slowly and I was able to stand right in the middle of the shoal, with the sunlight shining down on me from the aperture above, amidst clouds of thousands of fish the size of bullets, floating Matrix-like around me. I was surrounded from toe to tip, and then some! All the fish were pointing in the same direction, wrapping around me in a circle and up, all twitching a fishy twitch. I spun around slowly. It was like being in a kaleidoscope or a dream or a Beatles song. I felt like I might get dizzy, but there was too much wonder in that small space to feel anything but spellbound!
The divemaster finally signaled me out and I reluctantly left the enchanted room. We swam past more corals and marine life, and suddenly around the bend came a gorgeous cuttlefish. This dive was getting surreal. The foot-long cuttlefish hovered by slowly, like a spaceship out of a daydream, floating through the water as I swam by it, wondering whether I’d seen the same space vessel design in Star Trek or Star Wars. The former, I decided, as we made our way back up.
The final dive of the day was at Manta City. I’d heard of Manta Scramble from the guidebook, but I guess this was where we’d be setting down to see the Mantas. We dived about 50 feet again, and parked ourselves 20 feet from a large “cleaning station”. Cleaning stations are zones where feeder fish live and Mantas drift in for an exfoliation. The feeders attach to the Mantas for a few minutes and make short work of any dead skin cells. They work fast, and the Mantas are away in a matter of minutes.
We clung to the corals for a good 20 minutes of our 40-minute Dive. Nothing. I entertained myself by getting a close-up of the corals and fish. I imagined how “Jetsons” the whole idea of a cleaning station was – where a big flying saucer parks for a wash and then carries on. We swam around for a bit, hoping to see something and stopped at another point. In the distance off to the left and above us, a shape emerged – Manta! It glided by at a distance of about 20 feet in the gloomy water, like a blurry image on an old cassette player – half there, half imagination. I mentally checked the Manta box but was not fully satisfied.
We swam another couple of minutes in a circle, and then, suddenly, the divemaster signaled me to get down. Out of left field again, this time heading directly towards us, came an enormous Manta Ray! It must have been at least 10 feet wide. It had a huge, alien-like maw with pronounced gills, and beautiful white triangular fins, and surprisingly, no visible tail. It was gorgeous. Like a vision, it glided by us, taking it’s time, made a few lazy turns and flapped slowly away. It couldn’t have been around for more than a minute, but every second was so worth the trip!
We returned to the boat happy and excited. It had been a day of beauty, of flying your imagination kite-like under the sea, and a reminder of why you can never stop being amazed at what the world has to offer.
Manta Rays are gorgeous; the ocean is amazing, diverse and will make your dreams prettier. If you get the chance, learn how to Scuba. It’s well worth it.