Swimming with Mantas

One of the treasures of the Yasawas is the Tokatokauna Pass between Naviti and Beqa Island. The strong current at high and low tide attracts the local manta ray population, who hang suspended in the stream or swim in swooping circles filtering food from the rushing water. The pass is well reported in all the guidebooks, and resorts nearby offer guided tours. As we sailed north through the Yasawas with my parents, Tokatokauna was an attraction we couldn't miss. We anchored in Cuvu Bay, an empty cove about half a mile from the pass. 

High tide was scheduled for 0730. We woke in advance to 20 knot winds and one meter chop, the front end of a squash zone predicted to move through the area over the next few days. Given the conditions, my mom opted out of the expedition. Dad, Dominic, and I pulled on our wetsuits and plowed toward the pass in the dinghy.

Mantas often cruise near the surface of the water, the white underside of their fin peeking out of the water being an easy way to spot them. The frothing water didn't allow for that, so we tried to spy on the different tour groups in the water to see if they were having any luck. Tours often send scouts to spot the rays, and once their telltale fist goes into the air, anywhere between eight and 40 (or even 60 in the case of a group from a cruise ship we saw) tourists leap into the water, battling with fins and snorkels to get closest to the mantas.

It was a circus that had its ups and downs: we could position ourselves either forward or aft of the tour groups, but we swam towing our dinghy and didn't want to risk entanglement.

We found our rhythm, entering the water in the lagoon upstream, far ahead of the tourists, running through the pass with the current, trying to stay together, Dominic dodging pangas and snorkelers, getting deeper dives in as the pass deepened into the greater body of water. 

We soon grew skilled at spotting them in our own right, making rounds through the pass, flowing with the current three or four meters above the coral, watching for rays emerging like black flying saucers from the blue oblivion.

And oblivion it was—the water was cloudy with zooplankton (thus the regularly feeding mantas), and timing our dive on this day with the tide had us in the water in low light.

We had incredible luck. My dad and I had two rays swim right underneath us. I spotted a ray as it swam with the current, getting to ride for some 90 seconds a foot above it. The dive was fantastic in its own right, carpeted with coral, thriving with reef fish, sharks, walu, and dogtooth tuna. We saw five or so mantas between the three of us. We were thrilled.

Dominic and I were so taken with the experience that after my parents left, we went straight back to Cuvu Bay. We did three more dives with the mantas, running through the pass six or seven times each. We dove a handful of laps without spotting any mantas. But usually they came out to play, and we were consistently impressed by their size, seven to nine feet, grace, and docility in the face of seemingly continued harassment from the people in the water.

We saw them three at time, swimming in loop-di-loops, through large schools of fish, colliding into each other. One collided with me, startled itself, and skipped ahead through the water. We watched as little reef fish hovered in the manta's great gaping mouths, enjoying a free ride through the buffet. We watched their devil horns furl in as they finished eating. I felt the slick velvet of their skin. Dominic and I both sail for the wildlife, and this was an encounter that won't be soon forgotten.

One last photo of our fearless captain in the water: