By boat, it was only forty miles from beautiful Isla San Francisco back to La Paz. By late afternoon, the kids and my wife Jan were lounging in the shade of the cockpit watching the city’s skyline take shape, when Melissa, age ten and her brother Thomas, 14, noticed several giant manta rays leaping clear of the water.
“Look Mom, there are lots of rays over there. Can we go over and see them?” Without hesitation we were soon in hot pursuit.
After some time chasing errant splashes, we still had not seen a ray up close and I was about to give up when Melissa screamed while pointing down into the water. Directly below us was a large school of giant rays. It was an incredible sight, and I could not resist. Quickly I snatched up my snorkelling gear and leaped but even before I had my mask on, the graceful flyers were gone. Quickly, I headed off in search of the Devil Fish. The water was pool-warm, and I could have just as easily been flying though clear skies as swimming through the sea; the visibility was almost limitless with a sea floor over a hundred metres below.
The watery world was cast in a vibrant, electric hue, intermittently pierced by silver shards of sunlight. Schools of tiny, nervous looking fish haphazardly hovered near the surface. I scanned the watery horizon, but the manta rays were gone, leaving no trace of their passing---like silent ghosts. I broke the surface to find Maiatla, our 52 foot ketch, creeping along behind at a safe distance.
I dove for one final look, but the rays were gone. Reluctantly, I was about to swim back to Maiatla when off in the watery space, a faint white cloud began to appear. It was so indistinct, I was not sure I was seeing anything at all. I hovered motionless on the surface, waiting, watching in awe as the phantom milky mass began to take shape as it solidified into a pulsating body, thousands of living creatures---moving, swimming as one. A wall of living flesh, over fifty metres wide and perhaps ten metres deep, materialized before me. Soundlessly, effortlessly, the giant manta rays, some measuring over two metres between pulsating wing tips, parted to swim around me. For the following several minutes, and undisturbed by my presence, they silently paraded by. Flapping their enormous wings in unison like a gaggle of snow geese flying in a tight, precise formation. Beautiful! Their broad powerful wings and backs were pearl grey; their black eyes were set high on the head above a set of devil’s horns, which swept impishly forward boarding their perpetually gaping mouths. In stark contrast, their eggshell-coloured underbellies reflected the sunlight, creating a momentary flash of brilliant light whenever they raised their wingtips to commence another beat. Once passed, I dared to breathe again and excitedly waved.
“Ah, guys! You have to see this, thousands of rays all around me! Grab your gear.” Thomas and Melissa, determined not to be left behind; had already dug out their snorkelling gear. As Jan brought Maiatla along side, without hesitation, my kids leapt into the sea.
Hastily, I took hold of my children’s hands, with one on either side; we swam off in search of the “herd” of rays. For several tense minutes we vainly scanned the abyss; I was fearful that the kids might have missed a, once-in-a-lifetime moment. But as before, the spectral apparition reappeared. The kid’s grip tightened on my hands as a formation of living stealth-bombers engulfed us. I could sense my children’s uneasiness at being surrounded by these devilish-looking, yet placid creatures. As the column flew around us, I released my grip and porpoise-dived down amongst the rays that leisurely parted to allow me to pass, closing over top as I dropped below. I rolled over onto my back to wave up at my children who were excitedly waving back. Backlit by the sun, they were floating on the surface holding hands to steady one another. They were excitedly pointing at the strange creatures, it was obvious that any initial apprehension had vanished. The formation parted once again as I surfaced to rejoin my children.
We following the school, they were marvellous to watch. Every few minutes, a handful of rays broke ranks, barrel-rolling out of their tight configuration, racing off, wings beating ever faster, gaining speed; suddenly they arced back and, like Polaris missiles, they shattered the mirrored surface by launching themselves clear of the sea, then landing with a reverberating splash after a series of ungainly somersaults and casually returned to the columns, slipping gracefully back into formation. I could have spent the next few hours by their sides, but our light was fading and it was time to head back to the boat. I was about to say so when Melissa waved me to the surface.
“Dad, I’m getting cold, can we go back now?” Poor little Melissa, who did not have an ounce of insulating fat, was violently shivering despite the warm water. As I looked at her, it suddenly occurred to me why she was so cold. In her rush to see the rays, she had not wasted any time putting on her wetsuit; she hadn’t even bothered with her bathing suit. Aside from a mask, fins and a stubby snorkel, she was buck-naked! I could not help but laugh to myself as I took my little mermaid in tow and power finned our way home.
It was several days later when I realized that swimming with the giant mantas with my children in hand had been the definitive moment of our entire one-year voyage. I was sure it would also be one of Thomas’s and Melissa’s greatest life-long memories; and it was precisely this type of adventurethat we had been seeking when we chose to come to this magnificent sea, the Sea of Cortez.
Baja Is for Everyone Essay Entry
by Janet Gunson