By Pete Thomas/GrindTv
Giant manta rays are revered by divers, who find their presence soothing because they’re so gentle, and soar through the ocean with such grace.
But during a recent expedition to a remote area off Peru, Josh Stewart was surprised to find himself being tucked into the winged fins of a 15-foot manta and somersaulted during a brief encounter that may be the first of its kind.
“In all my years of filming and interacting with manta rays, I have never witnessed such an extraordinary interaction between a manta ray and a swimmer,” Shawn Heinrichs, a renowned photographer and cinematographer, wrote on the WildAid blog.
Stewart was photographing the manta ray as part of a long-term identification project for Manta Trust, aimed at better understanding these mysterious plankton eaters.
“I was just swimming down as I usually do to capture a manta ID shot and before I knew it, I was engulfed in the wings of this massive manta as I tumbled through the water,” Stewart recalled. “I suffered no injuries but it was certainly a big surprise.”
It must have been a huge surprise, as mantas are among the ocean’s gentlest of giants. Divers used to ride on their backs, before that came to be regarded as intrusive and disrespectful.
Heinrichs theorizes that this manta may have never encountered a diver before, and was merely reacting to the presence of a strange invader in its midst.
“Perhaps out of curiosity, or possibly to send a not-so-subtle message, the manta performed its acrobatic somersault and scooped Josh’s fins between its cephalic fins, spending Josh spinning,” Heinrichs wrote.
The two were conducting research along with Planeta Oceano, with support from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, and are seeking more protection for critters that are vulnerable to all types of indiscriminate fishing practices.