Breathing Underwater with Manta Rays

10 Nov Breathing Underwater with Manta Rays

A gliding manta ray, silhouetted by the sun. Photo by Jackie Reid, National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association.

A gliding manta ray, silhouetted by the sun. Photo by Jackie Reid, National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association.

A galactic shadow swoops toward me, but before I can thrash away in a panic, it banks and dives, missing my skin by inches.

Oh my God, I think. A manta ray, and up close.

Within seconds there is another, and then another. They glide below as I snorkel around Manta Cove near the coastline of Nusa Penida, one of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.

I arrived yesterday at sister island Nusa Lembongan for a two-week retreat to pause, breathe, and write. The islands of Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida are 30 minutes by boat away from Ubud, where I live in Bali, and a galaxy away from the chockablock days of yoga, meditations, kirtans, temple celebrations, choked traffic, and candlelight dinners that make up my life there. Here, the main events are harvesting sea kelp, diving and snorkeling. When I am alone and silent, creativity sets in.

“We have one spot left on a snorkel boat at 9 AM tomorrow to see mantas,” an Indonesian man said last night as I walked along the Nusa Lembongan beach at sunset.

The sun sets over Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia. Photo by Robin Sparks.

The sun sets over Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia. Photo by Robin Sparks.

Right, I thought. I live in Indonesia, where promises are profuse. Besides, I wanted to sleep in and then spend the day writing.

But at 8:30 this morning the fan in my cabin stopped whirring and the air conditioner went silent. “A power outage,” I was told. My cabin was rapidly turning into a sweat lodge.

Oh what the heck. I grabbed my snorkel, mask and fins and made my way to the beach where I found a billboard propped against a small boat: “Snorkel with Mantas at 9AM.” I climbed aboard as it was being pushed off the sand and out to sea.

A boat in waiting along the shore of Nusa Lembongan. Photo by Robin Sparks.

The driver and I, along with 3 couples from Finland, Holland and Brazil, motored along Nusa Lembongan’s coast of soaring limestone cliffs and continued on to Nusa Penida.

Twenty minutes later we dropped anchor at Manta Cove, a half submerged cave that sucked in the aqua-hued sea and spat it out again with a deep sigh. Already half a dozen snorkelers were bobbing on the surface near the cave’s entrance, and a couple of dive boats floated nearby.

Into the cool cerulean soup I went, and drifted toward the cave.

Manta Cove, Nusa Penida, Indonesia. Photo by Robin Sparks.

Manta Cove, Nusa Penida, Indonesia. Photo by Robin Sparks.

And that is where we meet.

Star-shaped Darth Vaders soar with capes pulled taut, their wing spans at least three times the length of my body, their mouths agape to display gills and hollow insides. I count eight.

“You are magnificent,” I say silently as each approaches. I undulate my arms slowly through the water, mirroring their wing-fins.

There is a flash of light from below. I look down. Divers stand on the ocean floor, aiming their cameras up at us.

While the manta rays circle me, the hypnotic sound of my breath is all that I can hear. Mother Earth’s geometric patterns have spilled across the corals and ocean floor: here a cerebellum, there the spiral of an ear, here an eustachian tube, and there a star.

I feel so at home in the sea that I’m sure I must have been a fish in a former life. Come to think of it, I was. I am re-living my first 9-month snorkel on Planet Earth. Here, in this primordial world, I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

Breathing underwater.


More about manta rays:

Three decades ago, mantas were considered ferocious and dangerous — probably due to their bat-like shapes and resemblance to the deadly sting ray. In 1970, scuba divers discovered that manta rays were harmless and, in fact, curious and playful.

Manta rays feed on plankton, and give birth to a single offspring every two years. A manta often keeps the company of small fish — known as cleaning stations — which consume dead skin and parasites on the manta’s body. The mantas found around Nusa Penida are 4-5 meters in wing-span, and are black on their backs and white underneath.

Mantas consist mostly of cartilage, hence their undulating grace in the sea. When resting or hiding, they settle their flat bodies onto the ocean floor.

Since 2006, manta rays have been on the list of endangered species, facing extinction.


Photo by Robin Sparks.

Photo by Robin Sparks.

For some of the best snorkeling in the world: 

Visit Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Galapagos islands, Turkey, and Palau with GeoEx.

Adventure in Indonesia, Hawaii, the Galapagos, Belize, and the Caribbean with Backroads.

Take in the waters of Baja, the Galapagos islands, and Fiji with OARS.

Cruise to the Galapagos with Lindblad Expeditions.

Absorb the beauty of Belize, Mexico, and the Galapagos islands with Natural Habitat Adventures.

Take in Hawaii, Fiji, and the Galapagos islands with Off the Beaten Path.

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Robin Sparks
Robin Sparks writes stories that connect hearts across borders, ethnicities, and different belief systems. Her stories have been published in numerous magazines and newspapers including The San Francisco Examiner, Yankee Magazine, The Reno Gazette Journal and Women’s World. She is a former travel columnist for the Reno Gazette Journal and former assistant editor for the online magazine, Escape Artist. She is writing a book about her 9-year global search for a new home in a new country - an odyssey which took her to France,Thailand, Nepal, Brazil, Turkey, Argentina, and Bali. Today Robin is based in Marin, California with homes in Istanbul, Turkey and Bali, Indonesia. Robin facilitates and teaches writing workshops around the world.
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