Rangiroa—the name of the place I call my home. It is the second largest atoll in the world and the largest one in French Polynesia. Its name, “huge sky,” accurately describes the phenomenon that occurs when on a windless day, the smooth surface of the lagoon melts into the sky. The main island is only 12km long and a couple of hundred meters wide. There are two hotels, a couple of family-run guest inns and a handful of small shops and restaurants. To live on this atoll, you have to either be born here, or have a special connection with the ocean. My passion is for the life beneath the waves and my profession is to capture it with my video camera.
Life is abundant around Rangiroa’s two passes, from the tiniest little fish to the largest predators. The atoll is famous for its abundance of huge underwater fauna. Friendly bottlenose dolphins and a profuse amount of grey reef sharks, called Raira in the Tahitian language, are present year-round. They guard Tiputa pass. Tamataroa, the great hammerhead shark, patrols the bottom of this pass. Around Avatoru, Rangiroa’s other pass, the silvertip sharks or Tapete, as the Tahitians call them, often give divers quite a show.
Renowned filmmakers from all over the world
Filmmakers from all over the world make the long journey to the midst of the Pacific Ocean to capture this extraordinary fauna on film—Howard Hall, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Mantello…just to name a few. I have met some of them and have even had the honor of diving with my small semiprofessional camcorder parked next to their huge professional HD and IMAX 3D cameras. I watched them, and I have to admit, not without jealousy. However, tight shooting schedules always had them leave earlier than they wanted. I remained here, diving and diving again, filling card after card. I was on a quest for the beauty in the beast, for a better shot than the last, for the “perfect one.” I asked myself if my patience would someday pay off.
The following story is about an encounter with a species I had not yet mentioned, the magnificent manta rays, fafapiti in Tahitian. I will not immerse you in scientific details here, but I would like to reveal some facts before I share a rare sighting I was so lucky to witness. There are actually two species of manta rays, the Manta birostris and the Manta alfredi. Both belong to the family of devil rays (Mobulidae). Nothing evil can be associated with this graceful giant, but their two “cephalic lobes” which they usually roll up into spirals while swimming, look like horns. Once opened up, they form a funnel-like structure, which channels the plankton rich water into their mouths and through their gills. There, they have sponge-like tissues that filter planktonic organisms out of the water. Like their cousin the whale shark, which is by the way the largest fish on the planet, they are plankton feeders and therefore absolutely harmless to humans. The Manta birostris is the larger of the two species and has a wingspan that reaches upwards of seven meters (23ft). They roam the oceans to take advantage of rich feeding grounds, but we rarely see them in our waters.
The manta ray found in Tahiti and her islands is the Manta alfredi, or reef manta ray. They reach 5.5 meters (18ft) and are mostly found in the atolls of French Polynesia. They are territorial and migrate between lagoon and ocean. Therefore, scuba divers often encounter them while diving in the passages of the atolls in the Tuamotu Archipelago. A great opportunity to observe them is to visit a cleaning station, where cleaner wrasse fish establish something like a spa. They relieve rays and other kinds of fish from parasites, a win-win situation.
Now for the story of a very special encounter I want to share with you. It is August 7, 2006 at the end of an afternoon drift dive through one of the two passes connecting Rangiroa’s lagoon with the ocean. I starting in the blue of the Pacific and ended up in the area known as the aquarium, a sandy patch in the lagoon dotted with coral heads and all kinds of tropical fish. A tornado of barracudas welcomed me. I passed above an enormous school of grey reef sharks that guard the entrance to the pass, and then some dolphins greeted me and dropped by for a quick hello. I was happy with the dive and the images I was able to take. I was drifting at a depth of 8 meters (26ft) and ready for a slow rise to the surface.
A scene never before filmed
Suddenly, a manta ray overtook me. I tried to follow her and I prepared my camera to record. She moved too quickly, as if late for an appointment. Once again, I felt like a snail on a racetrack. Despite all the new fancy diving equipment, humans are still second-class fish. Yet before disappointment could overcome me, a second manta ray, a little smaller than the first one, appeared. He hovered effortlessly on the spot, facing the current. For a moment, it looked like he was also late for a rendezvous. I quickly hit the record button on my camera, hoping for a good shot this time.
Once she became aware of his presence, she seemed to accelerate. You ask how could I determine the gender of the two rays? I have to confess…I couldn’t, at least not at that point!
Immediately, once she left him behind, he turned around to follow her. The female manta sped up and he instantly kicked into a higher gear. Once more, the two rays left me behind and disappeared out of my sight. I stopped recording!
Anyway, I had a long and beautiful dive and my pressure gauge told me it was time to resurface. There were only 40 bars left in my 12-liter steel tank and I started to think about the full 1/2 liter of local Hinano beer that was in my fridge.
I was ready to swim to the surface and finish my dive when an amazing spectacle came before me. I was almost paralyzed by its beauty, but at the same time panic started to emerge: Do the right thing—don’t mess it up. Should I use a little zoom? The current was pushing me closer all the time—it would probably be better to switch to automatic focus. Hopefully I don’t disturb the act. Start recording, start recording—now!
The camera was already running when my mind became clear again and I made the final camera adjustments. The rays whirled around each other like two flamenco dancers. The male faced her back, trying to seduce her, but she wasn’t ready and tried to keep some distance. The spectacle was so fascinating that I had a hard time keeping my eyes fixed on the camera monitor. I was tempted to let go and watch the scene live, but I became aware of the uniqueness of that moment and realized that perhaps nobody had ever recorded this behavior before.
Patience and passion
He started to push harder, trying to get into the right position, whatever that position might be. He opened and closed his mouth as if gulping for air. What was he doing?
A moment later, it became evident. He was trying to bite her wingtip. She was obviously not very fond of his deeds, and she still tried to flee. Their spins were getting faster until he finally accomplished his mission. This was apparently the key to success. The female ray was giving in. She stopped flapping her wings, while he started to flutter more rapidly. He still held her wingtip in his mouth. He pulled his body around this fixed spot until the two rays were belly to belly. He was then in position to start the copulation. She remained paralyzed as if in a trance, while his movements became more rapid. The copulation itself lasted around 30 seconds before the two manta rays separated again. Just in front of my camera, he took off to the left and she exited the frame to the right. I doubt I will ever get another chance to witness and film such a behavior again in my career, But who knows? Because the only thing in life that is certain, is that nothing in life is certain. The mantra of a wildlife filmmaker: “Be patient and never lose your passion!”