60 Minutes blog

Allison Langdon - Swimming with rays

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I had just shot a story on the Burning Coalfields of India – a diabolical place where the ground itself is on fire, lifespans are shortened by extreme pollution, and entire villages are swallowed up by the disintegrating earth. So from a place that comes as close to hell as anywhere you’d find on the planet, I flew into paradise: the Maldives. I was there to try to witness and capture on video one of the greatest natural spectacles in the world – the annual massing of Manta Rays in the crystal waters of the island nation.

As my crew and I (producer Gareth Harvey, cameraman Richard ‘Dickie’ Malone and soundman David ‘Tangles’ Ballment) stepped onto the boat that would be our home for the next week, and cruised away from the Maldivian capital Malé into a perfect endless sea, we joked that this was payback time for the trip we’d endured together the previous year in Somalia – probably our toughest assignment as a team. And we had company on this hardship trip – two knockabout scientists: Brit Guy Stevens, based in the Maldives & Director of the Manta Trust; and his mate, Aussie marine biologist Mark Meekan. Rounding out our party was specialist underwater cameraman Roger Munns.

Our destination was a tiny patch of ocean about two days’ sail from Malé near a small reef called Hani Faru. In previous years Guy Stevens had documented a mysterious confluence of prevailing currents and tides influenced by the new moon, which created a super-concentrated ‘bloom’ of plankton. And those tiniest creatures in the ocean attracted one of its largest – the manta ray.

Growing up to eight meters across, the mantas are normally solitary creatures, but as Guy had observed, the plankton bonanza attracted these gigantic, gentle creatures in their tens…and hundreds. But would it happen this year?

No 60 Minutes story comes pre-scripted, and filming animals in the wild is probably one of the chanciest things we ever attempt. Specialist wildlife programs spend months where we often have only a scant few days. Over the years our luck has held, but would it run out here in the Maldives? We’d planned our trip around the new moon (the darkest night of the month) and if the mantas failed to rally to the lunar call, our story was doomed.

Life on the boat was …well, do you really need me to tell you what life on a boat floating in the Maldives is like? We spent the evenings on the foredeck taking turns to play DJ on our iPods and speakers. There was good music (mine) and other music (theirs). Apart from being a T-Rex fan, Mark Meekan was an old 60 Minutes hand, having worked with another of our camera teams a few years before; Guy Stevens was simply passionate about the mantas as well as being an alarmingly good Monty Python impersonator; and Roger Munns showed us breath-taking film rushes from his recent shoot for David Attenborough’s ‘The Blue Planet’.

We dived twice a day at Hani Faru. It is an extraordinarily beautiful, unspoiled reef with an abundance of marine life. Except, as it turned out – manta rays.

A day, then two, then three passed without us sighting more than a single animal. Paradise suddenly took on an urgency as the night of the new moon cloaked us in pitch darkness. The foredeck antics were muted that evening – we knew that tomorrow was Manta Day and we were haunted by the possibility of a no-show by our elusive quarry.

The first squall hit at about five am. By the time we were awake enough to be depressed we were in the midst of a tropical storm. Zero visibility above and below water. Manta Day was a wash-out – or so it seemed for two grim hours. Lashed by almost horizontal rain, buffeted by wind …and then, in the magical way of good luck…it cleared. Not just a little, but completely. Brilliant sun, calm water…and approaching our mooring on Hani Faru, the unmistakable foaming of manta wing-tips breaking the mirrored surface. Beneath us a cyclone of manta rays was beginning to spiral around dense clouds of plankton. We snatched snorkels, goggles and cameras, then dove into another world.

They were like giant living aircraft soaring above and around us, barrel-rolling in squadrons of ten or more, their massive mouths vacuuming the plankton from the water. And they were utterly unconcerned by us – brushing by as the feast of the year swirled before them. These are the moments you live for.

As I floated weightless in the mantas’ protected haven of the Maldives, I was shadowed by the knowledge of what was happening to these graceful giants elsewhere in the world. A few hours flight north, in Sri Lanka, mantas are being fished to oblivion, killed not for their meat, which is discarded, but for their gills: victims of the voracious Chinese medicine market, just as rhinos are being slaughtered to extinction for their horns, and tigers for their organs. The Chinese medicine market is threat enough to wildlife around the world, but in the case of the mantas their gills are not even a part of traditional Chinese medicine but rather a bogus cure for cancer.

In the Maldives the only threat facing mantas is – as Mark Meekan put it – “being loved to death.’ Tourists have also discovered Hani Faru reef – and every year more and more descend on this spot no larger than a football field. Luckily the mantas have their very own human super-hero in Guy Stevens, who has successfully negotiated with the Maldivian government to regulate the number of tourists allowed to dive at Hani Faru – and brought in regulations that permit only snorkel diving not scuba tanks, whose air-bubbles can disturb the mantas during feeding.

But this perfect day we had Hani Faru to ourselves – Guy and Mark identifying and measuring individual creatures with a specialised stereo-camera, while I revelled at the fact that Roger Munns was capturing some of the most spectacular manta footage ever taken.

Delivering for the program and managing a life-changing experience into the bargain is cause for celebration. Maybe a little too much 70’s and 80’s music from my elder colleagues that night, but hey, I was in a generous mood!

User comments
That was soo Kewl
A great article. I too got had a very close encounter with one of these majestic creatures earlier this year. It is truly life changing.
Where have the Manta tails gone? Did someone cut them off?
Why have the Manta Rays' tails been cut off!!?? What is going on here?
I am only 12, and the last thing I want is not being able to see these amazing creatures with my own kids in the years to come. Oscar
Just spent my 6th year on and off working on heron island and had the luck to dive many times with mantas around the island. Just watched the manta ray story on 60 minutes, Awesome!!!!. Sad they are getting killed for there gills as chinese medicine, I had no idea they were being killed at all. A great story, thank you Allison.
Me and my family have just traveled Australia, once we arrived at a small town called Coral Bay we went on full day tour to go see the manta rays. Since seeing them it has truley changed they way i think! They are so graceful! When i leave school i am planning to study marine biology and my main focus will be on mata rays! I love what you have done, let people know just how amazing these wonderful creaturs are!

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