I went diving with the smartest fish in the ocean. It was life changing – Stuff

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To say I was excited about going diving with giant mantas is a huge understatement.

Giant oceanic manta rays are – as the name suggests – enormous. Spanning up to 8m from wingtip to wingtip and weighing up to a huge 2400kg, they are true oceanic giants and feature on the wish lists of scuba divers worldwide.

To say I was excited about going diving with giant mantas is a huge understatement. But first, we had to get to the place they call home; the remote Revillagigedo archipelago.

Nestled far out in the eastern Pacific Ocean, the Revillagigedo archipelago offers the planet’s best opportunity to dive with giant oceanic mantas. This archipelago, also known as the Socorro Islands, is a Unesco World Heritage Site situated over 300km off Mexico’s mainland. It is remote by anyone’s standards, only reachable by a bumpy thirty-hour boat crossing. But being so remote, the Socorro Islands are a sanctuary for seabirds and a remarkable array of large marine life. They also host the second most remote dive site on Earth.

The wild and untamed beauty of the islands is hard to beat. The archipelago is part of a submerged mountain range, with four volcanic peaks that jut out of the ocean. Each island has its own character; Roca Partida is barely more than a needle in the ocean with sheer walls that plunge into the depths. San Benedicto is an awe-inspiring landscape of ridged volcanic craters and a dark lava field that once poured into the sea. They are spectacular and washed by strong currents and surge that rattled my nerves before every dive. But I knew these untamed, nutrient-rich waters held an abundance of marine life I simply had to see.

From hammerheads, tiger sharks, Galapagos and silky sharks, to dolphins, humpback whales, and countless fish, the Revillagigedo archipelago is teeming with life.

Kathryn Curzon

Giant oceanic manta rays are – as the name suggests – enormous.

Amongst all of that incredible life, most of which we encountered, the mantas are the stars of the show that every diver hopes to see. These remarkable mantas are deeply intelligent and famously friendly. They are one of the few animals on Earth that pass the ‘mirror test’, demonstrating self-awareness – an ability shared by only a handful of species, including dolphins, elephants, and great apes.

Shortly after we started diving, the mantas appeared. They passed gracefully by on almost every dive and then disappeared, tempting us to follow them out into the current-swept blue. It was incredible watching them glide by and I was well aware of how privileged I was to meet them at all. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), these magnificent animals are classified as vulnerable to extinction. An estimated 150,000 mantas and mobula rays are killed each year for their gill rakers as part of the Chinese medicine trade.

Having spent time in the water with these deeply intelligent and gentle animals, their vulnerability was a difficult reality to comprehend. As the mantas passed by, I longed for a deeper connection with them. Little did I know that we would hit the jackpot on one of our last dives.

After a few days of challenging yet rewarding diving, I was grateful for a change of pace. Our dive guide chose a calm and shallow dive site where we could enjoy an easy dive among corals. Seeing mantas was the last thing on my mind as I drifted over the beautiful, sunlit reef and took it all in.

But then everything changed when, out of nowhere, a manta ray, followed by not one but two more, approached and left us sobbing in the dive boat afterwards.

We had learnt earlier in the week that manta rays use their cephalic horns (the paddle-like extensions at the front of their heads) for feeding and also to communicate. When their horns are curled up tight and pointing forward, the mantas are busy going somewhere and are unlikely to stay near divers. When the horns are unfurled, the mantas are feeding, and when they furl and unfurl their horns repeatedly, the mantas are ready to socialise.

So there we were, diving in the shallows, when suddenly we were approached by the mantas, furling and unfurling their cephalic horns. They came to us, it was clear they wanted to interact, and it was all I could do to maintain my buoyancy and stay calm.

Each of the divers in our group was buzzing with excitement when the mantas didn’t just glide by and disappear. They passed overhead within touching distance, turned, and came back to us again and again, dancing in the sunlight streaming down from the surface. The mantas loved our bubbles and paused above them, enjoying the sensation on their tummies.

As one of the mantas came towards me, I leant back in the water and it drifted overhead. It filled my entire field of vision; arms outstretched as wide as possible, I was just a tiny human underneath the manta’s huge speckled body. I knew I was in the presence of an animal that possessed intelligence every bit as complete as our own.

This dance with the mantas continued for over half an hour yet it felt like mere minutes. In the end, we had to ascend and leave the mantas behind. After the forced underwater silence, I thought our dive group would erupt into whoops and hollers when we surfaced and got back onto our boat.

But in truth, we all just looked at each other, shook our heads, and burst into tears. Grown men and women from around the world, we were utterly felled by what had just happened. There were simply no words. As the captain would later put it when we relayed our story, “that’s manta love”. And I can say that there is nothing quite like it.

Visiting the Socorro Islands

Diving at the Socorro Islands is nothing short of exceptional. Not only can you encounter giant mantas and a host of other large marine life, but dive trips to the islands also support manta conservation. If you are an advanced diver, add these islands to your wish list.

And if you’re not a diver, but want to support manta ray conservation, consider donating to the Manta Trust. This conservation organisation is dedicated to protecting and researching these incredible creatures for future generations to enjoy.

This article was written by Kathryn Curzon, a dive travel writer and award-winning author.

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