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Lessons from the Manta Rays

I went on an adventure this summer and it scared the bejeezus out of me. Really. The Big Island of Hawai’i is home to reef Manta Rays. The mantas can have a wingspan of up to 18 ft. I didn’t realize this when I first heard about night swimming with the mantas, I knew they were big, but not that big. When we mentioned to a friend that we were going to Hawai’i on vacation she was exuberant telling us that we had to do a night swim with the manta rays. She’s a diver, has completed many dives, but in her words the night manta dive is the best. My husband and I had that shrug your shoulders, non-committal “ok” kind of response. But after looking at videos on-line we decided we really wanted to do it. The plankton that mantas eat are attracted to light. When lights are shone in the water, the plankton make their way to the light and the mantas make their way to the plankton to feast. Mantas are filter feeders which means they don’t have teeth and they do not have stingers like some of the smaller rays. In short, they are known as gentle giants.

Our adventure began at sunset. It was just my little foursome and two guides. We went out on a double-hull outrigger canoe that the six of us paddled, although in truth I think the Hawaiians did all the work. Rowing out to the snorkel spot was so much more fun than we’d expected. Our guides, Eco and Rabbit, were extremely knowledgeable about the ocean and Hawaiian culture. Before we launched we developed a kind of family mantra, we were getting in with the mantas even if we were scared. When we reached the snorkel spot that mantra was playing over and over in my head. It was getting dark outside, which obviously means the ocean was getting dark too. I am from the San Francisco Bay Area, which is great white shark territory. The scene from Jaws, where Hooper (the scientist) goes in for a night dive and discovers a shark tooth and body in a ship-wreck crossed my mind a few times. Now I know (at least I think) that there aren’t great white sharks in Hawaii, but Jaws messes with a person.

Once we were anchored, Eco and Rabbit lowered the light into the water and almost instantly plankton began to appear, I was silently repeating “get in the water even if you're scared” over and over. We were sitting in the boat getting our snorkels and masks situated when out of nowhere there was a giant-and I’m not exaggerating when I say giant-flash of black from under the boat. Our first Manta had arrived. I’m not going to lie, I really thought in that moment there was no way I was going to get over the side of the boat. I heard my husband on the other side of the canoe ask our younger daughter if she wanted him to get in first and as I looked at our older daughter on my side of the boat I thought “Oh crap, I’m going to have to get in the water first on our side”. So, I asked her if she wanted me to go first. My rockstar daughter didn’t hesitate, snapped her mask on and said “nope” as she hopped over the side of the boat. I thought “Oh crap, now I really have to get in”. And I did. She would later tell me that she knew if she didn’t jump right then, she might have lost the nerve. Smart girl.

The quick swim to the end of the canoe where there was a bar to hold on to felt like the race of my life. I was so scared to run into the manta and somehow getting to the bar felt safe. So, I scrambled over and held on. As it turned out there were no mantas under our boat when we jumped, so we just had to wait for one to come. Facing forward meant looking into water that was lit up, everywhere else was dark and foreboding. I wanted to look around to see if a ray was coming, but I was scared of what else might be lurking. Nothing, by the way, nothing else was lurking as it turns out. But, I only had to sit with my fear for a minute because they showed up. We were floating prone on the water with our faces in and our arms overhead holding on to the boat. The only rule was that we couldn’t touch the rays they could, however, touch us. This whole adventure was in their hands. Two rays were attracted to our light. I could hear my daughter scream in both terror and delight as the ray barrel rolled two inches below us to get her food. It was magic. It was as if all of my fear dissipated with the manta’s barrel roll. I was so fascinated looking at her big open mouth as she did somersaults below us. I lost count of how many times she swam near or under us, I was utterly fascinated. I even got to the point where I would let go of the boat with one hand so that I could turn and watch her swim into the darkness, she was so graceful. I admit this is a bizarre description, but she looked like an elegant vampire swimming off, her wings were like a cape just gliding through the water effortlessly. Eco would later tell us that she had a wingspan of about 10 feet. 10 feet!!

The ride back to the dock was probably even more fun than the ride out. It started to rain a little, which could have detracted from the experience, but actually just made it more of an adventure. We were all talking over each other from excitement at what we’d just experienced. Eco told us that one manta in particular, Shaka, really liked my end of the boat that she kept coming back over and over. He knew this because of the markings on her belly. Each manta has a white underside and distinctive markings, that is how we can distinguish one from another.

Shaka’s markings got me thinking. It was so simple and matter of fact, each manta has markings that distinguish them, makes them unique. Humans have markings too, but we get self-conscious about them, wish them away, or try to cover them up. What if we took a lesson from a manta and viewed freckles, birthmarks, scars, moles, disfigurements etc as an identifier instead of a negative? They are part of our story that we are either born with or acquired over our lifetime. They are the marks of adventures, heroes, and survivors. We can accept them as part of us or we can expend a lot of energy feeling lousy because we are not perfect. I’m guessing manta rays don’t spend time comparing marks, they have plankton to eat and reefs to explore.

In the span of a few short hours I learned from Shaka and her friends that:

  1. Moving past fear toward something that really excites you can be profoundly rewarding.

  2. Life and experiences are far richer when we focus in on what is right in front of us (present moment) rather than worrying about what might be lurking in the dark waters.

  3. My freckles, moles, scars and birthmark make me physically, uniquely me. That is a fact, not an emotionally charged issue.

Much love to you and your distinctive markings. xo

The following video is not from my personal swim, but it's fun to watch.

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