From the top of Two Lovers Point, I gazed down the reef fringing the jagged lip of an abyss.
The waters, emerald green at the surf line, glimmered deep blue where the graduated sea wall plunged hundreds of feet below.
Just then, a huge hawksbill turtle came up for air.
I could be dreaming, but further off, I thought I saw the dark tip of a manta ray’s wing.
Guam’s Reef Mantas (Manta Alfredi) sometimes visit shallow waters, our guide confirmed. If you’re lucky enough, you might catch them in your snorkels as they dance their underwater ballet.
He pointed to a cove about two kilometers from where I stood. Along Tumon Bay’s hotel row, in front of a sand bar, lies the hangout of three mantas.
I see them in my mind’s eye, flying through the water like oversized bats, their cephalic lobes – hornlike protrusions on the sides of their heads – sweeping plankton – tiny shrimps and worms – into their gaping mouths.
Mantas don’t chew their food, so they have no teeth except in their lower jaw and the males only use those for clamping on to the females when mating – so she can’t get away from him. Unlike their stingray cousins, mantas don’t brandish poisonous spines though they can lash out with their long thin tails when provoked or frightened.
Reef mantas span almost 12 feet from wingtip to wingtip while the oceanic Giant Manta (Birostris) grow twice as big, up to 23 feet. Their size discourage most predators, except orcas, big sharks and humans who slaughter these gentle giants for their feathery gill plates.
Chinese medicine makers stupidly believe the gill plates, which mantas use to filter their microscopic plankton food from the waters – can cure asthma, cancer and other ills.
As a norm, mantas are shy. But because they are intelligent – they have the biggest brains of all fishes – their curiosity often gets the better of them. Despite suffering scars from collisions with boats and wave runners, they can’t resist checking out humans.
Cases of mantas snagged in fishing nets, lines or hooks who approached divers for help have been documented in Guam too. Injured mantas would hover mid-water and allow divers to cut off the nets or pull hooks out of their flesh.
The triumvirate our guide spoke of seems so habituated they tolerate people scratching their bellies. Sometimes, they even place themselves directly over divers’ bubble streams – their version of manta massage.
But why can’t I see snorkelers or divers in the glassy depths?
“Rip current,” our other guide muttered.
A rip is a powerful narrow channel of fast-moving water. With speeds up to eight feet per second, a rip moves faster than an Olympic swimmer and often kills those who panic or exhaust themselves trying to fight it.
Many foreigners and locals perished here because of the rip, he warned. His 20 year-old friend drowned on the same spot three years ago.
But I’ll risk my life to come close to those mantas.
Although I don’t dive regularly, in 15 years I’ve seen just a single manta in the Philippines.
Here perhaps, I’d be luckier.
Guam has a resident population of at least 43 reef mantas. Marine biologists have identified each of them from the unique pattern of markings on their undersides. They’ve even named individuals.
Of them all, I’d love to meet Kalos, the expecting mom. If I’m in luck, maybe I can see her deliver a pup.
Mantas live from fifty to a hundred years though they can’t bear young until they are eight to ten years of age. And then they pup only every three to five years, carrying one – at most two babies, for 13 months.
They deliver the pups live – over three feet wide mini-mantas, rolled up like a burrito and ready to rumble from get-go.
I’m keen about mantas because I’ve interacted with their shark and ray cousins. For as long as I live, I’ll never forget those magical encounters.
I’ve hitched a ride on a whale shark the size of a school bus, for starters. I’ve petted guitar fish, nurse sharks, lemon sharks, leopard sharks, both in oceanariums and in the wild.
I’ve even caressed great white sharks bigger than my boat, avoiding the bitey bits, of course.
Giant stingrays and spotted eagle rays draped themselves on my shoulders, mouthed my hands as I fed them and allowed me to stroke their wings without stabbing me with their poison barbs.
Their wings seemed so soft as they flutter through the waters so I was shocked to discover they’re pure muscle, hard as steel. They can break my bones with a slap if they want to. But they don’t.
Being a member of Ecorescue and Reefcheck, I’m also interested in volunteering to learn more about the gentle giants of Guam.
I got in touch with the island’s manta expert, Julie Hartup of the Micronesian Conservation Coalition, before I arrived. Unfortunately, she’s overseas and won’t be back till after my visit.
There’s always a next time, I consoled myself.
Who knows? When I return for a dive, I might stumble on a cleaning station.
Mantas frequent certain spots in the reef where cleaner fish – wrasse, angel fish, damselfish, butterfly fish and gobies, reside. They eat parasites from the mantas’ bodies and pick off dead or infected skin, speeding up the healing of wounds and preventing infection.
Courting and mating often happen at the cleaning stations. It’s here that male mantas seek out rutting females.
If I’m lucky, I might get to see a mating train – a long procession of amorous males, lined up head-to-tail, shadowing a single intended as she dances around the reef, twisting, turning and jumping out of the water to test their mettle.
Or perhaps I can catch a glimpse of feeding trains when the triggerfish starts spawning.
Guam’s mantas devour fish eggs and milt. What a spectacle it will be, watching dozens of winged dancers in feeding frenzy, in a swirl of thousands of fish releasing clouds upon clouds of gametes.
(Photos courtesy of Julie Hartup of the Micronesian Conservation Coalition and Guy Stevens of Manta Trust.)