Snorkelling with Manta Rays, Coral Bay, WA.

Monday, 22 January 2018
Tour in Numbers
Dolphins: 3
Turtles: approx. 20
Sharks: 6 (four reef, one tiger and one nurse)
Squid: 1
Manta Rays: 1
Fish: too many to count

As a young child I was allergic to chlorine. In England, we don't really tend to go in the sea because... well, because we'd likely catch hypothermia, This means chlorinated pools were our only option for our dose of swimming. Eventually I grew out of my allergy and was quite the water child. I was part of the diving squad and I'd practically skip to school when I knew I had a swimming lesson that day. 

Somewhere along the line, I began to lose my passion for swimming, and water. And while I'd still spend my entire holiday in the pool, making friends and having underwater handstand competitions, I'd developed a mild fear about water. Mostly deep water in the ocean. On a family holiday in Turkey, a friend I had made jokily pushed me off a jetty into the sea. I found it terrifying because once in the water, as I'm unable to open my eyes in salt water, I can't see how far I have to swim back up to the surface. 

As I grew older, the fear grew with me. I'd refuse to swim in the sea any deeper than hip height and snorkelling was absolutely out of the question. 

Living in England, this didn't really make much of a difference to my life, we never even went to the beach, never mind swam in the sea. I did swam a few times in the gyms pool after working, then decided I didn't like it. So that was that. 

I made some progress with my fear when I travelled Europe with Topdeck, my friends managed to coax me to climb off of the sail boat and into the crystal clear Grecian water. Towards the end of the trip I even managed to jump off of a jetty. 

Fast-forward two years, in 2015 I travelled across the world from my small English town, to Perth in Western Australia. I loved Perth so much that two weeks turned into a month, which turned into three months... lo and behold, 2018, I'm still here. 

Hiding from water and avoiding the ocean isn't quite an option, living here. Perth is renowned for having beautiful beaches with crystal clear water and powdered white sand. 

Two months after arriving I went on an incredible road trip, we drove thirteen hours up the Western Australian coast. Perth has beautiful beaches but Exmouth is out of this world. I was eased into the water once more and handed a snorkel, and what I saw blew me away. A whole new world I had been completely oblivious to, coral the size of a car that must have been thousands of years old, hundreds of different species of fish and water as clear as glass. While that snorkelling excursion didn't rid me of my fear, it did open my eyes to what I'd been missing out on. 

Three months later I snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef. This was an absolutely phenomenal experience in itself. However, the best was still yet to come. 

On January 2nd 2018, I made the journey back up to Exmouth a mere month after my last visit, though this time it took considerably less time as I flew. As we only had four days to show my mum and aunt round our favourite spots, we planned a jam-packed itinerary and decided to take them out on the water. We decided to choose a Coral Bay tour and made it our main aim to swim with manta rays, as Michael and I had swam with turtles and sharks the month before and hoped to add manta rays to our repertoire. 

Our last minute decision to book on that tour was the best decision we could have made. We booked onto the Marine Life tour with Coral Bay EcoTours. Our crew members Ruby, Lily, Daniel and our skipper Matty were absolute super stars. Each one of them was so knowledgable, caring and all round a great help at easing any nerves we may have had. 

We met the team at their store front in People's Park, Coral Bay. Having already paid, all we had to do was fill in a questionnaire about our medical history and other such important details, get sized up with flippers and hop onto their minibus that would take us straight to their boat at the harbour. 

Before climbing on the boat we all placed our shoes into a basket then the team helped us down the ladder and onto the boat. Kurni-ku has a large upper deck viewing area which means we had an excellent view of any turtles, sharks and dolphins that happened to swim by, plus we got to work on our tans. 

Once on board, we were offered a wetsuit and given a safety brief and given a little information about the boat, the reef and what the team get up to day to day. Our plan for the day was to have a total of three snorkelling stops. Stop one was compulsory and was to help everybody on board get used to the water, to iron out any possible kinks with our gear out before we swam with the mantas. Anyone on the boat who wasn't 100% comfortable within the water was offered a pool noodle for support.

Each time I've snorkelled before now, my friends have been swimming around like fish, diving down for a closer look at all the gorgeous marine life. I can't say I haven't tried to dive down, but I've always found it difficult to get further than approximately 30cm from the surface. So I decided to take our first stop as an opportunity to get a lesson in duck diving, in hope of getting a closer look at some of the marine life we'd see that day and fingers crossed get a cool picture or two. 

Ruby and Lily were excellent and gave me some tips, mainly, just bend at the hips and swim down. Don't overthink it. As far as equalising, which means to equalise the pressure within your years and the underwater environment, it depends how far you go and also different for each individual. Lily suggested she finds it easier to equalise before diving, and regularly on the way down.  I found it easiest to equalise by holding my nose while trying to blow hard through it. Like we do on a plane when our ears 'pop.' There are easier ways to equalise, without holding your nose, but for the life of me I can't work out how to do it. 

Photo credit: Daniel Thomas Images

During this first stop we were lucky enough to see a giant blue clam, an absolutely huge puffer fish, the tail end of a grey nurse shark (which I didn't quite manage to spot), a variety of beautiful fish and a sea cucumber. 

On the way to the second stop, while we were waiting for the spotter plane to get up in the air to look for our manta rays, we sailed through a turtle sanctuary. While we weren't able to get out and swim here, we had such a great time keeping an eye out for the turtles from the upper deck. With the water being so clear we could see them popping up for air all around us, then heading back down below. We were lucky enough to spot a couple of dolphins playing in the waves too. 

Daniel, the boats amazing onboard photographer who is responsible for 90% of the amazing pictures in this post, informed us that turtles spend as little time as possible at the surface. This is down to the fact that this is where the turtles are more vulnerable to attack from predators, considering they have a soft underbelly compared to their hard shell exterior on top. 

While a boat near us had found a manta and begun their swim, we waited for 11am for the spotter plane to find us our own. Once up in the air there was no sight of another manta, so we shared the one manta between our two boats, in alternating groups. There is a limit on how many people are allowed to swim with a manta at once, down to passengers viewing pleasure and of course the wellbeing of the marine life. We were lucky to be a relatively small group so we were all able to swim at once.

The crew got us to flipper up, get our snorkels on and pack as closely together at the very back of the boat as we could so we were ready to be dropped off with the snorkel and begin our swim at a moment notice. By this point, excitement and nerves were reaching an all time high. We were told not to swim in front of the manta and also to not dive down too close to it so everyone had a chance to see it, just in case it became startled. Everyone was stood at the back of the boat, chattering excitedly and holding on as Matty slowly backed us towards where the manta was swimming. When Matty gave the okay, we were all advised to get in the water as quickly as possible and follow Daniel, Lily and Ruby. 

On entering the water, we were told to look down and prepare for the manta to swim under us. 

Photo credit: Daniel Thomas Images
Honestly, nothing can prepare you for that moment. Before getting into the water, I had thought it might be scary to see something quite so big swimming towards me. However, that couldn't have been further from the truth. Manta rays are such graceful creatures, they glide through the water in an elegant almost bird-like manner. Manta rays are often referred to as the oceans peaceful giants, which could not be more apt. Unlike sting rays, a mantas tail is harmless. Daniel mentioned that our manta's tail had likely been eaten by a hammerhead shark. 

We all swam along behind the manta for a little while, before Daniel offered to take some pictures of us swimming above the manta. By this point we were allowed to dive down a little, but were told to be mindful of the mantas personal space.

Daniel managed to snap this amazing picture of Michael diving down to get some close up footage on his GoPro. 

Photo credit: Daniel Thomas Images
We rotated turns with the other boat and swam with the manta ray a total of four times, before moving onto our next and final spot where we were lucky enough to swim with some reef sharks, a turtle and a shoal of blue green chromis.

When getting onto the boat, everyone expressed discomfort at the idea of swimming with sharks. As a society we're so conditioned to fear sharks, from the movies we watch, to the news channels we follow. Sharks get a pretty bad rep, especially here in WA where we have a lot of coverage on shark attacks. Matty was keen to explain to us that reef sharks especially are extremely shy, they have very little interest in us. We witnessed this first hand during the next snorkel.

Ashos Gap hosts a busy reef shark cleaning station. Reef sharks and turtles come swim over the large cabbage shaped coral, or 'bommie,' and some smaller cleaning fish swim into their mouth and up to their gills to clean away the parasites.

It's such an incredible sight to watch creatures we are so conditioned to fear, peacefully swimming around 8m below us, with zero interest in what we are doing. Another incredible sight is the sheer size of the bommie coral, it is staggering to think about quite how long that coral must have been growing for.

The below photo of the sharks was not taken during our trip, it is one of the on-board photographer, Daniel's best photographs from his season. It is almost exactly how it looked to us on the day, we were just looking at the scene from above!  

Photo credit: Daniel Thomas Images

Photo credit: Daniel Thomas Images

Once we'd all seen the sharks, we swam back through Asho's gap in order to head back to the boat. After passing through a shallow channel between the coral we were greeted by a shoal of blue green chromis swimming peacefully around. Blue green chromis are an iridescent green and blue fish, that reflect the suns rays like nothing I have seen before. Though you cannot see in the photos quite how many chromis there were, it was truly like swimming through a galaxy of stars. 

Photo credit: Daniel Thomas Images

Lunch on the boat consisted of some delicious chicken rolls with a selection of fruit, vegetables and salad. While we picked the crews brains on their experiences and knowledge of the reef we spotted a tiger shark swimming peacefully past the boat. I also learned that it is easiest to see what is under the water when wearing sunglasses with high quality UV protection, the more you know! 

I have come away from the excursion with a new found love for the sea, a newfound understanding and respect for sharks and a burning desire to head back up and do some more underwater exploring.

To the team at Coral Bay EcoTours, thank you for a magical day. We'll definitely be back! 

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