My birthday was not at all turning out as I expected.
It was supposed to be good that year, as I was in the Maldives volunteering for a whale shark monitoring program with the MWSRP. But that morning I was confronted with the fact that I really was expected to give up a friendship.
I pride myself on my friends. They are let in with care, and whatever its wax and wane, my friendships are carefully nurtured to stand the test of time. And I would cross continents for these friends, when they call for me.
But no friend of mine had ever asked me to revoke our friendship before. And not because we’d fallen out either.
So my birthday that year began with disbelief, and a pall of loss.
It was the worst birthday of my life.
A Birthday Out At Sea
But we had a survey day ahead of us, and so I must shake it off. Besides, at least the weather cleared for my birthday, after initial grey days of cold wind and rolling swells.
Out in the open sea, the empty azure sky reached high to heaven, and seemed impossibly wide towards the far horizons. Sunlight glinted off the tips of glassy ripples, and warmed the top deck of the dhoni. I felt less cold, cross-legged by the rails of the top deck. Though my megafauna spotting abilities that morning was certainly compromised.
Still, the Maldives looked like the Maldives, at least today of all days. And for that I was grateful.
A commotion behind me. Clara’s excited voice, pointing at a small pod of dolphins. They were fast, and by the time I spun around, I could only see the suggestion of their sleek forms just skimming beneath the surface, crossing the wake of the dhoni, and out of sight.
And then we began to spot turtles here and there – popping up to breathe, or sometimes just basking at the surface. It was a good turtle-spotting day.
We hadn’t seen any megafauna the day before, so this was promising.
I felt as if nature in the Maldives knew of my troubles, and were all coming out to console me.
I don’t remember who spotted the manta ray. Whether it was one of us volunteers, or Farouk, the first mate. I don’t remember who it was that signalled that we could get in the water to snorkel with it – whether it was Alex or Iru.
But let’s be honest, who cares. The point is 1) yes, snorkel 2) manta.
We dropped in the water, in twos and threes, and swam to it. It was taking its time, gliding about, but keeping its distance. Eventually it began to swim away. We followed for a while, but soon we lost the ray into the gloom.
A satisfied bunch of women clambered back on the dhoni dripping brine, and we resumed our spotting duties. Everyone agreed that the day has been good.
Perhaps, if it wouldn’t be pushing it too much, we might see the whale sharks too. After all, before yesterday, we saw whale sharks every day we went to sea.
Or even, Clara began to hope ambitiously, orcas! No, even a blue whale!
The main act.
Little did I realise, that these were just the opening acts.
The dhoni did not go too much further, before we saw another manta ray (the same manta?).
As the day was still early, we thought we could indulge in another snorkel. And besides, perhaps this time one of us might get a photo of its underside. Together with other information, it would be data another manta-focused NGO could use.
In we all went again.
This time, the manta allowed us to come closer.
It was quite large. The triangle fins extended wide, iconic cephalic fins forward, and its gills underneath pulsed slowly open and shut.
It was among the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
A morning stroll over coral.
Sunlight slanted through the water in streaky shafts, lighting up the particles floating on the subsurface currents, and rendering schools of tiny fish nearby in sparkles of blue.
It began swimming purposefully, and we swam after it, right into a current near the water surface which it rode. And we rode along with it, all the way to a shallow space of broken and regenerating coral, where it stopped.
The manta swam down, levelling off just over the seafloor of jagged chunks of coral. It continued, coasting slowly over the ground, long pectoral fins flapping in graceful languor. I was aware of my fellow volunteers around me, and one or another dove down to get a closer look. But I wasn’t paying attention to them. The manta ray mesmerised me.
It didn’t seem to mind us there, hovering nearby. I wonder if it was aware, how we were pulled along as on invisible strings, in the unspoken accord to follow it where it would. And as if to test its charm, it broke away from the coral – not too fast so as to lose us – and soon we discovered where it was aiming for. It flapped higher, closer to the surface, and hitched another current ride.
Riding the current with a manta ray
I was right behind the manta, and a little bit above. Quite close, in fact. Not close enough to touch, but enough that it crossed my mind to recall whether or not manta ray tails have stings, or if that was just the stingray. But it showed no signs of agitation.
I felt the current on my neck, and up along my body over my tights as it skimmed past my wetsuit. It was a fast, but smooth, current. If I kept my form trimmed, there was no need to swim.
The manta did not either. Its pectoral fins held steady, flapping only lightly, gliding without effort. It stayed right before me, never wavering.
Below was only blue. We swam across series of slanting light beams and I felt almost in a trance. Time rushed with the water across my ear, and it also ceased. Or rather, perhaps it seemed to loop into eternity. I hardly knew how I was breathing, I only knew I did while I drifted.
I stared at the heart blazoned on its back, and tears rimmed my eyes behind the polycarbonate mask. It seemed to be a messenger, bearing a sign of hope and consolation for me to read that day.
We seemed to drift with it for a very long time. And in that time I never once thought of diving closer to it. It seemed disrespectful. But I was never so grateful for my waterproof camera as then.
I want to remember my signs.
It felt like a very long time, but it could not have been more than 10 minutes, if that.
Eventually the manta dropped out of the current, and banked to another section of coral. We hovered above, watching it swim. On impulse I dove down, camera raised.
As I levelled over the coral, the manta swept and turned, passing across my path and letting me look at it from the side.
I had but a moment, but it was all I needed before I had to float back up for air.
We watched it for a few moments more. But then suddenly I heard a rush of water. Some of the others were swimming some other way. There was excitement. Why?
I reluctantly took my eyes off my manta to see. Just in time to see a trio of mobius rays dart past towards the drop of the reef shelf and dive into deeper water.
Satisfied that the mobius rays were lost into the murky blue, I turned my attention back.
But like any great performer, my devilfish angel had vanished.
It was the best birthday of my life.
Something about the encounter had felt incredibly personal. It so moved me that I took the manta for my totem, in my daily life and travels since.