I am in the Pacific Ocean off the Kona coast of Hawaii, wearing two wetsuits, and shivering in the dark. Scuba divers, kneeling below, and snorkelers, floating on the surface, point bright flashlight beams to attract microscopic animals and hopefully their predators, manta rays. A carnival of these angel-shaped beasts—whose wing-like fins span 10 to 20 feet—glide, loop, and corkscrew through divers’ bubbles.
She’s so close, I suck in my gut. A scream lodges in my throat. I now know how whales launch themselves out of the sea: sheer will power. “
I cling to a Styrofoam-covered hula-hoop our guide uses to herd snorkelers. The soundtrack to “Jaws” pounds in my head. One ray fans her wings and swims right toward me. Her cephalic fins spread open to corral invisible plankton into her gaping three-foot wide mouth, big enough to swallow me in one gulp. She must weigh more than a ton, if she so much as taps me, our guide might discover my body before the rays’ cousins, the sharks. The ray rolls and descends.
I grip the hula-hoop. Okay, I’ve seen them, let’s go. I search for the boat, but my guide grabs my arm and yells, “Big Bertha’s right below you.”
She’s so close, I suck in my gut. A scream lodges in my throat. I now know how whales launch themselves out of the sea: sheer will power. I nearly pitch myself onto the guide, but I cannot stop staring at Bertha’s gullet, which is a ribbed cavern. Why is it white, not red? I waggle my flashlight at her to get another look. She undulates, arcs, and somersaults. Ten gills on her vast black-and-white belly fan open, revealing screens of mesh, each hole a tiny white square, a perfect filtration system. She spirals and displays herself again and again. Her friends swoop, unfurling their fins, spinning into arabesques as if choreographed.
I am the last one back on the boat.