Swimming with Mantas in Sangalaki
Besides an army of sea turtles around Derawan, there’s an even more exciting, albeit less predictable attraction that brings visitors here – reef mantas. If the conditions are right, meaning enough plankton in the water, snorkelers and divers can swim with dozens of manta rays around Sangalaki, an uninhabited island an hour by boat from Derawan. It’s a rare opportunity to see these animals close up and many naturalists make the pilgrimage to isolated Derawan hoping to spot the magnificent creatures. But as with many of nature’s great spectacles, it’s the luck of the draw. As it so happened, we drew wisely.
Arriving in Sangalaki, we leaned over the edge of the boat to look for any movement in the clear water. Absolutely nothing.
“No plankton today,” the boatman exclaimed matter-of-factly suggesting that we should just give up and go home. But we would have none of that and dove rebelliously into the water. Desperate for mantas, we snorkeled in ever-widening circles around the boat. After 45 minutes without any sightings, we swam back tired and disappointed. Just as I was telling everyone that I knew this was going to happen, someone spotted a manta at the surface a hundred meters away. There it was again, my German negativity – followed by a well-deserved and extremely enjoyable proverbial slap in the face.
A couple of minutes later, we were all back in the water. Mantas at last. Bobbing up and down in the wavelets, I turned slowly around staring into blue nothingness through my mask. Suddenly, two massive mantas glided into view, their gaping mouths looked like they just might swallow me whole. Like underwater pterodactyls, their enormous “flapping” wings cut through the water in slow motion momentarily exposing their white underbellies. I popped my head above water and noticed manta dorsal fins breaking the surface all around me. The thrill was indescribable.
Tony and I spent an hour and a half swimming with the amazing giants. One magical moment stands out when I found myself in the middle of a large school of eye-popping blue and yellow fish. For a moment, I was distracted by all the frenzy, but my eye suddenly caught the silvery reflection of a solitary tuna below me. How beautiful, I thought to myself as four reef mantas appeared from nowhere and began circling me and the fish. The graceful animals drew wide circles around me as I watched. Although reef mantas are smaller than oceanic mantas, such as the one we spotted in Malapascua, they still felt impressively large with their 4-meter (12 ft.) wing span. I sat there suspended in the ocean as four monstrous mouths scooped up the plankton around me. It was incredible!
From a distance, the scene above water appeared very different. Tony told me later that with their dorsal fins breaking the surface, it looked like four sharks were circling in on me. But apparently, he was too busy with his own mantas to come save me. 🙂
The reef mantas of Sangalaki are definitely a highlight of our four years on the road. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, the sightings are not completely predictable. Although the cost of the $100 boat trip to Sangalaki can be split between travelers, repeated unsuccessful manta safaris can leave visitors feeling blue. One Frenchman we met on Derawan went to Sangalaki three times and never saw a single manta ray – ouch! Luckily, Derawan and its nearby islands have so many natural attractions that a little manta setback shouldn’t kill the mood. If you don’t get to see the mantas at Sangalaki, there’s yet another exciting attraction nearby which can quickly ease the pain (or cause more pain as some have claimed). But more about that in our next blog posting…