Manta Dreaming at Soneva Fushi
From Cape Town via Dubai to Malé. Emirates ladies with their bright red lips and smiling eyes. Truly friendly and helpful. Dubai to Malé I have two seats by the window so I sleep, finally I get woken up by the pretty airhostess who encourage me to look out the window. I sit up groggily and look at the Atolls below me and my breath gets knocked clean out of me. It looks like a magical ocean fairyland in shades of turquoise and aqua, coral just visible below the surface and everything round. Slightly submerged, perfectly round bowls of coral. I imagine myself freefalling out the plane into the middle of that crisp clear ring. Dreamy, sleepy thoughts.
Vast expanses of blue with small dots of green on the horizon, the Maldives is a nation of ocean with occasional bits of land. A seaplane hop to the paradise that is Soneva Fushi gets me closer to my dream of dancing with manta rays.
Soneva is situated in the Baa Atoll, close to the world famous Hanifaru Bay – a relatively shallow lagoon surrounded by coral. If the winds and currents are just right they create a unique plankton extravaganza every year and then… sometimes, the mantas come in their hundreds to feed.
We anchor the diving boat in the late afternoon light and I slip on my monofin. The water here is just below 30°C so all I need is mask and fin. No wetsuit.
Softly I slip into the water. I gasp. My skin erupts in painful stings, small pinpricks of pain make my heart rate speed up and my muscles tense. Mask on, look down, deep breath and I smile. Plankton.
If the plankton’s here… surely… I peer down into the milky blue-green water. One, two three deep breaths and I kick down, down looking around, hoping for a meeting. Then I see her. Like a ghost the manta glides into my vision. She must be over three meters, silently gliding, her mouth wide open I can see right into her. She seems to not notice me, swimming straight at me… I kick down to let her pass over me and my heart skips a beat. The pearly white of her belly is painted with small black spots and blotches, her unique markings. Her fingerprint.
I watch her disappear and kick up to the surface, gasping and laughing, overwhelmed by beauty. I make my surface time as short as is still safe and go back down. Waiting. A wall of mantas appear from the dusk. Four, five, ten like a flock of large birds flying impossibly
slow. Keeping still they pass by me like ghosts. They are larger than I had imagined, slower than I thought possible and more beautiful than anything I have ever seen. I don’t want to need to breathe, I want to stay down here forever, waiting for their graceful return. Lungs burning I kick up. Gulping air impatiently I dive down again too soon, like one addicted.
I dive down deeper, peering into the distance. Where are they? Squinting into the darkening blue I wish and wish… I imagine shapes, a shift in the water colour- a manta shaped stain of white in the blue. Seeing what I want to see… And then suddenly they are all around me. More than ten mantas with mouths wide-open swim toward me, above me, below me around me. I am small in their midst, they ignore me, intent on their invisible feast. With no bubbles and a smoothness of movement I hope that my freediving will allow me to swim with the group, not disturbing, but not wholly invited. Swimming alongside one I look into her eye, big, round, black with small wrinkles in the corner, like laugh lines. I wish I knew whether I was tolerated or welcomed. The mantas show no fear of me, they circle around me gently if I happen to be in their way, sometimes lifting a wing tip to avoid a clumsy snorkeler. I have never seen a creature this graceful, this elegant.
The sun sets and the lagoon gets dark. The other divers have left the water. Can I stay? Just one more dive, please. It the thing once seen that can never be unseen. A creature so kind, so perfect, so mild and vivid all at once that it leaves you breathless. I can’t pull myself away from this dance. One more dive, one more interaction, one more loop shared with a gentle giant watching me from a laughing eye. I look up at the white bellies silhouetted against the dusky sky, if you were to ask me know - I would say yes, I believe in angels.