Black and white giants, graceful and impressive; mantas capture our imagination with their fairytale appearance and mysterious behavior. But sometimes they just act rude. Especially if we start with that.
You have probably heard, read or seen that the Maldives are known for the presence of the mantas. These black and white giants, which float elegantly and mysteriously through the water, are extremely popular. They can reach a wingspan of up to 5 meters, at least the reef manta found in the Maldives. I think they’re fantastic. Not so much because of their elegance or their size – although that helps – but mainly because you can dance with them under water. No tango or salsa, but a kind of synchronized swimming. I think it’s a social event for these beauties, a way of communicating, connecting and nurturing relationships. If, like me, you often see mantas, then certain behavior starts to stand out. Ways of greeting, ways of taking a shower together (read: manta cleaning) and eating. Sometimes they do something surprising. And very occasionally they do that with us…
a manta cleaning station
Through the car wash In the Ari atoll you can find many manta cleaning stations; specific places where many fish are found that clean other fish, or cleaner fish. And all animals under water can be cleaned by these cleaner fish in a kind of car wash, even if they do not wash with water. They eat the dead scales and parasites from the skin of their clients. The cleaner fish have a permanent place and their customers come by every day for a cleaning, just like we regularly run our car through the car wash. Of course, for a manta you need a large car wash with enough cleaner fish, otherwise such a monster will never be clean. If you want to see a manta, all you have to do is look at such a car wash. We often do that in the Maldives, of course, including last February with Mel and Peter.
We have just dived Mahibadhoo in the west of the atoll and are now back aboard our ship. After some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and a fresh pineapple smoothie, I take a refreshing shower. The dive has been great, with a few mantas at the cleaning station, although the visibility was not great. But everyone has been able to enjoy the majestic animals for a long time.
While I’m upstairs thinking about the dive, Mel comes up to me, talking loudly. “Blablabla manta… bla bla bla bla… bla bla Gopro… want to see it?” huh. “What are you talking about?” It takes me a while to understand what she’s saying, that’s how deep in thought I am. Mel just keeps on talking enthusiastically and I have no idea what’s going on until I see the video. haha! She was hit on the head by a manta and there’s no doubt about it: it was deliberate. She is not bothered by it and feels fine, although the animal has given her a strong slap. We are all full of it and watch the video endlessly that week. But that’s not the end of the story.
“Will you go away for a while”
A few months later I am traveling with a group of photographers. The boat is rented by two professional photographers who organize fun workshops. They have a guest speaker, a whale shark biologist: Dr. Simon Pierce. In his presentation, he emphasizes that getting too close to a whale shark shows little respect. The result is that the animal will let you know by
first turn its back to you and then swim away. So the shark actually says: ‘Please go away for a while’. That is interesting! I think back to the manta video. After Simon’s workshop I show him the video of Mel and Peter. Peter has his camera pointed at Mel and he is behind her. A large manta hangs to Mel’s left. She goes crazy and makes that clear to Peter, as she turns to the right. This scene repeats itself twice, until the manta approaches and consciously hits Mel on the head as she turns to face Peter for the third time. Pets! Simon laughs just as hard as I do. By now I think the manta corrected Mel. Mel is rude to her, as she has already told him twice in whale shark behavior, “Go away for a bit.” And the manta, knowing that she herself has done nothing wrong, does not accept that audacity. That thought was confirmed with a chuckle by Simon.