Never did I imagine that I would find myself caught up in a whirlwind romance in the depths of Ningaloo Reef.
No, I didn't fall for a fellow snorkeler on the same level of enthusiasm as I was exploring the World Heritage Listed site or become captivated by a living and breathing encyclopaedia of the sea tour guide – far from it. Instead, I was caught completely off-guard and found myself in the middle of a manta ray mating trail. Yes, things can sure get intimate in the big blue!
It had been a bucket-list goal to tick off swimming with Ningaloo Reef's 'Big 3'.
It's kind of wild to think that in my own backyard, I could have a rare and unique encounter with whale sharks, humpback whales and manta rays. I just didn't expect the latter would become my most cherished swim of all time because it was the most unexpected from an unassuming tiny coastal town.
Coral Bay is one of Western Australia's top spots to swim alongside these flirtatious gentle giants. I say flirtatious because seeing them frolicking their metre-plus wingspan and showing off their black and white speckled bellies (their version of belly dancing) is a mesmerising watch. And as an avid deep-sea explorer, you just want to see more of their unexpected playful ways.
To see theatre in the sea, I hopped on board the Coral Bay Ecotours' vessel, Kurni-Ki, and joined a half-day nature tour to see the bay's most famous permanent residents. At first, we were taken to two snorkel spots to play marine bingo with some of Ningaloo Reef's 500 residents. I couldn't believe my luck! I saw sea turtles, reef sharks, giant calms and even my all-time favourite find, an octopus. Their elusiveness – usually found behind corals or between rocks – is what makes seeing an octopus so much more rewarding. But the ultimate trophy win of the day would be swimming with manta rays.
A diamond marks the spot as spotter planes were used to spot the diamond-shaped giants. The nature tour aims to give snorkelers at least two chances to swim with manta rays. The first swim is nothing to write home about. I saw three manta rays, but they were too deep, too mysterious, and set in their seafaring ways. The second swim would be the greatest underwater spectacle I have ever see. It also became a very immersive experience.
We didn't know it at the time, but our snorkel descended into frenzied waters. Four manta rays were swimming in a line as if they were in a drag race, zooming past on 'manta ray highway'. Us snorkelers were caught up in ocean peak hour, with the manta rays continually doing their marathon laps right under our overexcited scissor-kicks.
Seeing their almost toothless grins made me think of these majestic creatures as the Dyson vacuum cleaners of the sea, with their excessive filters potentially sucking up plankton along its travelling path. At times they were somersaulting so close to the group I had to move inches to not make physical contact with their two-metre wings or become face to face with their vacuum mouths.
I didn't realise it was a personal goodbye as soon after, the highway changed its course and disappeared from sight.
What on earth did I just see? !
I put my head about water to hear the tour guide speak to the curious snorkelers bopping their heads at surface level to find out.
We were told that one of the manta rays was female and the rest male. The males were trying their best to court the independent female ray.
It wasn't intentional to get so close to them, but they couldn't help themselves turning this episode at sea, something you would expect to watch on a National Geographic doco. It was wild to find myself caught up in the middle of this whirlwind romance!
But the love story wasn't over.
All the commotion proved to be a chain reaction as the four manta rays soon came back into our vicinity, with another mating chain – one female and two males – soon coming into the scene. The two manta ray highways were moving fast below our flippers. Heads were turning left to right, trying to keep up with their movements. I swear bubbles of 'wow' were coming out of my snorkel.
Soon the phenomenon ended with the manta rays going their separate ways. Watching both females outrace the males with their failed mission to woo was an incredible show of nature. I guess even with marine life, they don't call it 'the chase' for nothing.
Have your chance to swim with manta rays with these tour companies: