Costa RicaCosta Rica

Day 2: The Amazing Rays

Destination: Jaco

I arrived at Herradura Divers at 8:30 a.m., ready for an awesome Central Pacific dive. What I experienced was about as far from ordinary as you could imagine, thanks to the strangely social manta ray that added an unexpected element of excitement.

Today I was diving with a thirty-something from New Jersey who was finishing up his PADI open water certification course. After our briefing on the boat, the beginner began spouting figures and solving complicated math problems to show off his vast understanding of scuba diving technicalities. Pleased that he had sufficiently impressed us, he dove into the water and immediately froze in terror. Despite considerable textbook knowledge, he couldn't overcome his fear of the deep, and opted to go snorkeling instead.

And then we were two: Francesco, Herradura's most experienced dive instructor, and me. The Italian scuba connoisseur boasts over 2,000 submersions in this part of Costa Rica alone, and he knows exactly where to locate each type of animal. Armed with countless secrets about local dive sites, he led me on the trip of a lifetime.

For the first three or four minutes, I only saw a three-banded butterflyfish flit across my field of vision. Visibility wasn't ideal, and the water around me was pretty murky. Suddenly everything came into focus, and my senses were inundated with activity. A gigantic shoal of school bus-yellow Panamic porkfish moved as one large creature, floating almost close enough to touch. Just as I began to lose interest, a curious sea turtle began circling my tank -- as if it wanted to play tag.

Around the corner, Francesco spotted four white tip reef sharks hidden within consecutive caves. One of them was even pregnant, evidenced by her large baby bulge. Meandering about, we passed by moray eels and lobsters, pufferfish and Cortez rainbow wrasse, goby fish and spotted eagles rays. Even though visibility wasn't great, the wildlife encounters were positively breathtaking.

Just when I thought the dive couldn't get any better, Francesco grabbed my fin and pulled me to him, pointing enthusiastically. In my experience, this move is akin to shouting in someone's ear: "HOLY COW! LOOK AT THAT! LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK LOOK!" Divers find the gesture particularly useful when they can't find anything to bang against their tanks to attract attention, or when they don't wish to scare off timid animals with unnecessary noise.

moray eel

Following his gaze, the underwater debris parted and we witnessed an unbelievable sight: a pair of enormous manta rays gracefully performing acrobatics near the surface. They reminded me more of African elephants than anything I have ever seen in the Pacific Ocean. These creatures were amazing, and I am confident that their tails alone would have equaled my height.

Because they were swimming in opposite directions, we could only observe one at a time. He chose the specimen to the left, and we chased after it in hot pursuit. Oddly enough, as soon as the magnificent ray sensed our presence it uncharacteristically came toward us, as opposed to fluttering away. It loomed directly over me, invading my personal space as if it wanted a belly rub. I soon learned that this was precisely its motivation.

school of fishWary of its long, sharp tail, I did my best to maintain a respectful distance until it moved on to Francesco. Far braver than I, he held no such reservations and gingerly gave it a mini-massage. Although rays don't have conventional mouths, I swear that the manta smiled. Awestruck, I pinched myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. This was really happening, and I had my trusty camera to prove it.

This largest species of ray, Manta birostris, can move at speeds of seven miles per hour -- which doesn't sound like much until you trail one. This is especially difficult when propelled by nothing but raw determination and a cheap pair of rubber flippers. The ray was moving too quickly for me to paddle and take photographs at the same time, so I flicked the dial to 'record,' and swam as fast as possible in an effort to keep up.

italian dive instructorOnce the playful creature had enough of us -- or rather, once Francesco and me were far too exhausted to follow it any longer -- we began our ascent, grateful that the ray had shared its world with us. Fifteen feet from the surface, we paused for the recommended three-minute safety stop. We collectively reflected, forever bonded by a special type of friendship that comes only from experiencing such a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Day 2: The Amazing Rays in Pictures