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Day 25 – My Manta Ray Is All Right (Scuba Liveaboard 4)

March 28, 2010

Dateline: Return to Koh Tachai, Similan Islands, Thailand – Sunday, March 28, 2010

This is Day 4 of a four day series. Click here to read the official introduction to this entry. Click here to read starting from Day 1 of this series.

Americans believe they are in control. We think that with enough effort we can tame anything. If we put enough money and energy into a problem, we can solve it. To us, the world is fully understandable. Nothing is beyond our grasp.

That’s foolishness, of course. We are at the mercy of chance as much as we are masters of our domain. True, hard work and ability may put you in the position to get lucky, but you still have to get lucky. Alexander Fleming wouldn’t have discovered a use for penicillin unless, right before he went on vacation, he got a bit sloppy storing his staphylococcus bacteria samples. The Steelers wouldn’t have won their divisional playoff game unless the Immaculate Reception ricocheted just so. A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and a charming actress in Mean Girls becomes Lindsay Lohan. Don’t be fooled by your Protestant work ethic—fortune, chance, and the gods determine our fate as much as we do.

That little truth nugget is part of why I love diving. The ocean puts you in your place, reminding you that you’re smaller than you think. A strong current sweeps your dive party from side-to-side and you realize that you’re at nature’s mercy. As you surface for the boat, the ocean gets choppy and you bob in the water like a Halloween party apple. You find a brightly colored nudibranch tucked in a reef crevice and you wonder how anyone could fully understand the depths of the ocean.

When you’re subject to a power much greater than you, you have to get lucky. Face the wrong direction and you’ll end up being the only one who doesn’t see a sea turtle. It’s silly little things like where your head is turned that make the difference between spotting your white whale and not. Having control doesn’t enter into it.

On dive trips like this, you want so badly to see the local highlight. You search. You try. You seek. You might even stress. No matter what you do though, sometimes the ocean doesn’t give up its treasure. You’re helpless.

If you’re smart, you give up. You let go. You accept that the process is a joy in itself. You acknowledge that you have no control. You embrace the fact that the will of the ocean is mysterious and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Or, you can rub your nipples.

Yup. You heard me. Turns out dive boy from Day 1 of this liveaboard trip was touchy for a reason. The dive guides are convinced that if you rub your nipples, you’re more likely to see the most elusive animal on our trip, the manta ray.

Now, I’m not convinced this is an actual superstition. I have a feeling it started as a joke to get pretty girls to fondle themselves. But who am I to question the wisdom of wise old divers. Perhaps there is power in the areola.

Regardless, the practice has caught on. Before each dive in a manta hot spot, the guide doing the dive briefing has encouraged us to give our teats a wiggle. The dive boys are quite hands on in helping us get in the spirit. It makes no sense. Most of us do it to humor the guides, half-heartedly rubbing through let’s-humor-them smiles.

Not today, though. Today, on the last dive of our trip, we all rubbed in earnest. It was our last chance to see the elusive manta . We’d returned to a cleaning station where the giants sometimes come to let cleaner fish freshen them up. Last time we were here, we saw nothing. We needed to get lucky. Really lucky.

Me? I decided to rub my nips for real. Previously, I’d rubbed through my shirt or my wetsuit. This time I went with skin-on-skin action. I even let my dive boy buddy have a go at my bare chest. No sense in holding back now. This was our last shot. Besides, the practice appealed to my American sensibility. It made me feel like I had some control.

Into the water we went. For the first few minutes, we coasted over the coral plateau. Then, out of the ocean blue it came. A manta. Measuring nearly 3 meters long, it swooped past us, slowly flapping its wings. Unlike its sting ray cousins, manta rays lack the dangerous pointy tail (this is important, see: Steve Erwin). Still, we couldn’t chase after it lest we scare it away and ruin it for the other divers. The creature would have to come to us.

Quickly, every diver on our boat (including those who’d entered as part of the second group) was floating next to each other trying to stay as still as possible as we watched the beast glide back and forth over the reef. Looking at us all frozen at different depths, barely moving, it appeared as if we were seated in an invisible stadium, our heads moving in unison as if we were at a slow-mo tennis match.

Then, the manta crested the ridge of the reef and was gone. Rubi, our guide, led us away from the large group of divers to explore more of the reef. He pointed out a shark and we gave chase. In the midst of our pursuit the manta reappeared and we resumed our reverential stance. I think it missed us.

The show continued, even as we surfaced for the boat. Back on board, everyone was in a good mood. On the last dive of the last day, we saw our manta. We reveled in our luck the whole four hour trip back to port.

Diligence, hard work, and effort had nothing to do with our sighting. We had no control. Just so happened the sea felt like playing nice.

Even rubbing our nipples didn’t make the manta show up. I know this for a fact because I’m rubbing mine right now and there ain’t a manta in sight. Or maybe what I need is the help of a dive boy.

GALLERY: Click through to see one of Mervyn’s favorite galleries which includes bonus pictures of his dive buddies, a close up of Mervyn’s guide Rubi, a lots more pictures of the manta. Best of all, there’s an above water picture of Mervyn with Ozzie, Robin, Christopher, and Rubi. You know you want to see that.

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