Recently I was supposed to write a paper for my college English class about the most interesting place I have been. I chose to write about my experience with the manta rays. Mahalo….by Amber S.

The most mesmerizing place I have been is the warm ocean of a cove in Kona, Hawaii. It is where I was witness to the most spectacular acrobatics show under the sea. I begin my journey on the 40 foot vessel, Uhane Nui O Nai’a (Great Spirit of the Dolphin) rocking in the waves at dusk before the setting of the sun. The dolphins ride in our wake spinning in the air living up to their name-sake: spinner dolphins. The boat makes it to its destination where a new chapter of the journey will soon begin.

As the sun slowly sets, we must continue to wait until complete darkness engulfs us. The artificial lighting will draw the plankton, which in turn will draw out our mysterious butterflies of the sea. The salty spray splashes at the unyielding rocky edges of the cove, the briny smell wafts over us continuously. The final rays of the sun disappear over the horizon and it is time to discover what lies beneath the surface. As we gear up for snorkeling; I pull the purple wet suit on and it fits like a glove, the goggles suction-cup to my face, and the uncomfortable rubber mouth piece slides into my mouth as I prepare to step into the unknown darkness.

The salt water rushes past my ears as I submerge my head into the dark abyss. The lights flash ahead of me and I turn my body toward the underwater campfire. Distracted by movement below me, I look down and I catch my first glimpse of the creatures that drew me to the ocean. The mammoth sized fish fly lazily toward the all-they-can-eat-buffet of plankton. The horns of the ‘devil rays’ unravel into shovels (cephalic lobes), scooping their meals into their six-foot wide mouths, and their tails are whipping in the current of the open cove. The gray designs on their backs make a strange contrast to the glittering darkness surrounding us. They are unbelievable in size, I was told they could grow to be 25 feet, wing tip to wing tip, each foot weighing 100 pounds, but I was not prepared for actually seeing it. The diamond shaped fish glide swiftly through the water with their wings flapping, propelling them forward.

I finally make my way over to the flashing of strobe and LED lights where 13 other manta rays are already feasting. The floating white plankton specks are the reason for the large gathering of manta rays. The manta rays perform tricks as they eat their prey, swimming, diving and barrel rolling through the current. They couldn’t care less about their dinner guests as their underwater acrobatics bring them closer and closer to us. Their sensitive stomachs rub against ours to get closer to the best choice plankton near our flash lights. I watch these amazing animals and am caught off guard when I come face to face with a manta rays enormous gaping mouth, but it veers off to the side at the last second. One particular manta ray known as ‘Big Bertha’ catches my eye as she is 16 feet across and pregnant with her bulging stomach. Another manta ray glides past me, and I recognize this one as ‘Lefty,’ as her left cephalic lobe is missing from a birth defect. I see ‘Captain Kirk’ with his tail missing from a possible shark attack and ‘Sugar Ray’ with the black ‘s’ design printed on his white stomach. As I stare wide-eyed at these amazing animals, I am reminded not to smile or follow them with my head as it would result in a goggle or mouth-full of salt water.

My companions around me seem to have almost forgotten not to smile at the dark creatures with white and black spotted stomachs as well. I can hear the screams of one excited or terrified snorkeler as one manta ray continues to go too close for comfort. Her screams can be heard from five people away through her snorkel and the pulsing water. The dinner and a show continue to entice the ocean’s intruders, as we watch and are amazed by the elegance of the dance.

I look past the manta rays into the rest of the dining hall and see silver fish that also gathered to eat the plankton. Through the swarm of fish, there are continuous streams of air bubbles from the unseen scuba divers 50 feet below us. The bubbles shimmer in the bright flashes of light reminding me of a starry night sky from the world above the ocean. The unknown blackness of the water around me is ever changing in the light of the campfire and the eerie bluish glow from the manta rays bodies as they continue their dance. They come here merely to feed, but to us it is an experience that is to purely be enjoyed.

Their wings flap in the ocean’s current banking in the opposite direction so as not to rub against anything. The manta rays skin has protective mucus covering it, and when it is rubbed off, it can’t come back and they are more apt to infections and lesions. These harmless beauties are looked down upon as terrifying due to their size and close cousins: sting rays and sharks. When travelers crossed the ocean, they saw the silhouettes of the manta rays with their shovel like mouth flaps curled and saw that they looked like devils with their ‘horns’ gliding though the water. A more elegant name has been given to them after they were found to be harmless to humans known as ‘butterflies of the sea.’

The giant fish are slowly moving away from the underwater campfire because their food source has started to diminish. The dinner is almost over and the acrobatic stunts of these animals are truly something to behold as the stragglers scramble to catch the last of the tasty morsels before they too swims away. We start to swim back toward the boat, still captivated by the manta rays swimming along underneath us. A smaller manta ray has found a good spot underneath our boat’s light where some plankton has been caught by its glow. The manta ray continuously barrel rolls in the water, circling round and round. The silhouette of the creature beneath the light is a truly beholding sight as though we were the travelers from afar seeing these ‘devil rays’ for the first time.

In a world so mesmerizing where manta rays dance and perform as acrobats, we as guests can only watch as it all unfolds. I close my eyes and I am back in the ocean with the soft fading murmurs of the world above, and a breath taking scene that can only be witnessed under the surface of the pitch black water of the world below.

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