Friday, October 25, 2013

Chris’ Dive Experiences: Seal Island, South Africa - Heaven & Hell

 Photo courtesy of Morne Hardenberg

The following story may be too graphic for some.
Discretion is advised.

Very few things in life seem to live up to what you see on TV, unless you’re at the right place, at the right time. Seal Island, South Africa, is one place you can count on for living up to what you’ve seen on TV! Most of us have seen "Shark Week" on TV at some point in time and no doubt have seen the show or pictures of 'Air Jaws' in slow motion. Seal Island is the place where 'Air Jaws' was filmed.

On a recent adventure to South Africa, I had the opportunity to venture out to this infamous island. Arriving just at sunrise on a cloudy, misty morning, my fellow adventurers and I were greeted with loud, boisterous barking from approximately 60,000 Cape Fur Seals. When the wind would changed direction, along with the noise came a smell which could be likened to the worst port-a-potty you have ever been around.  All 60,000 Cape Fur Seals make their home on Seal Island, which is only a half a mile long and 164 feet wide.

 Photo Courtesy of Morne Hardenberg
Barely 2 minutes after our arrival on the scene, as we were cruising past the edge of the island, our captain, Morne Hardenberg, directed our attention to the port side of the boat. Looking over I could see a few gulls in the air intently watching below as a pair of Cape Fur Seals were flying in and out of the water, attempting to make their way toward the island. I really don’t recall ever seeing seals move as fast as these two were and I would soon know why. Another jump out of the water by these two seals and back in, and literally a split second later there was an explosion from the sea that took longer for my brain to process what I saw, then it took to happen. Looking around, many of us were initially silent, playing back what we had just seen, before hoots and hollers broke out, almost everyone uttering to each other “did you see that?” It was mind-blowing when the reality of what I had just witnessed sunk in.

In that split second, two Cape Fur Seals jumped out of the water in opposite directions, persued by a 14-foot Great White Shark that had launched itself completely out of the water. The lucky seal that chose to jump right had made a life-saving decision, where as the one that choose left balanced in mid-air for maybe a few hundredths of a second, just above the open mouth of the shark, before the jaws snapped shut around it. This action ended with another huge explosion of water when the 1000-pound Great White went crashing back into the water.

 Photo Courtesy of Morne Hardenberg
As those of us on board were discussing what we had just witnessed, our boat was already on the move to the next hunt. It seemed like only a minute or two had passed from the first predation before Morne called out “single Fur Seal twelve o'clock”. As a pair of gulls hovered above, squawking, we spotted this lone seal hauling butt, as the others had before him, toward the island. This time as we watched, the fleeing seal made a hard left turn before disappearing below the surface for 10-15 seconds. When the seal reappeared, it was now heading hard right toward the edge of the island. The seal was still moving at a very good clip, jumping in and out of the water, making now both left and right turns on its jumps out of the water, as it continued to head toward the island. On its next jump out of the water it almost did a back flip. In close persuit was another huge Great White Shark, its upper body breaching the surface, its mouth open wide. The seal's aerobatic jump kept it alive and the fight was still on. For the next minute the seal kept thrusting itself out of the water and back toward the tail of the shark. The shark kept circling and attacking, thrashing with its huge tail creating waves of water, all this time with its mouth agape, hoping to feel the seal near it’s mouth for the victory of a meal, but to no avail. This time the seal won.

 Photo Courtesy of Morne Hardenberg
Seal Island, South Africa, is a heavenly buffet for the White Sharks who have ample chances to feed every morning and evening on Cape Fur Seals who must venture off the island for food and eventually return. Seal Island also supplies a nice haul out spot for the Fur Seals because it is close to ample hunting grounds for the seals. The only issue is it’s hell to leave and return to for them.

Bearing witness to the fight for food and survival in such a brutal and decisive way happen right in front of my eyes was something I don’t think I will ever forget.  I left out a lot of details trying to keep this somewhat enjoyable for most people. Just trust me when I say when there is a predation there is no doubt about it from what you see.

Cage Diving At Seal IslandPhoto Courtesy of Morne Hardenberg
Seal Island is a place that lives up to the hype; no doubt about it. On a typical trip out to the island with Shark Explorers, it’s not unusual to see over 10 natural predations, many of which involve HUGE sharks completely out of the water. This is followed by towing a decoy for an hour trying to get sharks airborne for viewing and photo opportunities, which is finally followed by cage diving.

View From The Cage
Photo Courtesy of Andy Murch
This Seal Island adventure was just a very small part of what South Africa has to offer the visitor. On our trip we actually saw 11 different shark species while diving. Mix that with the beautiful landscape of South Africa, as well as wildlife such as the lions, elephants, cheetahs, crocs and baboons and you will find this country seems to offer an endless opportunity to witness wildlife in its natural habitat both underwater and above.

To Visit Seal Island While In South Africa Book Your Trip With The Best

Join Andy Murch On A Trip Of A Lifetime To South Africa

Helping The Predators We Love

Friday, July 26, 2013

Creature Feature: Sarcastic Fringehead (Neoclinus blanchardi)

Found in the Pacific, along the California coast and down to Baja (San Francisco Bay down to Cedros Island), they can be found in depths ranging from 10 to 240 feet. Sometimes seen out and about on the sea floor, generally you will spot them in their preferred home, that of a hole or crevice in a wall, or maybe a shell, with only their heads poking out. Remember to be careful when picking up trash or lost items while on your dive. I once disturbed a sarcastic fringehead's home when I went to retrieve a partially buried SCUBA fin I didn't know was occupied. I didn't have the heart to tell him the fin didn't belong in the ocean, so I left him with his treasured condo.

These unusual looking fish with elongated bodies, bulbous eyes and oddly large mouths can grow up to 12 inches in length. Their bodies are mainly scaleless with large pectoral fins and smaller pelvic fins. They are generally a brownish-gray color, mottled with red or green patches. On their dorsal fins, you will find two eye-like spots, called "ocelli", that are generally colored blue and outlined with a ring of yellow.

The sarcastic fringehead gets its common name from the fringe-like appendages above its eyes, and its territorial, aggressive behavior. When two sarcastic fringeheads meet in battle for territory, they wrestle with one another by pressing their distended, yellow-webbed mouths against each other, as if they were kissing. The fish with the larger mouth wins and establishes its dominance.

Take a close look and you might notice the tail
of a pipefish sticking out of its mouth.
Known to eat over 13 times their body weight in a year, Sarcastic fringeheads are omnivores, meaning they eat both meat and plants. Spawning season for these fish is generally from January to August. Typically the female hides her eggs in a crevice or clam burrow, then leaves them for the male to guard until they hatch.

  1. Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2013). "Neoclinus blanchardi" in FishBase. February 2013 version.
  3. Denny, Mark; Steven Gaines (200). Chance in Biology. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 13. ISBN 0691094942.
  4. California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigation (CALCOFI), 1996. The Early Stages of Fishes in the California Current Region. Lawrence, California: Allen Press Inc.
  5. July 18, 2000. A Learning Link to the Aquarium of the Pacific. Los Angeles Times: E8.
  6. Gotshall, D. 1989. Pacific Coast Inshore Fishes. Monterey, California: Sea Challengers.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Chris’ Dive Experiences: The PADI Line...REALLY, COME ON?

The PADI Lineup
Anyone who has taken their open water class through PADI has no doubt read the
"Continuing Your Adventure" section in Chapter 5 of the Open Water manual. You
know the one “Meet People, Go Places, Do Things” and I'm sure you were thinking
to yourself, REALLY? Come on! 

For those of you that don’t know this phrase it refers to: "Meet People - go diving and meet other divers thereby gaining more dive buddies and opportunities to dive. Go Places – go on a dive trip somewhere local or exotic, meet divers, go diving, have fun. Do Things – gain new skills that will allow you to visit new sites. Get the gear that will take you on your adventures and allow diving to grow with you."

As I read Chapter 5 in my Open Water manual and came across the PADI line, I emitted a noise from my mouth that must have sounded like someone letting the air out of a big, big balloon and probably scaring anyone that was in the house with me. A million thoughts ran through my head. "What a load of crap! I’m not going to dive locally after my class dives; it’s cold here. I’m only taking the open water class . There’s no reason to take any other classes - I'll know how to dive. And I’m definitely not buying my own gear. I’ll rent gear once a year when we go to Hawaii and dive."

Fast forward to a short couple of weeks later, after completing open water dive 4, I was on my way back to the shop to sign paperwork, get my temporary cert., buy my own set of gear, and sign up for advanced class. Hmmm, what was that PADI line again, “Meet People, Go Places, Do Things”.  Yep, that sounds about right, I'm hooked! Now after 6 years of diving, one thing besides the PADI line that rings true to me is the saying, "Never say never".

Manta ID Shot
Photo Courtesy Of: Anne Marie Kitchen-Wheeler
Diving has exposed me to so many different people, places and cultures, and definitely taught me to never say never. So many of the people you meet in the diving community have a contagious passion for the sport as well as for the animals and or places that they get to dive. When you meet people like this, you have no choice but to go with the flow which can open doors to opportunities and experiences that you would never have dreamed of.

Andy Murch Chillin In The Office
Photo Courtesy Of: Dustin Hurlbut
People like Andy Murch who is just as passionate about diving with sharks and rays as he is about protecting them. Andy works tirelessly to get the pictures and stories out there about whats happening to the animals all of us love to dive with, balanced with giving people once in a lifetime dive experiences with these same species. Dr. Anne Marie Kitchen-Wheeler who loves to teach and pass on her knowledge and passion for mantas to divers. Harvard graduate and Catalina Island diving guru Dr. Bill who's always willing to pass on his knowledge, experience, and great dive stories to both young and old divers alike. Amos Nachoum who pioneered diving in spots that are on most divers "must dive" list like the Galapagos Islands and the Red Sea. And Hendrik Matthijssen whose pure passion for caves and cave diving was evident from the start of his very first dive briefing with me. It only took one dive with him to see a new door opening, leading to cave diver training.

Hendrik Matthijssen Doing What He Loves To Do
Photo Courtesy Of: Stefan Gartner
Go Places 
Before I started diving I thought you could never go anywhere more exotic and more beautiful than Hawaii. "Who needs a passport?" was something I told myself. After getting my PADI certification, I started learning about these places I had never even heard of and found myself saying over and over, "man I gotta go there and see and experience that". I guess I'm going to need a passport! Dive travel has given me the opportunity to experience the peace and epic sunsets of Antarctica, to see the truly exotic Maldives & Palau, to meet the friendliest people in the beautiful Fiji islands and many places in between.

Do Things
Diving can give you truly once in a lifetime experiences that not too many people will ever get to have. With the right mix of training, experience, desire and timing, the results can leave you breathless. From allowing you to dive with great white sharks without cages that just a couple of years ago was thought impossible, to diving in crystal clear spectacular caves among hanging stalactites that have taken thousands of years to form, I have done things that I had never imagined were possible before I became a diver.

Diving Without Cages
Photo Courtesy Of: Lesley Alstrand
Even if you find yourself, as I did, skeptical about the "Meet People, Go Places, Do Things", I really couldn't think of a better path to follow. Give yourself and your diving a chance to grow or to rekindle that passion you once had. Pick one of the things in the  PADI motto and go for it.

Meet People. Join a local dive club. Joining the San Diego Dive Club was one of the very first things I did after getting certified. Better yet, JOIN THE DIVE SHACK's DIVE CLUB forming this month and become a founding member. This will keep you in the know with what's going on with the local diving community and gives you the opportunity to keep diving.  You will meet all sorts of potential new dive buddies and will likely meet people who will become some of your lifelong friends. Swing by your local shop, like The Dive Shack, and find out when the next dive club get-together is, then go.

A San Diego Dive Club Get Together
Photo Courtesy Of: Barbie Lass
Go Places. Maybe what you need is some new scenery above and below the water line. Go dive somewhere different. This may be only a short drive away or may include a long flight. Either one of these could re-energize or build your passion for diving.

Do Things. Learn something new. Take that class that you've been thinking of taking. If your highest level of training is open water, take an advanced class. What could be better than a class where there's no written test and you learn about 5 different types of diving which you then go out and experience for yourself.

Diving is truly what you make of it. It can be a very relaxing, beautiful drift along a reef at 35 feet, a long cave penetration, or a challenging dive hand-feeding multiple tiger sharks. It's your choice to make diving what you want it to be for you. For me, any of the above scenarios would float my boat. We'll see what the next door that opens holds for me. How about you?

 An Epic Antarctican Sunset
Photo Courtesy Of: Steve Reilly
Want to learn more about the animals I love to dive with?  Check out:

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Creature Feature: Flying Mobula Rays

As summer approaches, I get excited looking ahead to my adventure to La Paz, Mexico, at the end of it. Why you ask? Because I am hoping I might catch a glimpse of those beautiful creatures known as the flying mobula ray.

Mobula rays are larger rays, often mistaken for mantas, that are mainly known for their aerobatic breaching.  These rays, also known as “devil fish”, have been reported to breach as high as 6 feet above the water in the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). While doing some research for this “Creature Feature” I came to find out that very little is known about these rays. It has been said that there are more questions than answers about them. For instance, nothing is known about what happens to the mobula ray or where it goes between being a pup and a mature adult – it just seems to disappear during this time.

Members of the Family Mobulidae, which does include the larger manta rays, there are four species of mobulas found in the Sea of Cortez (tarapacana, thurstoni, munkiana, and japanica), but it is very difficult to distinguish the different species unless you can get up close and personal with them. Amongst the locals of Baja, the different mobulas, along with the mantas, are all lumped under the name “cubana”. However, mobula mukiana found in the Punta Arena de la Ventana area have a greater propensity to perform airborne flips which led to fisherman in that area to call them “tortillas”. Tortillas have a tendency to jump more frequently than other mobula, never grow larger than 3-4 feet and are more inclined to school.

The reason for breaching, which is exclusive to the smaller mobulid varities, still remains a mystery to researchers, however, a few opinions have been formed. Some think breaching is a means by which to dislodge the parasite-cleaning remoras that attach themselves. Then there are those that feel it may be a way to keep fit for gathering food. While others feel it may be a cooperative form of hunting, much like whales forming bubble circles. It is thought that the vibrations from breaching may cause prey to be driven downward to other rays waiting to feed below. Then there are those that feel it may simply be a form of play.

Mobulas are known to feed on “krill” (euphausiids) or “mysids” (mysidium) which are planktonic crustaceans. These rays feed by filtering the tiny shrimp-like creatures through plates in their gills. It is believed that much of the mobulas migration is based on following their food source.

Except for the mobula japanica , mobulids do not have spines or stingers in their tails as a defense mechanism.  They must rely their size and speed to escape. Another interesting fact about mobula rays is they have disproportionately large, complex brains compared to other fish. “In fact, the weight of their brains relative to their body weight is comparable to many mammals.”[1] It has been documented that mobulids, particularly manta rays, have exhibited “un-fishlike”, almost curious or playful, behavior amongst other rays, and scuba divers as well.

The fight to protect mobulids is on the rise as we discover these creatures have a “long lag time in population response to harvesting”.[2] They have a very slow rate of reproduction, what appears to be producing only a single pup every 2-3 years, making them extremely vulnerable to stock depletion.[3] For species like these, it may take decades to recover from excessive mortality from fishing and accidental by-catch. I hope that efforts to protect these beautiful creatures are successful so that generations after us will be able to view their spectacular aerobatics and gentle splendor.

Notes [4] & [5]

[1] Albert, Paul and Michael, 26 June 2005, "The Flying Mobulas of the Sea of Cortez".
[2] Musick, John, "Ecology and Conservation of Long-Lived Marine Animals".
[3] Dr. Nortarbartolo di Sciara
[4]McEachran, J.D. and G. Notarbartolo di Sciara, 1995. Mobulidae. Mantas, diablos. p. 759-764. In W. Fischer, F. Krupp, W. Schneider, C. Sommer, K.E. Carpenter and V. Niem (eds.) Guia FAO para Identification de Especies para los Fines de la Pesca. Pacifico Centro-Oriental. 3 Vols. FAO, Rome.
[5] Last, P.R. and J.D. Stevens, 1994. Sharks and rays of Australia. CSIRO, Australia. 531 p.

Friday, May 24, 2013

How Did the Diver-Down Flag Come to Be?

Have you ever wondered how that red and white flag familiar to all divers came to be? As most know, flags are used in maritime operations as signals to communicate with other vessels. The International Signal Flag "A" (Alpha) is used by vessels to signal the danger of collision to other vessels in the area. More specifically to diving, the alpha flag is used to communicate "I have a diver down, keep well clear at slow speed". This flag is more commonly used in Europe and the British Commonwealth, including the UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Kenya, as well as the Russian Navy, even though you may see it used on U.S. vessels. Generally this flag is used in situations where the diver is physically connected by means of life support or other system to the vessel itself.

But that doesn't answer how the red flag with the white diagonal stripe came to be. Back in the 40's the solid red "Baker" flag (later called the "Bravo" flag) was used by the U.S. Navy to signal DANGER a diver at work in the water nearby. In 1949, Denzel James Dockery, a Navy diver, was discharged from his military service. A tinkerer at heart, and eager to use the skills he trained for in the Navy, Denzel "Doc" Dockery followed instructions he found in a 1953 Popular Science magazine to build his own SCUBA unit.

While trying to make a living in Michigan with his scuba skills, "Doc" found that civilian marine operators did not recognize or acknowledge his use of the "Baker" flag to signal he was in the water. Working with his wife, Ruth, they tried to design a flag that would catch mariners attention. At first they designed a red flag with a horizontal white stripe across the middle, but it soon came to their attention that this was the national flag of Austria. They thought of using a red flag with a vertical white stripe, but this was a Navy numerical signal flag for the number 7. So after further research they arrived at the unique design you see today of the red flag with then diagonal stripe from the upper left to the lower right.

"Doc" began using this flag while he worked and promoting its use through the local dive club "Cuadro Pescadores" to which he belonged. In the early 50's the Dockerys opened a small scuba shop in Flint, Michigan, and sold the flag from their shop. In 1956, a U.S. Divers sales rep, Ted Nixon, came into the shop and offered to sell the flag nationally as he made calls to his other shops. (Thanks to his widespread efforts to adopt this flag, Nixon is often mistakenly credited with the creation of the flag.) In the meantime, "Doc" and his fellow club members worked to get the Michigan State Legislature to recognize the flag as a means by which to protect SCUBA divers from marine traffic. 

Another boost to the recognition of Dockery's flag came when it was mentioned in a September 1957 Skin Diver magazine article asking readers what they thought of the flag and if they had any other ideas. In February 1958, readers chose Doc's flag as their symbol of choice for a dive flag. In the meantime the newly formed Great Lakes Diving Council was also promoting  the use of the flag to legislators in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

Thanks to the innovation and determination of Denzel and Ruth Dockery, the diver-down flag is recognized by the U.S. Federal Government and most of the states as the official warning sign for a diver's safety.


Friday, April 26, 2013

Creature Feature: Loving the Creatures In My Own Backyard

Just a couple of weeks ago I participated in a "Vets & Newbies" dive event where veteran divers were buddied up with divers who hadn't logged many dives yet or were maybe a little rusty since their last dive. I had the pleasure of diving with a young gentleman visiting San Diego on a short-term stay before he returned to Alaska. He had recently obtained his open water certification in Maui and this was his first experience diving in San Diego.

I introduced him to the pleasures of shore diving from the beach of La Jolla Shores, and as can be typical for our waters, although the surf was not too difficult, the visibility was a little challenging (approximately 8-10' in the shallows to 60' depth). We had an enjoyable dive and got to see some of the usual suspects along the wall before it was time to head back in.

After the dive, while breaking down our gear, we talked about some of the challenges of the dive, like the surf entry, remembering to do the "stingray shuffle", San Diego's hit-or-miss visibility, and its cool waters. He asked me about other places I had dove, and of course "where was my favorite place to dive?", to which I answered, "It depends on what I'm looking for". He then continued on to ask that if I had gone to such beautiful warm-water destinations, why on earth would I still dive here? Well, let me tell you, THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME.

Don't get me wrong. I will admit I am a bit of a whoosie-diver. Anyone who knows me will tell you, I hate to be cold. I am not a big fan of all the gear we need to wear here. And, being that I stand a whole 5'2", I hate big surf knocking me over. But despite all that, there is so much sealife to see hear in San Diego, why would I not dive here!

San Diego has so much to offer in the way of diving. You have shore diving and boat diving. You can grab a charter boat to the Coronado Islands, or adventure a little further to the Channel Islands. And let's not forget our wrecks, like the Yukon and Ruby E in "wreck alley", or the NOSC Tower, the Hogan, Lazy Days, and more. 
Now of course you can find shore diving, boat diving, and wreck diving in tropical destinations, but I will tell you what you won't find in these destinations. You won't find kelp beds in warm tropical waters and I love our kelp beds. There is always something peeking out from those kelp fronds, wondering if you have spotted them. And if you are a fan of the sea slug, you can find a beautiful variety of nudibranchs in our waters without having to travel to far-off lands.

If you haven't jumped into San Diego's cool waters since your open water certification. Or, if you learned to dive somewhere else and have never dove our waters, you are missing out. To list all the sealife would be endless, but you can see angel sharks, horn sharks, leopard sharks, soup fins and seven-gills to name a few. And let's not forget kelp fish, rockfish, lizard fish, giant black sea bass, spinning bait balls, halibut, mola mola, stingrays, bat rays, electric rays, guitar fish and more. Then there are many types of shrimps and crabs, octopi and squid, and different types of jellies. I've even seen a green sea turtle while diving the Marine Room. Never mind having fun playing with our curious sea lions. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.


There is so much to see here, and every dive is different.

So why are you sitting on the shoreline? Brave our chilly waters and see what you will discover on your next dive.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Chris’ Dive Experiences: Travel......The Maldives & Mantas

Photo By: Damien Newton
Lesley and I have a routine before a trip starts and it goes something like this: pack gear, weigh it, take a few items out, reweigh it, repeat, repeat, repeat until we get our main bags to about 48 lbs. This is undoubtedly followed by a white knuckled (for Lesley) ride to a square piece of pavement near the airport which will be home to our car for a small fortune only to be followed by unloading, loading, and unloading again, bags and persons into an airport shuttle.  And then another white knuckled ride (this time for both of us) to the lovely...peaceful...slow paced sovereign nation known to all of us as LAX. It's no wonder why once you settle into your seat on the plane a collective sigh can be heard!

After settling in for your flight, you may start thinking about and anticipating certain types of diving that you will enjoy like drift dives, wreck dives, night dives or, if you're me, shark feed dives. Or you may be thinking of a certain species that this area is known for and what kind of dive experiences you may have with it. If you are a photographer or videographer you're definitely start anticipating certain dive sites with famous wrecks or reefs or the critters you expect to shoot on your dives. One thing is for sure if you're traveling to a place for the first time you just really don't know what that standout dive, encounter, or experience that you'll always remember will be.

Our trip to the Maldives was really no different. I expected to see the unbelievable beauty and feel the serenity that you get just by looking at pictures of the Maldives, mixed with an extremely healthy marine ecosystem with chances to see whale sharks, mantas and loads of fish.  What ended up standing out to me was something totally different.

Photo By: Lesley Alstrand

Prior to leaving for this trip, I arranged to take the PADI Manta Diver specialty course while sailing on our liveaboard. Little did I know at the time that I really couldn't have picked a better destination, or boat, anywhere in the world for this specialty. This would turn out to make my trip to the Maldives all about the manta.

After boarding the Sea Spirit, our home-away-from-home for this trip, we completed the usual paperwork and then listened to the briefing presented by our cruise directors and dive guides Matt and Anne-Marie Kitchen-Wheeler. During the briefing, among other things, it was announced that Lesley and I would be taking the Manta class and if anyone wanted to join the class, they were welcome to. Nobody at that point indicated much interest in joining us, so it looked like it would be just the two of us.

Photo By: Dr. Anne Marie Kitchen Wheeler

Fast forward through two full days of diving and it was time for our manta class orientation that evening. To our surprise, Lesley and I were joined by almost half the guests on board. Our cruise director, dive guide, and PADI manta class instructor was Dr. Anne-Marie Kitchen-Wheeler, who is also the project manager for The Manta Ecology Project in Maldives, and only the fourth person in the world to receive her PhD on mantas. In two days of diving, Anne-Marie's sharing of her knowledge and passion for mantas had obviously piqued the interest of the other guests on board and now they wanted to learn more. 

During our first manta class we learned about manta anatomy, feeding, cleaning, reproduction, conservation efforts, and proper techniques for diving with the mantas. Compared to other manta dives and conversations I had experienced with dive guides during previous trips to several different destinations, I was blown away by how much I learned during just the first class session with Anne. The species of mantas we were getting to dive
with in the Maldives were Manta Alfredi, also known as reef mantas, which is the species we also experienced while diving in Hawaii and Palau. Whereas in the Socorro Islands, we were diving with Manta Birostris, otherwise known as giant mantas.

Cleaning Reef Manta Photo By: Lesley Alstrand

After our first class session we where able to do a few dives with mantas and observe some of the the things we learned from Anne. The second class session a couple nights later was even better than the first. During this class we learned how to ID mantas. When identifying any animal, the more info you can gather, of course, the better, but key points to identifying a particular manta are sex, tail length, and spot patterns between the gills. This was another instance where I learned something new. You ID Reef Mantas using spot patterns located in between their gills. Whereas Giant Mantas are identified using the markings and patterns that are directly on and below their gills since the area between their gills will generally have no markings.

Swimming Giant Manta (Socorro Islands) Photo By: Lesley Alstrand

The next thing I learned totally blew my mind. Depending on how the manta holds its cephalic fins, you can tell what its planning to do next. For instance, you can tell if a manta is getting ready to feed, get cleaned, or swim off. I had noticed when diving with mantas in the past that different mantas had their cephalic fins in different positions and thought it was interesting, but I never knew it really meant anything.

Feeding Reef Manta Photo By: Dr. Anne Marie Kitchen Wheeler

There really isn't any other animal that I can think of where you can get an idea of what it is thinking of or about to do before they actually do it. Now, of course, you can see signs like possible aggression from a shark depending on their pectoral fin placement, but this can be hit or miss because they use these fins to swim and turn as well. Or maybe watching a lion hunt you obviously deduce that it is hungry and wants to eat, but this is different to me than the body language I was learning from the mantas.

Cleaning Reef Manta Photo By: Dr. Anne Marie Kitchen Wheeler

Seeing a manta swim toward the reef and relax it's cephalic fins way before it reaches the reef tells you it is thinking about getting cleaned which is exactly what I saw. That same manta, after getting cleaned for a few minutes, rolled it's cephalic fins up, telling us it was getting ready to swim and around 30 seconds latter it took off and didn't return. Most divers that see mantas see them while the mantas are feeding, so last but not least, a manta indicates it is time to feed by cupping its cephalic fins. This allows it to channel as much food as possible into it's mouth.

Swimming Reef Manta Photo By: Dr. Anne Marie Kitchen Wheeler

After absorbing all this new information, I was thrilled to test my knowledge, watch mantas, and use what I  had learned to ID them. Our next manta dive took place at night. We were split into two groups. Our instructor, Anne Marie, led the second group, while Lesley and I were assigned to the first group. My assigned task to pass the Manta Diver class was to take aqua paper (underwater paper) on our night dive and use it to record the sex and tail length of two mantas. In addition, I had to draw the spot markings of these mantas. This was a lot harder then I first thought it would be. Let's see, hold the pencil and clipboard underwater at night; shine your light at the manta swimming quickly overhead; set the light down on the clipboard and start drawing and recording info quickly. It took me about 30 minutes to get a small amount of info on each of these mantas. From the info I recorded on that first dive Anne was able to determine that two of the three mantas we had on our group's first dive were the same mantas she had on her group's second dive. All of this info was logged into the database where we learned we dove with a female manta named Wiggly and a male named Squiggly.

Photo By: Lesley Alstrand
The Maldives had the  healthiest reefs by far I have ever seen. The sheer amount of fish on these reefs was astounding. Mix that in with drift dives, wreck dives, the best night dive I've ever done, using reef hooks to watch dozens of grey sharks and white tips cruising by in current so strong we were all looking around to see what was making that loud noise we were hearing (which turned out to be nothing more than the water screaming past our ears), to secretly hand feeding some moray eels with scraps from our fish we were having for dinner that night (I WOULDN'T RECOMMEND IT but I had fun with it), and you might ask me what diving the Maldives is all about. For me, the Maldives will always be about the Manta!

For more information on mantas, check out Dr. Anne Marie Kitchen-Wheeler's
Manta Ecology Project Site