Close Encounter: A Manta Ray at Magic Mountain

As the world’s nations hash out a plan for curbing the extinction crisis at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) this week, we asked some of CI’s top scientists to reflect on their careers and what biodiversity means to them. Here’s what Sebastian Troeng—vice president of CI’s Global Marine division—had to say. Read the other blogs in this series.

During the last few months I have traveled to many of the places where Conservation International (CI) is working on ocean issues, and I have seen promising signs of progress as well as stunning underwater vistas of heart-stoppingly beautiful and productive marine ecosystems.

One such experience was in the distant Raja Ampat archipelago of Bird’s Head Seascape in eastern Indonesia. As the annual Seascapes Workshop was winding to a close in late May, we had a final opportunity to explore the colorful fiesta of Raja Ampat’s rich coral reefs and its diverse ocean inhabitants.

The day was still young when we sped by boat to a dive site called Magic Mountain, located to the southeast of Misool Ecoresort. We jumped into the water and swam down in the dark blue water; suddenly through the poor visibility, the shape of the reef materialized. I was breathing heavily from the brisk swim but quickly relaxed as we followed the reef, peering in between coral colonies to make out the creatures that had begun their day as early as our team.

The dive guide took us around the reef for a while and then pointed out towards the murky blue water column, where I could make out a pinnacle shape in the distance. The dive guide gestured to stay low and we half swam, half crawled along the ledge that connected the reef with the pinnacle structure.

My colleague Guilherme was snapping away with his underwater camera, but when he strayed too far up in the water column the dive guide rapidly swam to him and pulled him down towards the ledge. I didn’t understand why until I saw a large dark creature take shape ahead of us. As it came close, I saw it was a large manta ray (Manta birostris). These magnificent creatures have a wide distribution but are increasingly targeted by fishers for their gillrakers (used as a substitute for declining shark fins), for meat and in some cases even for their hard skin, which can be made into a kind of leather.

Sebastian Troeng on the reef top in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.

Sebastian Troeng on the reef top in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.

The manta ray swam in a circle around the pinnacle, presumably feeding on plankton in the water. Its gracious movements made it seem like a giant bird flying around in space with unhurried and deliberate strokes. We stayed with the manta for a few minutes before the dive computer indicated we had to begin to make our ascent to more shallow waters.

There was a hefty current pulling over the reef top, and we held on to rocks to avoid being swept away from the reef into the blue. The sun was higher up now and in the shallow water, light danced over coral colonies and soft corals that swung in the strong current flow.

Near the end of our dive, some of the divers began the ascent to the surface. I was holding on to a rock at the edge of the reef top and looked to my side where my colleague Giuseppe was hovering. He pointed behind me, so I turned around—and a few meters away was another giant manta! It was close enough that I could make out every detail, from the white color underneath to the darker brown dorsal side. One of its large eyes seemed to be observing me; it came closer and stopped less than 3 meters [9.8 feet] away. From below, cleaner fish emerged from their coral surroundings; the manta patiently stayed put while the cleaner fish darted around it, picking off skin parasites and cleaning the manta.

I breathed as slowly as I could to make the air last and enjoyed the proximity to this huge and impressive animal. Making eye contact with a giant manta ray is an indescribable experience and feeling of elation. I must have stayed next to the manta for another 10 minutes before the cleaning was complete. Then, almost as if to say goodbye, the manta swam towards me, passing so close I could have reached out to touch it. Instead I observed in wonder the minute details of the manta as it swam above me and over the reef in the strong light from the tropical sun above.

This marvelous experience with the Magic Mountain manta made me even happier when I heard about a new show of ocean conservation leadership across the ocean, by the government of Ecuador in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape—the government recently declared that manta rays are protected. I hope you’ll agree—they are much more valuable to the country as a tourism attraction that brings divers to the Galápagos Islands and other sites than as an ingredient in soup or fish and chips.

Sebastian Troeng is the vice president of CI’s Global Marine division. He was recently recognized as one of Devex’s “40 under 40 International Development Leaders in Washington DC.”

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