Lady Elliot Island: Majestic Mantas
Venture some 100km north-east of Hervey Bay over languid azure seas, and you'll soon happen across a small, idyllic coral cay called Lady Elliot Island (LEI).
Forming the southern-most tip of the Great Barrier Reef, LEI is well-known for its beautiful coral reefs, turtles and populous bird life. But I'd learnt its greatest treasure was a resident manta ray population that numbered in excess of 100.
Being an avid diver, I had travelled here in the hope of encountering a manta on one of my planned dives. Determined not to waste even a minute. I'd arrived wearing my swim trunks, and as I alighted the plane I tossed my bags in the general direction of my room. After all; I was on a mission and I'd booked in for the very first dive available to me that day.
Our first dive site, Lighthouse Bommies, was a stone's throw from the beach and a popular manta haunt.
Thousands of fish darted all around and turtles swam lazily over delicate coral carpets, watching our approach with knowing eyes.
As if on cue, moving shadows cast across the sea bed, signalling the arrival of three massive manta rays that were making their approach to the coral bommie cleaning station.
Small fish darted busily around their wings, which spanned between three and five metres in size. A medley of spots and smudges were visible on their underbellies; each pattern individually unique and providing us with a means of identification.
Descending on to the sand to gain the best photo vantage point, one of the mantas became aware of our presence. In an indignant display at our voyeurism, it immediately rolled up one of its cephalic flaps and with a single flick of its mighty wings, glided swiftly away in search of more secluded grooming places.
Thankfully, the other mantas were less bothered by our bubbles and appeared to pose for our cameras as they clicked and buzzed in feeble attempts to preserve what would soon be a treasured memory.
One ever so slightly flapped its wings, propelling it over and around the bommie and exposing its black back and white underside. The dive leader recognised it as Luna; a chevron manta that one of the most playful of over 130 mantas regularly sighted here. Her companion was a black manta that possessed white markings on its underbelly. It looked to be permanently in stealth mode; cruising through the water as if standing sentry.
Completely unfazed by our presence, Luna proceeded to glide and loop above us before, amazingly, abruptly turning and swimming directly towards me. Mesmerised by her size and beauty, I watched until, at the last possible second, she lifted her great wings and skimmed within a hair's breadth of my head. With my vision completely obscured by her white belly, all I could see were a flurry of dots and markings. She glided over me and around the outside of our group, only to come back again and continue her flirtatious game.
Our encounter seemed to last for ever, but too soon our bottom time was up.
Despite their size, mantas are docile in nature, allowing us to observe them in close proximity. Much about them remains a mystery, and to be able to observe them in their natural habitat is a rare treat. However, most days their numbers at LEI range between one and 50 and, as some have favourite cleaning stations and feeding times, the likelihood of an encounter such as mine is almost as good as guaranteed.