I can’t believe that we’ve been in Bora over 4 months already! Between Bex and me, we have dived almost 5000 minutes (almost 85 hours) at the manta spot and encountered mantas more than 100 times. But now we only have 2 weeks left before we’re off to another French Polynesian island called Tikehau which has a separate population of reef mantas (Manta alfredi) to study. We have some population data from 2011 and 2012 and would like to make a start on a comparison for 2016. Should be exciting!... but more about Tikehau in a future post I’m sure.
Today, as we’re nearly at the end of our time in Bora, I wanted to write about some of our ‘regulars’ - mantas that we have encountered pretty frequently since we arrived and have quickly become our favourites. It’s easy to anthropomorphise these things I know, but when it’s just Bex and me in the channel and one of the regulars comes by, we do get the impression they recognise us; they come up so close and circle around us and are totally calm and intrigued. Even if they don’t recognise us personally they are at home around the divers and it makes me feel sure that we are not disrupting their way of life at all whilst conducting this research, which is a hugely important thing to consider.
First up, and we’ve only seen her once, but ST-MA-0079 was an incredibly pregnant manta we saw in the middle of May, and her story deserves a mention. She was so huge when we saw here that we sent some photos around to some of our manta ray expert friends. It turned out that she was first seen in 2004 as a baby but with a serious injury, most likely from a boat propeller. Her tail was totally severed and she had some bad wounds on her back. The researchers here at the time thought she might not make it but over the next two years she healed up leaving some nasty scarring and some deformity. However, after 2006 she wasn’t seen again and they feared the worse until we saw her in May. Needless to say we were all very pleasantly surprised that not only was she still alive but also pregnant and healthy. Great news!
OK so onto the really-regulars who are:
Ziggy is the oldest manta ray in the French Polynesia database. She was first seen 30th May 2001 at which point she was already a big mature female at about 3.5m across. Female mantas mature at around 15 years of age so that means she is now at least 30 years old but most likely older! We think she might be a little bigger still these days! 30 might seem old, and she is certainly getting on a bit, but she is still getting chased around by the male mantas here and we see her as part of ‘mating trains’ quite often. (See Bex’s post here for more info on these.) If she keeps going strong she could live to be 60 or more.
Blacky already had her name when the last manta ray scientists started work here in Bora Bora in 2002; she was given it by the locals because her belly is particularly spotty. She was first recorded in the database though on the 10th August 2002 at about 3m in size. This means she is an old timer too but probably not as old as Ziggy. We have a soft spot for Blacky as we have watched her pregnancy progress and her belly grow since we’ve been here. We haven’t seen her for a couple of weeks but last time we bumped into her she was pretty enormous!
Felix is probably our favourite. He was first seen on the 8th November 2012 at almost 3m and we have seen him more and more regularly as the season has gone one. He is without doubt the most chilled out manta we’ve met. When he sees us he often comes over, banking around and swimming circles around us to have a look. He has come close enough for my eye to be about 30cm from his and for his fin to hit me on the head as he passed by. He’s awesome. I took the photo below the other week and it has not been cropped at all, that’s how close he was to me! If you look closely you can see the reflection of me and my camera his eye! 0110 didn’t have a name before we arrived but he’s too cool to be known as nothing but a number so we chose the name Felix for him. We will miss him.
That’s about it for now, thanks for reading as always.
For the first couple of months of our stay here in Bora Bora, Graham and I were often kept up by the sound of strange, distance drumming in the night. These mysterious rumblings of percussion couldn’t help but inspire in our sleepy brains, images of the first people to arrive in Bora Bora; brave, seafaring adventurers who had traversed the South Pacific in tiny kayaks discovering new territories from Hawaii to Fiji to New Zealand. This drumming, it turned out, was actually the sound of rehearsals for the Heiva Festival which runs from mid-June to mid-July; an annual celebration of French Polynesia’s indigenous culture.
Here in Bora Bora local districts compete with each other in sporting events and through percussion, choir and dance performances in a large arena in the centre of Vaitape. Surrounding the stage are arcades, shops, restaurants and bars to which both locals and tourists flock each night; the smell of BBQs and delicious local dishes fills the air, children are allowed to stay out late and fill up on ice cream and sweets and the uplifting sound of singing and drums echoes across the tiny island. It’s a bustling, vibrant, festive time to visit. The arena and surrounding vendors were erected at the start of June with incredible speed especially for the event and disappeared a few weeks later just as fast. Notably missing from the lineup this year was the usual nightclub as it went up in flames not long after construction and burnt to the ground; Apparently a reasonably common set-back as the whole temporary construction is made of wood, straw and leaves and the stands are filled with BBQs, deep fat fryers and plenty of people smoking cigarettes. Luckily nobody was hurt but sadly for the people of Bora Bora, Graham will have to save his dance moves for another festival.
The arena was only a few minutes walk from our flat so we’ve been able to pop along and take in a few shows, all of which have been fantastic. The large-scale group dance performances in particular are spectacular and accompanied by percussion in such a way as to make the whole experience very hypnotic. The passion and dedication of local people to keep alive these elements of their culture is evident in the unbelievably high standard of their performances; It is stressed to the audience at the start of each show that these are all people with normal day jobs who spend hours every night in intensive rehearsals during the months leading up to the festival.
We were of course thrilled on one evening to spot two giant manta ray sculptures framing the stage as part of the decoration for one of the local district performances! Check out my video below but bear in mind that the poor sound quality does not do the choir justice.
Today the people of Polynesia are incredibly proud of their native manta rays but Polynesian mythology shows that they have not always felt this way; Just as old Western literature portrayed whales as terrifying, savage leviathans of the deep rather than the intelligent, social, sentient beings that we now realise they are, Polynesian mythology demonised the strange and mysterious manta ray. Some legends told of mantas using their huge, cloak-like bodies to smother pearl fishermen and prevent them from getting back to the surface to breath, others of mantas kidnapping children and carrying them out to sea. With their horn-like cephalic fins (the fins on either side of their head which they use to funnel water into their mouth), mantas are often referred to as devilrays in many parts of the world.
Modern day Polynesians know mantas to be beautiful, gentle giants with no track record for stealing children or smothering fishermen. In fact rather than posing any threat, mantas help to attract tourists from all over the world to French Polynesia and its many resorts and so each ray is estimated to be worth over $1million to the French Polynesian economy in it’s lifetime. Protecting manta rays in Bora Bora is not only great conservation, it also makes a lot of financial sense for local people and businesses.
Thanks for reading,