CURRENT LOCATION: Tied to a mooring ball near Cayo Pirata, in Ensenada Honda, Culebra, Puerto Rico
18 18.400' N, 065 17.842' W
Whenever we go out for exercise, I like to travel in circles. To me, a loop is always better than an out-and-back journey. I guess it is the nature of seeing something new during the entire trip. Or, perhaps it's just that I don't like to retrace my own steps (it feels like I am moving backwards, instead of making progress).
So, when I approached Sheryl with the notion of going kayaking today it was no surprise to her that I wanted to do the 'Fulladoza Loop.' She debated for a while regarding whether to join me because her fish photos are beginning to stack up on the computer. As most of you know, Sheryl identifies each fish she photographs and (in addition to placing a select few on the blog site), she posts all of the good shots on her FLICKR
As I got ready to go (eating a couple of sandwiches and applying sunscreen), Sheryl found that she couldn't just sit idly by and focus on something as passive as computer work. Soon, she too was applying sunscreen. As we got ready to launch the kayaks, Sheryl inquired, "Are you going to take the snorkel gear?" I hadn't planned to, since it was to be mainly a kayak trip, focused on the 6-mile 'Fulladoza Loop'...
...however, it never hurts to be prepared. So, I strapped a mask, snorkel and fins onto each kayak. As it turns out, I am ever so glad that I did.
Our journey around the loop was to be done in a clockwise fashion; therefore, we were headed southeast toward Dakity Harbor. Because we are thinking about eventually moving the big boat out to Dakity again, I wanted to use the opportunity to dive on a few mooring balls (just to check out their general condition). I tied my kayak up to the easternmost mooring ball in the harbor, and donned my snorkel gear. Sheryl opted to stay in the kayak and shadow me from above.
After checking two mooring balls, I decided to explore this end of the reef a bit. We had yet to be under the water in this area. As I came around the corner of the reef, I saw what looked like another snorkeler moving through the distant haze. As it drew nearer, I realized that it was not a human being, but a really big ray! Startled, I quickly swam to Sheryl aboard her kayak and called for the camera. I took a few pics, but the haze made them less-than-perfect photos. They were good enough, however, to confirm that it was a Spotted Eagleray.
Before departing Dakity Harbor, we stopped by to say hello to a few people on boats moored here. Susan and Hale, aboard Cayuga
have been here for a little over a week. And, long-time Ensenada Honda residents David and Sue, aboard Doodlemon
, were just out here for the day (in order to clean the bottom of their boat). After this brief social respite, we pushed onward, around the tip of Punta del Soladado.
On that point of the island, we discovered something we missed on the last trip around the loop. If the conditions are reasonably calm, the tide is right, and you are daring enough with the kayak, you can gain access to a little area of 'baths' at Punta del Soladado. We didn't see any fish beneath the water, but there were many large spiny urchins so we weren't anxious to hop out of the kayaks to go looking. It is a pretty cool spot, though, to sit in calm water surrounded by rocks and be able to peek out to the deeper blue just beyond.
Once around Punta del Soladado, we tucked into a harbor with a tiny beach. It was well protected from the wind and swell, which made the water nearly like glass. And, I could see that there was a lot of coral under our kayaks. We decided to beach the kayaks and check out the underwater scene.
The snorkeling off of this tiny beach was very interesting. It started out shallow, but deep enough to be easily accessible. Lots of small clumps of coral, all the way up to the shoreline, made us feel like we were flying over the surface of some alien planet. Slowly and steadily, the water grew deeper. It sloped from 2 feet to 8 feet deep so gradually that it barely registered in my mind. It was in this 8-foot water that I saw it coming at me. It was HUGE, and this time I didn't mistake it for another snorkeler. This was a ray like no other I had ever seen!
My underwater scream was something primal coming from deep within. I was afraid. My scream coincided with an urgent backpedaling toward Sheryl. She had heard my distinctive underwater panicky cry and was already rushing to meet me. I stuck my head above the surface of the water, spit out my snorkel tube, and said one word, "Ray!" We had seen many rays in the past (Southern Stingrays
abound in these waters, and we were growing accustomed to seeing the occasional Spotted Eagleray
), but the mere tone of my voice communicated that this was something distinctly different.
Sheryl recognized immediately that what she was looking at was a Manta Ray
; however, she was still taken aback. She had not expected that we would see one here, especially not in these shallow waters. It was surreal, this giant beast taking flight before you over this underwater alien terrain. Fearless as ever, Sheryl began to pursue the ray, camera clicking away. I swam in her wake, partly for protection (mine, not hers), and partly to keep from scaring the ray off.
Check out these photos of the ray...
The manta did not take off when we followed, like so many rays are prone to do. Instead, he simply continued his fluid flight with languid motions of his huge wings. Slowly, he swam toward deeper water. The movement is captured in the video below, but it doesn't really do justice to the size of this fish. Were I to guess, I would say that the wingspan was at least 10 feet (meaning that this guy could easily span the distance between the floor and the rim on a basketball court!).
for Manta Ray: The Movie
Eventually, I got up the courage to dive down closer to the ray, ahead of Sheryl, and it became even more amazing as I got closer. I could see its eyes, perched on the edges of the flexible horns at the front of his head. Suddenly, the horns curled! I took this as a sign that the big guy was not happy with my proximity and immediately surfaced. I later learned that these cephalic lobes are used to guide plankton-bearing water into the ray's mouth and in no way suggested any sort of aggressive behavior. In fact, they generally curl them to reduce drag while swimming.
It was not until we returned to the boat that we were able to research the Manta Ray, and what we learned was all good. Apparently, manta rays are harmless and have no stinging spine (unlike the venomous barb on the tail of the, much smaller, Southern Stingray). Websites differ on whether the manta ray is curious or indifferent to the likes of us humans, snorkeling through its waters, but there is a general consensus that they are not aggressive.
In a way, though, I am kind of glad that I didn't know about the docile nature of these creatures. The sighting got my heart beating in a way it hasn't in some time. And, the fact that the majestic nature of this animal eventually coerced me into (somewhat) overcoming the initial intimidation imposed by its sheer size was a lesson onto itself.
We talked about the encounter as we completed the loop back to the boat and continued reflecting upon it on into the evening. As bedtime approached, I asked Sheryl, "How many people can say that they swam with a Manta Ray today?"
It is an experience we shall not soon forget and a gentle reminder of how lucky we are to be living this dream.