"It's a big
manta ray," Coles says.
He and David leap
for masks, flippers and cameras. As I hit the water I see Art pulling steadily
toward the manta. I swim so hard I lose track of where everybody is. I look up.
Art is driving the manta toward us. It is between Art and the boat. Dave and I
are between the boat and the manta. I see now that those triangle tips are
about six feet apart. Art bellows at me, "Look out, he's coming right at
you." I start to swim away. Art bellows, "He won't hurt you." I
face the manta, dive deep and then look up. How beautiful is the manta ray! His
big belly, which flows into his great butterfly fins, is white as moonlight.
His vast fish wings rise, fall, rise, fall, with the slow, supple, almost human
grace of the arms of a Siamese temple dancer. He is steadily coming closer. I
go down again to view him. Oh, how ugly, too, is the manta ray! His back is
black as midnight. The fleshy fins before his low-slung snout hang down in
front like a bloodhound's ears. Eight feet behind him I see his whiplash tail.
Now I see why he is called "the devilfish." He looks like a giant bat
flying against the moon; or like Satan, with head and arms secreted in his
black mantle, which still does not conceal his ape's tail. I rise, gulp air, go
down and down. I hope he will pass over me like an evil spirit flying to
Walpurgis Night. I swim after him hard. When I look up he is gone, and we are a
quarter of a mile from the boat, and I am tired.
On board I
listen, enchanted, while Coles talks of the extraordinary manta family. Unlike
its smaller relations, the skates and sting rays, it is a surface swimmer.
Ovoviviparous, the female manta, Coles says, hatches eggs within her body and
gives birth to living young.
Art says, "I
and my brother saw one doing it. I think it was near Caicos...." He looks
for something to eat.
hands him her apple.
manta is about 15 feet across. We're chasing her, and away she goes through the
water. Next thing we know, we're swimming in a mess of baby mantas. She goes
flailing along, and there's more and more little mantas all around us. It's
quite a sight! We let her alone, of course. But my brother and I once chased a
pretty big one which wasn't bearing. I latched on to him. You know, if you
latch on to a real big manta he can give you quite a ride."
(Who was getting
the ride? We weren't. That night Art showed us a sea movie short his brother
had made. And there was Art, his arms around the wide wings of a 10-foot manta.
And it was giving him quite a ride.)
but wind and sea still too rough to dive with comfort.
I get in my gear,
go down to 60 feet with Coles. Visibility all but nil, current running strong.
I have mask trouble. I surface exhausted. Art is there. (He always is when I
need him.) He takes my hand and drags me back to the boat. I slough off my tank
gear, snorkel away after Art and Don. They are happy. Now they can spearfish
without worrying about me "down there." Sydney is following them over
the high waves in the little dinghy. He pulls so hard on the oars of the Little
Seven, trying to keep near them, that his pink heels turn white. After each
spear, Art and Don come back to the dinghy to park their kill. They plop
margates, hogfish, groupers (and some things I can't see) into the boat, then
swim away fast. Now we are all drifting apart. I dive a little, look around.
Suddenly I find I am being followed by a sinister citizen from the other side
of the Salt Curtain. There is no question about it, no question at all, a
three-foot barracuda is after me. I swim in a circle, trying to shake him. He
won't shake. I decide he likes my looks much more than I like his—much too much
"much more." I swim hard for the Little Seven. Then I pause and look
back again. My jagged-tooth admirer has certainly grown a full foot. I swim
harder, hopefully reminding myself that Art says a barracuda either
"strikes fast" or not at all. Or did he say, "usually strikes
fast?" I pause, look back. Comrade Barracuda is now a good six feet long. I
reach the boat at last. Too winded to ask Sydney for a haul up, I grab the
sides, heave ho, slop over and into the dinghy and close my eyes in relief. My
hand hits something slimy. I open my eyes. It's the plug-ugly undershot jaw of
a barracuda. Half-dead, I think, "Oh, he has leaped in after me." Then
I see this barracuda is wholly dead.