Sometimes, really just sometimes, you get one of those days in Coiba that are like dreams coming true. Last week one of our groups had such a day. The weather was beautiful, which is unusual this time of the year, and the boat ride out to the national park was already stunning.

The first dive site we visited was el Bajo Piñon. Full of life there were lots of schools of fish as well as turtles and our current favourites here – manta rays. It was astonishing to see this dive site bursting with life in all its colours. After a surface interval on one of the little beaches, where the sea shells made a sound like little bells getting tossed against each other in the waves, we headed to our second dive site – Faro. There, the surface current was extremely strong so that it was a struggle to get to the descent line. However, our dive instructor Kim reminded us that strong currents often mean lots of life and she couldn’t have been more right. After the group managed to descend and drift dive for a bit we started hearing very high pitched clicking noises and whistles – coming from hunting dolphins. Not long after we saw a school of bigeye jacks, fish dolphins like to hunt. And finally, they appeared. A group of three dolphins – a big one, a middle one and a baby dolphin- showed up and chased the fish making it look like a game. These creatures seem so intelligent, curious and alert. Every move they make is elegant and playful at the same time. It looked like the bigger dolphins were trying to teach the baby one how to hunt with the baby dolphin always being on the fins of the bigger one. They move incredibly fast in the water and soon enough this group disappeared again. Every now and then over the next couple of minutes we heard a high pitched whistle again until it got louder and more continuous and another pair of dolphins appeared, again shortly after we found a school of bigeye jacks. They hung around for a while longer, showing their teeth and fish inside their mouth making it seem like they were grinning at us letting us know how much fun they were having cruising through the water. It was an absolutely remarkable moment to observe those dolphins hunting and for me it was a childhood dream coming true. We rarely have the luck to see dolphins in Coiba, from the boats we see them quite often but mostly we just hear them on a dive without being lucky enough to spot them.

However, after this encounter our luck was still not used up. Shortly after the dolphins swam off we discovered a whale shark although whale sharks are mostly just observed during dry season here. We followed it and got up close only few meters away from the giant creature with its beautiful painting. Then it turned around and swam towards the group so everyone in the group saw it up close. We then said goodbye to the whaleshark as we had to go up for our safety stop. Without any surprise everyone went nuts once on the surface, talking screaming and laughing in excitement and joy. A lot of the divers had not done a lot of dives yet, but it does not take an experienced diver to realize how extraordinary this day had been. After a lunch break we then did a negative entry to our third and last dive of the day and again we had surprise visitors. A rare black tip reef shark and another manta ray came to say hi and swam past the group. Finally, we made our way back to the dive center with still a blue sky and memories for a life time. Even the instructor said it was one of her best days diving with 1000+ dives all over the world. Thank you Coiba for showing us all your beauty!!

– by Saskia

Here in Coiba we just can not get enough of rays hanging out with us on our dives with their movements so elegant it often seems like they are flying through water. Lately we have been particularly lucky and seen Mantas on most of our dives – sometimes just for a brief moment but more often than not they hang around for a bit or appear multiple times throughout a dive with every encounter unique in its own way.

Their colouring in particular on their belly is unique to every individual and allows to identify them.

The name manta originates from the Spanish and Portuguese word “manta” which means blanket or cloak and doesn’t refer to their colouring as one might think but instead to the way they used to be catched. They are mostly found in tropical and subtropical waters making Coiba National Park a perfect place to look for them.

Sometimes you will spot a fish seemingly attached to the manta near its head catching a ride and gaining some extra protection by its giant host. Those fish are called remora or are commonly also referred to as suckerfish as they quite literally suck onto their host. They do not have any negative impact on the ray in doing so, instead this is a special sort of symbiosis and exciting to observe as a diver and sometimes those little guys have been observed to even attach themselves to a diver.

Those giants reaching a fin span of up to nine meters do not just seem curious and smart – their brains are ten times larger than those of whale sharks and studies conducted in 2016 suggest they might even be able to recognize themselves in a mirror, a sign of self-awareness that is usually just observed in dolphins and certain species of monkeys. So, in a lot of ways those little geniuses like to outperform other members of their class with particularly skills in problem solving and communicating.

Some of our divers experienced that first hand when a manta ray entangled in plastic approached them. As the group was just getting ready for the safety stop the manta showed up swimming towards the group seemingly looking for help. After a bit of hesitation and back and forth it slowed down swimming at the same speed as the group as if it was realizing it is getting help now and let the dive instructor cut the plastic line it was entangled in. It stayed for a bit before the group surfaced and then swam away enjoying its freedom once more.

This is encounter adds to the stories that are out there about manta rays and dolphins who found themselves entangled approaching divers for help. It impressively illustrates how smart and communicative these creatures are but once more is a reminder of how important it is to keep our oceans clean and especially avoid plastic and plastic bags.

  • By Saskia, Photocredit: Katie and Kat

Sources: https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/fish/discover/species-profiles/manta-birostris
https://oceana.org/blog/manta-ray-brainpower-blows-other-fish-out-water-10
https://divezone.net/manta-ray