Manta Ray Free Dive

“Hey! You are diving too close to the manta rays, you’re going to scare them!” Whoops. “Sorry, I didn’t know.”

They seemed to like me and none of them turned away when I dove next to them, but for future reference, do not get within five feet of the mantas, the tour guide babysitting eight tourists in life jackets will yell at you.

Before getting yelled at by the tour guide, taking a picture with my new friend.

When my mom first arrived in Tahiti, we asked what she wanted to do while she was in French Polynesia. Snorkeling with manta rays in Bora Bora was paramount. Since that was her departure destination, we had to work our way through the rest of the Society Islands first.

We departed from Taha’a and had an uneventful passage. We caught a small skipjack tuna that we threw back, and motored the entire way. The sea was so calm that my mom didn’t even have to take seasickness medication – which means it was glass. The pass in to Bora Bora was large and straightforward, but approaching the east side of the island is a bit more challenging. The channel runs into a shallow pass that isn’t well marked but the chart shows a squiggly pink dotted line, which is supposedly safe for all boats drawing less than nine feet. I had Nor’easter glued to the line, and the shallowest we saw was 9.5 feet, acceptable for our seven foot draft.

Bora Bora’s inhospitability towards sailors is notorious. All of the motus (islands) around the lagoons are developed with over water bungalows, which are great if you rent one, but for us, it meant that all of the beautiful white sand beaches were private. The developers had a special idea and mass produced it to cover every available motu, ruining the beauty and exclusivity that made it attractive initially. Despite the bungalow invasion, the two famous mountain peaks, amazing turquoise water, and abundant sea life made it a phenomenal anchorage.

The water was shallow and clear with a sand bottom, rare for this part of the world, but ideal for our anchor. The bays are typically 90 feet deep, which makes anchoring challenging because you are supposed to use line five times the depth, in this case 450 feet. That means you will swing all over the harbor when the wind shifts, which is a problem if you have neighbors. Since we were in twelve feet, we threw down the anchor and “had a good bite” almost immediately. I jumped overboard with a mask to inspect our new surrounding, and with nothing around besides a few fish, concluded it was perfect.

My internet search revealed that the morning was the best time to see the mantas. We were too late for that, but it was hot and we all wanted to snorkel, so we went to the manta channel between the two reefs anyway. It was amazing snorkeling, with lattice coral mountains dropping steeply into the channel. We stayed mostly in the shallows and enjoyed massive schools of yellow striped goatfish and giant clams embedded in coral. My mom also saw two large barracuda, lucky gal.

We returned to Noreaster for dinner and since slack tide was at 7am, decided to wake up early for the rays, the lack of current, and to beat the tour boats. I hoped my research was accurate because my parents were enjoying sleeping during our first cool night since my mom’s arrival, and I had to yell at them to get them out of bed for this once in a lifetime experience.

The sunrise reflecting off the water was blinding, but since we scouted the area the previous day, we were able to secure a mooring without running aground. There was only one other small dighy when we arrived.

We rolled off the sponsons (the pontoons on our dinghy) and slowly snorkeled along the ridge. The visibility was 50 feet, which was perfect for spotting mantas along the bottom. My dad followed me while my mom went the opposite direction. After four minutes, I saw a large black shape gliding under me in 30 feet of water. I got my dad’s attention and free dove to take some pictures. It was a manta and ignored me, but since it was the closest I’ve been to the magnificent creatures, I was excited and quickly ran out of air.

The massive ray cruised through the channel, and disappeared into the deeper water. We stayed in the shallow 30 foot area for a while, but no more mantas graced us with their presence. I waited enough and followed the manta’s trail towards the depths.

Every manta has a unique identifying pattern on its stomach.

I swam past our neighbors and the white bottom faded into the blue of deep water, but then I saw a flash of white. Then black. The white was the mouth of a manta and the black, the body. I took several deep breaths on the surface to prepare for my descent. As soon as I stuck my head into the water, I realized I hit the jackpot. Not only was there one with a 12 foot wingspan, but there were three more next to it about 40 feet below the surface. I tried to take a picture, but my go pro was off. Would I get another opportunity like this today? Or ever?

Three of the beasts.

I returned to the surface and saw my mom’s yellow snorkel in the distance. I yelled “Mom!” to her and when she asked if I saw a manta, I held up four fingers. While she swam over, I took a few breaths, and dove again. One creature disappeared, but the other three remained. I snapped a few pictures and returned to the surface, taking care to avoid my mom as I broke the surface. We dove together which was a special experience for both of us.

It’s a little blurry, but me for scale. This was a smaller one.

I found several more, but never in big groups. I continued diving alongside them, which I read was acceptable as long as you don’t touch them. The tour guides disagreed. When the tour boats started appearing, we returned to the boat and my mom baked banana bread for breakfast. It was a phenomenal morning.

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