By Ron Foerster, Boca Raton, Florida
November 26, 1993, 10:37 AM, Pompano Beach. Something truly incredible happened today. The morning started out foggy but that burned off by nine. The ocean had a light chop with big swells causing a heavy beach break. It was tough getting in. My gear got all tangled around the dive flag and it took a few minutes to clear.
I began the usual swim out to the reef, on the surface face up looking back toward the beach. While heading to the second finger of the first reef approximately 250 feet out, a large dorsal fin suddenly broke the surface moving parallel to the beach about 50 feet from me. I said to myself 'OOOOH SHIT'. The first thought was shark, then I decided to think positive, maybe it's a dolphin. When it was directly between the beach and myself it turned and headed straight for me. Now I'm thinking... IT'S A SHARK!!! I decided to face this thing so I grabbed my regulator and deflated my BC. The visibility was poor perhaps 20-25 feet. There was a dark silhouette of something really big coming straight for me.
We met mid-water at a depth of eight feet. I was relieved to see it was an Atlantic Manta Ray approximately nine to ten feet across from wing tip to wing tip. The 'dorsal fin' was obviously its wing tip breaking the surface as it made its turn. It came close, paused, and then began circling slowly. It seemed extremely curious but very cautious, pausing occasionally to look me over. I slowly moved closer as it paused hoping it would allow me to touch it. It quickly darted away, disappearing into the murky water only to return a few moments later. This time it allowed me to touch its wing tip as it circled more slowly and closer, but again it darted away only to return pausing still longer now. This time we stared eye to eye and I noticed a raw abrasion about six inches long on the front edge of its left wing. There was a vertical cut about 2 inches long on its mouth that also appeared raw.
The mutual trust increased on each encounter and the encounters became longer. He allowed me to stroke both the top and bottom surfaces of the wing tip. The underside was like a non-skid surface. The top varied depending on the direction of the stroke. One direction it felt like very short hairs and the other way was smooth and silky to the touch. He would allow the contact for only a brief time before darting off.
On the next encounter I decided to avoid contact. This encounter was the longest and lasted perhaps 5 minutes. We swam together side by side in big graceful arcs over the reef below. He could have easily swam circles around me but chose to go at my pace pausing occasionally to look back to see if I was still there. I noticed now what caused the vertical cut on his mouth. A monofilament line was looped around his body trailing back from his mouth to the base of his tail where it was tangled in a mass. The movement of his body was causing the line to cut deep into the skin of his mouth. It instantly became clear to me that this was why he was here. He somehow knew that I could help. I slipped slowly to the rear from above and gently grabbed the line. He became frightened and instantly bolted away. After a minute I returned to the surface hoping to catch sight of him. Another minute passed and I was about to resume my dive when suddenly a huge black silhouette appeared just below the surface heading straight for me. I deflated my BC and we again met face to face. He stared very intently at me; I got the impression that he was saying, "Let's try that again". We swam for a couple of minutes; I again moved slowly toward his tail. As soon as I grabbed the line he instantly came to a complete stop, hovering motionless. He allowed me to free the tangled mess from one of two bony protrusions at the base of his tail. Not having a knife, which would have made quick order of the situation, I moved the loop along the rear of the wing. As I approached the wing tip the line became taut and I could feel him tense as it must have cut deeper into the existing wound, but he held fast allowing me to actually fold his wing tip back so I could clear the end. I swam forward to clear the line from his mouth and front mandibles. As soon as the line was free he circled once and headed east to the open sea.
There was no doubt in my mind that this was no happen stance but a planned encounter by this Atlantic Manta Ray. Why he picked me I will never know. Maybe because I was diving alone and he felt less threatened. Whatever the reason I now have a new appreciation for the intelligence of these creatures and the bond that is possible. This encounter was truly a once in a lifetime experience.
This story copyright © 1999-2001 by Ron Foerster, all rights reserved.