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Riding a Manta Ray – Searching for Life Aside Green Turtle Cay

About halfway through that number of years which the Bible suggests the creature made in the image of God should live, such a creature may perhaps come to feel the passing ephemerality of life, of, as the expression has it, “all the glories of this world”. Though popular and mythical imagination has often in human history seen such islands as the Bahamas – from which this letter was e-mailed to Moscow (the Web site address here uses the old Greek ideal “Arcadia”) – as “paradisiacal”, still one sufficiently experienced in life and world may readily feel even here that nothing is quite sufficient to give the human soul some such experience as that for which it often deeply seeks and searches. What can one experience in this life, subject as it is to change and death, which is not “passing”?! The question can, as is well known, even come to pain the soul and perplex the mind – as Leo Tolstoy noted in his Confessions (see chapter five), and Goethe’s Faust figure agonized.

Green Turtle Cay
Green Turtle Cay

Odd, extreme, and interesting experiences are sometimes a worldly human search, perhaps a provisionally sufficing surrogate, for something which is not of this world. Today (June 15) I, unexpectedly, on this Bahamian island called Green Turtle Cay, had an experience which I could not have guessed of beforehand, nor one which I shall perhaps ever have occasion to repeat: riding a manta ray.

There are, amidst the beauties and wonders of the sea here in “arcadia”, barracudas and sharks, sea urchins and fire coral, ‘man-o-war’ stinging nettles and sting rays, and other such creatures of creation, which give an “edge” – sometimes sharp – to living (and touristing) in “paradise”. I have, after years of partial fear, come to know that sharks and “cudas” are not as dangerous as the TV programs I saw in youth suggested. It is said that knowing the name of an evil spirit, can give one power, if not over it, at least sufficient needed to face it. What I have read and learned of sharks over the past couples of years of unintentional reading now and then – including in “English” – has given me some confidence – based on knowledge, and a bit of experience – that they are not so perilous and aggressive as I had been lead to fear. Many of the other ‘problems in paradise’, minor or not, can be avoided by choice and conscious act. But I pursued the big black manta ray – which could be seen from a great distance in the beautiful blue Atlantic ocean water aside the “cay” (Bahamian for island) like a singular sharp black shadow passing amidst the clear water. Three remoras (two gray, one white) were attached to its body, above and below – they were ugly, even a bit menacing in appearance. The manta ray itself moved rather gracefully through the water, slowly waving its fins which were like huge wings.

I approached slowly; from behind. Was it dangerous I wondered? What could I safely do; and what should I, for safety, not do? Gradually I came closer, my snorkeling gear flippers allowing me to swim fast enough to keep up with the faster manta. Closer and closer I came, as it slowly let sea plankton pass into its big open toothless mouth. The manta ray was as big from ‘wing tip’ to ‘wing tip’ as I was tall. (Or rather , as I was “long” – for I lay horizontally swimming in the water!) I was so close that I could touch it – which I did, cautiously at first. The skin was rough, and rather firm; I could even feel the ray’s pulse! It seemed to feel my touch, and to react with a bit of fear itself. It went faster; I had to swim very hard to keep near it for more than a minute. Then it circled back towards the beach. I came close again. Hadn’t I seen people on TV sea programs who had “ridden” a manta ray, by holding on to its wide head, between the widely-spread eyes? I followed and contemplated for five minutes . . . ten minutes – observing its habits and actions. Then I decided that I must try to “ride” him (her?). So, the next time it came up a bit closer to the surface of the water, as it swam along still feeding, I went deeper down to meet it, determined to try to ride it!

Manta ray
Manta ray

I had plotted – I thought rather well – where to grab: a bit away from the ugly faces of the remoras, outside of the ray’s eyes, and on the “upper shoulders” of its “wings”. The manta ray was not happy about this when I did it, quickly rearing up, somewhat like a horse can do. But I held on, as he took a turn to the left, towards the deeper water, flapping his wings strongly. Then he did something I had not imagined might happen – he somehow seemed to deliberately “bite” my left hand with his shoulder.

Now, the ray did not actually bite me – they have no teeth at all (if I understand correctly); but he somehow sort of pinched the skin of my water-softened hands in such a way that I immediately let go. The blood coming from my left hand’s middle finger was not what I had anticipated – and sharks are attracted to blood in the water, and that I did not want! I soon determined that the cut was neither deep nor serious; but how had it happened, with a toothless manta (on the “wing” no less!) I wondered as I swam to the beach, locating, at low tide, a safe place (about one hundred meters away) to get through the reef to the sandy shore. I held my hand out of the water as I swam, to keep any blood out of the water. The manta had swum away; I had swam for the beach.

Sometimes called a Devil Fish (named by sailors, as my brother tells me, for how it can curl the sides of its mouth, when in aggressive mood, to form two apparent “horns”, sometimes flying up out of the water like a big devil’s head!) it seems that the skin of a manta ray is so sharp and abrasive, at least on an edge (of the “wing”), that it can cut. Apparently its skin is like evolved teeth in some ways!

My finger was not badly cut, in my adventure in “arcadia”; but it was scraped as if rubbed on very sharp sandpaper! Still, I had done it; added one more of those small insufficient experiences to the repertoire of my life. . . one of those things that some people need to do in life . . . in the search for life and world.

Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas, July 1998

First published in the magazine English, #28, July 1998, p. 14.