Rangiroa, French Polynesia
Text and photos by Peter Schneider
Rangiroa, this is the name of the place I call my home…at least since I moved here five years ago. It is the second biggest atoll in the world and the biggest one in French Polynesia. Its name, “huge sky,” describes accurately the phenomena when on a windless day the smooth surface of the lagoon melts with the sky. But there is more Rangiroa is famous for. It’s the abundance of pelagic fish, especially sharks…great hammerheads, silvertips, and hundreds of grey reef sharks. Filmmakers from all over the world make the long journey to the midst of the Pacific Ocean for them…or better to take good, clear images of them. Howard Hall, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Luc Besson, and Jean-Jacques Mantello just to name a few.
Some of them I met and have had the honor to dive with. Me with my small 3CCD mini DV camcorder parked next to their huge Beta Cams, HDs, and 3D Imax cameras. I watched them, not without jealousy I have to admit. But tight shooting schedules always forced them to leave earlier than they wished. Since I live here, I stayed, diving and diving again, filling tape after tape, first mini DV and now HDV, looking for the beauty in the beast, for a better shot than the last, for the “one,” hoping that my patience would pay off one day.
On August 7, 2006 everything came together. It was the end of an afternoon drift dive through one of the two passes that connect Rangiroa’s lagoon with the ocean. Starting in the blue of the Pacific and ending in the so-called Aquarium, there is a sandy patch in the lagoon, dotted with coral heads and all kinds of tropical fish.
Manta Rays Mating
I was welcomed by a tornado of barracudas that passed above an enormous school of grey reef sharks guarding the entrance of the pass. I also observed a great hammerhead shark scanning the bottom of the pass for prey..
At this point, I was very happy with the dive and the images I was getting. I was drifting at a depth of 8 meters, ready for a slow ascent, when a manta ray overtook me. I tried to follow and prepare my camera for recording, but she swam too fast, like she had an appointment and was already late. Once again, I felt like a snail on a racetrack. Despite all the new fancy diving equipment, like split force fins, I couldn’t keep up, resolving that humans are forever second place to the fish.
But before disappointment overcame me, a second manta ray, a little smaller than the first one, came into sight. He was facing the current and hovered effortlessly on the spot. For a moment, it looked like he was the rendezvous for the speedy female I tried to keep up with. I instantly hit the record button of my Sony HDR-FX1, hoping for a good shot this time. But when the female manta saw the male, she seemed to accelerate even more.
You ask, how I could determine the gender of the two rays? I have to confess, I could not, at least at that point!
Immediately, when the female left the male behind, he turned around ready to follow her. The female manta sped up and the male instantly tried to keep up. The two rays, once more, left me behind and went out of sight, so I stopped recording.
Knowing that I had a long and beautiful dive and with my pressure gauge telling me it was time to surface, I figured the dive was over. I only had 40 bars left in my 12 liter steel tank and started thinking about drinking one of the beers in my refrigerator back at home.
At three meters, exactly one minute after I stopped recording the mantas, an amazing spectacle came into focus. I was almost paralyzed by its beauty, but at the same time I started to panic. Do the right thing! Don’t mess it up! Should I use a little zoom? The current was pushing me closer and closer all the time, so I switched to automatic focus and hoped I wouldn’t disturb the beautiful act I was witnessing. Start recording, start recording now, raced through my head!
Like two flamenco dancers, the manta rays were whirling around each other. The male faced her back, trying to seduce her, but she was not ready yet and tried to keep her distance. The spectacle was so fascinating and amazing that I had difficulty keeping my eyes fixed on the camera monitor. I was tempted to let go and watch the scene live, but I became conscious of the uniqueness of this moment and realized that perhaps nobody had recorded this behavior before.
The male started to push harder, trying to get into the right position. He opened and closed his mouth like he was gasping for air. I wondered what he was doing?
A moment later it became evident. He was trying to bite her wingtip. It appeared that she was not very fond of his deeds and still tried to get away. Their spins became faster and he finally accomplished his mission. It seemed that spinning faster was the key to his success. The female ray gave in. She stopped flapping her wings, while he started to flutter more rapidly. Her wingtip still held in his mouth, he pulled his body around until they were face to face. Now, belly-to-belly, he was in position to start the copulation. She appeared paralyzed, while his movements got faster as they stayed locked together.
The copulation itself lasted around 30 seconds before the two manta rays separated. Just in front of my camera, he sped off to the left and she exited the frame to the right and just like that, the moment was over. The two rays will probably never meet again, and it is certain that I’ll never get a chance to witness such a behavior again in my lifetime.
Check out Peter’s website at http://www.underwatercam.tv/.