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?
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”
Turtle comes in for a close-up Guitar shark
Turtles regularly put in an appearance
The very definition of idyllic
Eagle ray flypast
Manta cavorting for watching divers
Sunset over the island
Seabirds flock to Lady Elliot
John posing by their aircraft