AUS­TRALIA

DIANA WIL­LIAMS heads Down Un­der to break her manta duck, tak­ing her young son along for the ride. Would she fi­nally see these amaz­ing, ma­jes­tic crea­tures?

Sport Diver - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by DIANA WIL­LIAMS

Diana Wil­liams heads to the other side of the world in a search for manta rays.

Where was a good place to dive with man­tas? It was some­thing that I had never done, and I was on a mis­sion to achieve this. An op­por­tu­nity pre­sented it­self when plan­ning a fam­ily trip to Aus­tralia. Ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­net search, Lady El­liot Is­land, an eco-re­sort off Queens­land’s south­ern coast, was a good place to see them from mid-may to mid-au­gust. Per­fect! My nine-year-old son John and I could com­bine Lady El­liot with vis­it­ing fam­ily in Syd­ney. It would be the first time that I had trav­elled with John on my own, and I was in­ter­ested to see how he would cope when I was div­ing.

A flight up from Syd­ney to Bris­bane, fol­lowed by a Quan­tas link flight, brought us to Bundaberg - one of the de­par­ture points for Lady El­liot. Here we joined a light aircraft, which flew south­wards, down Queens­land’s mag­nif­i­cent coast­line to Her­vey Bay. Af­ter pick­ing up some pas­sen­gers we flew east­wards over Fraser is­land and out to the bar­rier reef. The pilot had told us to look out for hump­back whales on their mi­gra­tion from the Antarc­tic. Within sec­onds of pass­ing over the is­land, we spotted some blows and tail salutes. No doubt we were fly­ing over some rich wa­ters. Af­ter around 30 min­utes, Lady El­liot came into view. Al­most speech-mark-shaped, this is­land was sur­rounded by a fring­ing reef that was framed by an azure sea. “Wow!” ex­claimed John. We were off to a good start!

An early morn­ing start; by 7.30am we were on the dive boat. The cap­tain agreed to take John on board, which my son was thrilled about since the boat had a glass bot­tom. We en­tered the wa­ter above Sev­er­ance, a large yacht which orig­i­nally ran aground on the other side of the is­land. The cur­rent was strong, and it took quite a bit of ef­fort to get down to 20m. Was there a large shoal of man­tas down there? Draw­ing nearer, mov­ing down the rope, I re­alised that they were devil rays. Sadly, they had seen us com­ing and swam off be­fore we could get too close. Mov­ing around the colour­ful yacht, po­si­tioned here in 1999, a huge shoal of glit­ter­ing big­eye trevally be­came a good sub­sti­tute for the rays, along with plenty of wrasse and co­bia. Head­ing north, I caught sight of what I had come to Lady El­liot for. Dis­tinc­tive lobes and mas­sive fins; def­i­nitely a manta ray! If only it would come closer. Un­for­tu­nately, it re­mained out of photo range, but this didn’t bother me. Now I knew that they were here.

The cur­rent took us to­wards a div­ing area named Three Pyra­mids. The co­ral mounts or pyra­mids were cov­ered with plenty of in­ter­est­ing hy­droids and en­crust­ing corals. A winged crea­ture with a dis­tinct snout was mov­ing grace­fully over them. An ea­gle ray! I was only on my first dive, and so far I had seen three dif­fer­ent types of ray. Now I knew that I was some­where spe­cial. On to what was named the Tur­tle Beds at around 9m. A wavy car­pet of staghorn co­ral, home to blue chromis and hum­bugs, was also tur­tle ter­ri­tory. Rest­ing in the dips were two green tur­tles. We stayed here for a while, look­ing at the tur­tles, tak­ing in this tran­quil en­vi­ron­ment.

Back on the boat, “You were quick”, John re­marked. He’d ob­vi­ously had a nice time.

“Did you see any­thing in­ter­est­ing through the glass?” I asked. “Fish” was his an­swer.

The next dive wasn’t un­til 1.15pm. Still a lit­tle jet-lagged, I de­cided to have a rest. John, how­ever, de­cided to go on a bird tour. Forty-five min­utes later he re­turned, thrilled to bits that he’d seen two fluffy red-tailed tropic bird chicks nest­ing on the ground with their moth­ers. “They’re very rare”, he told me, be­fore run­ning off to his next en­gage­ment - a snorkel les­son. I later found out that Lady El­liot was a haven for all sorts of birds, in­clud­ing the noisy black (white-capped) noddy, the cheeky and fear­less buff-banded rail, and the ghostly sound­ing mut­ton bird (wedge-tailed shear­wa­ter).

Back into the depths, start­ing at Maori Wrasse Bom­mie (bom­mie be­ing the Aus­tralian term for a co­ral out­crop). True to the site’s name, at 20m we en­coun­tered a large and colour­ful, some­what snooty look­ing, hump­head Maori wrasse. Mov­ing south­wards, we passed over some lively co­ral gar­dens with plenty of scis­sor­tail sergeants. Here, the cur­rent changed its course to the north. An enor­mous mal­abar grouper passed us by. The tinging of a tank; a dol­phin had been spotted in the dis­tance. Back on land, John came rush­ing up to me. “Guess what, I saw a stone­fish, a li­on­fish, a starfish and an oc­to­pus”. John had been in­vited on a reef walk with a French fam­ily. It looked like John was en­joy­ing the wildlife just as much as I.

I re­mem­ber talk­ing to a girl with tears in her eyes as she told me about her manta en­counter in Mex­ico. Would I feel the same when I even­tu­ally got up close to one? I was about to find out dur­ing my af­ter­noon dive at Light­house Bom­mie. Over the bom­mie the manta came, look­ing at us for a while then re­treat­ing be­hind the mount. It had to come back! My heart was rac­ing. Was my strobe an­gled cor­rectly? Should I zoom in a lit­tle more? Its head and lobes were ap­pear­ing; once again it fo­cused on us while glid­ing grace­fully around and over the co­ral. I re­alised that it was at a clean­ing sta­tion - a num­ber of small fish were mov­ing on and around it. Awe-struck, I stopped try­ing to take pic­tures, just watch­ing. Did this manta re­ally be­long to this world? There was def­i­nitely some­thing alien about it. Oh no, it was go­ing be­hind the rock again. Was it teas­ing us? It emerged once again, and then it was gone. I didn’t have tears in my eyes; I had some­thing else - a burn­ing de­sire to see more of these crea­tures.

Con­tin­u­ing on, spoilt for choice, we saw a grey reef shark, two sweet­lip grouper and two ea­gle rays. Later I was told that ea­gle rays were rarer in these wa­ters than man­tas. We’d ob­vi­ously been lucky. Adding to the va­ri­ety of ma­rine life was a mas­sive Queens­land grouper and once again, the shin­ing, al­most dis­ori­en­tat­ing, shoal of trevally. Un­doubt­edly these wa­ters were a tes­ta­ment to the ben­e­fits of a no-fish­ing zone. John

“I was only on my first dive, and so far I had seen three dif­fer­ent types of ray. Now I knew that I was some­where spe­cial”

was wait­ing for me on the boat. What had he seen through the glass? This time he was a bit more spe­cific - “A stripy blue and black fish and some tur­tles”.

Rays con­tin­ued to be an on-go­ing theme at An­chor Bom­mie at around 19m. Not just ea­gle rays, we en­coun­tered bull rays and a cow­tail stingray. There was even a thorny or por­cu­pine ray ly­ing on the sand, which I was told was ex­tremely rare. Whi­tish in colour, the ir­reg­u­lar bumps along its mid­dle sec­tion gave rise to its name. I was also ex­cited to see a guitar shark. On first sight it looked like a typ­i­cal shark, though on closer in­spec­tion its rounded sides in­di­cated that this was some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. I didn’t re­alise this at the time, but a guitar shark is re­garded as a species of ray. It was also dur­ing this dive that I came across my first leaf scor­pi­onfish. Del­i­cate to look at, with its high sail-like dor­sal fin, its green­ish colour, and brown mark­ings, it blended in ex­cep­tion­ally well with the sur­round­ing corals.

Fur­ther dives de­liv­ered plenty of tur­tles, Maori wrasse, more black­tip reef sharks and rays, and for me, the most in­ter­est­ing of all, a wobbe­gong. Rest­ing un­der a rocky over­hang, this crea­ture with its light brown body, dis­tinc­tive whi­tish spotty mark­ings and pe­cu­liar whiskers (bar­bels) and flayed out flaps of skin (lobes), was cer­tainly unique. Wobbe­gong, in abo­rig­i­nal, means ‘shaggy beard’. I couldn’t think of a bet­ter name for this crea­ture. I lay on the sand for a while ob­serv­ing this sleep­ing shark. I would have loved to see it at night, us­ing its bot­tom fins to move along the sand, as if walk­ing.

My time at Lady El­liot was com­ing to an end, and I hadn’t seen any more man­tas. There was one more hope. On ar­rival at Lady El­liot I heard a snorkeller say that he had seen ten man­tas; John and I de­cided to book on a snorkelling trip. Into the wa­ter we went, along with six oth­ers. John hadn’t snorkelled that much and had to put in a lot of ef­fort to keep up with us. Spot­ting a guitar shark and a whitetip gave him an ex­tra spurt of en­ergy; he was now be­gin­ning to un­der­stand how fas­ci­nat­ing the ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment was. Next we saw an ea­gle ray, mov­ing over some co­ral out­crops.

An ur­gent cry to re­join the boat! What was hap­pen­ing? John was al­ready back on board; he had be­come a lit­tle cold. Fin­ning as fast as we could, on reach­ing the boat, we launched our­selves onto its metal plat­forms. “Stand up and hold on tight”, we were told. The boat sped off. “What’s...?” “Hump­backs”, came the Cap­tain’s re­ply. Was I go­ing to get to snorkel with hump­backs? That would be some­thing! Fol­low­ing their blows and tails, we headed out to sea. The sea was be­com­ing much chop­pier; where were the whales? Had they changed course? Ah! An­other blow had been spotted. Our boat was now rock­ing in the waves. A sense of de­spon­dency; the wa­ter was now far too rough to snorkel in.

Head­ing closer to Lady El­liot, the Cap­tain took us to where we might see some man­tas. It didn’t take long; soon I was look­ing down on that fa­mil­iar, al­most alien, shape. A lone manta! I’d got my wish. Just one, not ten, but a spe­cial en­counter all the same.

Back on land, I met up with the divers. Hold­ing onto the line, dur­ing the safety stop, two of them had had been cir­cled by a manta. Per­haps I should have dived! Still, it wasn’t as though I hadn’t seen any. As for the hump­backs, an on-land whale walk gave us plenty of sight­ings in­volv­ing their bod­ies arch­ing out of the wa­ter, tail slaps and blows.

What an amaz­ing place Lady El­liot Is­land is. So much more than man­tas; my head was reel­ing from all the ma­rine and ter­res­trial en­coun­ters we had had. A place where man can co­ex­ist with na­ture; it gave me hope. It also taught my son how di­verse and ex­tra­or­di­nary the world can be.

“Del­i­cate to look at, with its high sail-like dor­sal fin, its green­ish colour, and brown mark­ings, it blended in ex­cep­tion­ally well with the sur­round­ing corals”

Manta ca­vort­ing for watch­ing divers

Tur­tle comes in for a close-up Guitar shark

Tur­tles reg­u­larly put in an ap­pear­ance

The very def­i­ni­tion of idyl­lic

Ea­gle ray fly­past

Sun­set over the is­land

Seabirds flock to Lady El­liot

John pos­ing by their aircraft

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