Swimming with manta rays in Coral Bay was never something we planned to do. We had our sights set on a bigger prize – whale sharks. When we arrived at Nigaloo Reef, we sought out the tour operators only to hear discouraging news.
As it was early in the whale shark season, sightings had been both brief and inconsistent. With the cost of the activity rivalling a family trip to Disneyland, we made the difficult decision not to risk it.
Nat was disappointed as she’d had her heart set on swimming with whale sharks for months. I urged her to go on her own, but she just couldn’t get past the cost of only maybe seeing something. Reluctantly, she put the activity on our list of things to do another time.
Manta rays in Coral Bay instead?
The tour operator sensed she had lost a sale so presented us with another option. ‘How about manta rays? There are plenty of them around at the moment.’ My head tipped back, and I groaned. I thought I had only groaned on the inside but apparently not. ‘Ignore him. That sounds great’.
Nat booked us on a tour and I apologised for my audible reaction. I felt a little embarrassed. Groaning at manta rays is like saying polar bears are ugly or you hate dolphins – it just isn’t done. The problem was, I was still haunted by a past manta ray experience.
On a trip to Hawaii I discovered it was home to one of my favourite snacks – macadamia nuts. I left the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Factory with an unhealthily large supply of the chocolate coated variety. The sweet treats made do for lunch and afternoon tea. Being in holiday mode, I certainly wasn’t living by the motto of ‘everything in moderation’.
By the time I left for my evening activity – a manta ray tour – I was already feeling a little bit queasy. A bumpy boat ride followed by snorkelling atop an undulating sea, soon had me learning a nauseating lesson in gluttony.
I soldiered on hoping that the sight of the manta rays would ease my suffering. Thirty minutes later, a manta ray finally arrived in the illuminated viewing area. Relieved that I was about to get a reward for my discomfort, I watched it appear, complete a single barrel roll then swim away.
Our guides decided shortly after that there were no more rays around, so we were called back to the boat. Looking greener than a bottle of lime cordial and disappointed to have only seen ten seconds of manta ray action, I was quite ready to call it a day.
I hauled myself back onto the boat and swore I would have nothing to do with manta rays ever again.
Where are Coral Bay manta rays?
Familiar with this story, Nat strictly monitored my diet before our tour. Even with a chocolate-free lead up I still wasn’t convinced that we would see anything.
My confidence improved when I learned a spotter plane located them. The plane radioed our boat which then positioned us as close to the ray as possible before we jumped in and snorkelled over to it.
Our first manta ray for the morning was soon located and our group hurried into the water. The water was surprisingly cloudy. Snorkelling and poor visibility don’t usually mix but, when the water is cloudy with plankton and you’re chasing manta rays, the conditions are ideal.
After a short swim the manta ray was located. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the mood to entertain a couple of dozen excited tourists. It swam away, quickly disappearing into the milky water. We made our way back to the boat; I tried to repress the sensation of déjà vu.
We were soon directed to a new location. We all jumped in again and followed our guide’s lead. Then, from out of the murk, the shape we were looking for appeared.
Directly below us a manta ray was performing loop de loops as it fed on the plankton-rich water. As one, our group stopped swimming and lay motionless on top of the water watching the manta ray gracefully barrel-roll just metres below.
A few minutes later, two more mantas joined in, one all of four metres across. It was breathtaking. They rolled and rolled in perfect acrobatic formation seemingly oblivious to our presence. You could see their enormous sieve-like mouths filling with the food-rich water.
For their size and speed, I expected there to be more noise. But the only sound was water lapping against your face, the hypnotic circling of the manta rays your sole focus. It was one of nature’s great shows.
When they had finished feeding and swam off in single file, there was no effort to pursue them. The experience had completely tranquilised our adrenaline-charged group.
Back at the boat, snorkels came out and we attempted to put into words the incredible sight just witnessed. It was one of those moments that define a holiday. It is still one of the experiences our family most often remembers.
We stayed at the Bayview Park but really, Coral Bay is one of those places where you’re only at the park to eat and sleep. Yep, the staff were friendly, the sites were big and the facilities were clean. Most importantly though, you’re less than a five minute walk from snorkelling on Ningaloo reef!
Manta Ray Facts
- A giant Manta Ray can span 7 meters
- Manta Rays live for an average of 50 years
- A group of Manta Rays are called a squadron
- They eat a large quantity of zooplankton
- They swim to depths of over 500m
- Manta rays can swim up to 24 km p/h