Well it has been a long while since we last posted. September has come and gone and Graham and I have now moved on to New Zealand to start our long journey home. Our last month working on the French Polynesian Manta Ray Project was spent in Tikehau where we had no electricity and no internet connection so we were unable to update our blog at all so there is a lot to cover! This is the first of two posts on our time in Tikehau.
Like Bora Bora and the other islands of French Polynesia, Tikehau is the remnants of an extinct volcano; but where Bora Bora’s volcano peaks still rise 727m out of the ocean as a lush, forest-covered island at the centre of it’s atoll, Tikehau’s has entirely disappeared into the sea leaving only a thin ring of islets (motus) above the water’s surface. These palm tree covered motus, with their idyllic white sandy beaches and vibrant coral reefs, surround a shimmering, turquoise lagoon teeming with fish. Tikehau must be one of the most ludicrously beautiful places we have ever seen. Seriously, this place is nuts!
There is a popular dive site in Tikehau that has for many years been a perfect spot for observing manta rays; a cleaning station in less than 5m of water with reliably great visibility where divers would regularly see numerous mantas at a time. It was at this site that Vincent (a dive instructor and talented underwater photographer we met in Bora Bora) took hundreds of photographs of manta rays in 2011 and 2012 from which we have identified 74 individuals. We were excited to get to Tikehau to collect some new data at this site for comparison and of course to meet some new mantas. However before we left Bora Bora, Tikehau Plongee (the company taking us diving) contacted us to let us know that this year the manta rays have almost completely stopped visiting the cleaning station.
We headed out to Tikehau at the start of September, hopeful that the mantas may have returned or that we may be able to find them at a different site. Within a day of arriving in Tikehau we spotted a few manta rays swimming close past the tiny motu island on which we were staying. Apparently this is a common sight and the inhabitants of our island (of which there were five) regularly spot two or three mantas passing by each morning at roughly the same time. Perhaps, we thought, we may be lucky enough to be able to get in the water regularly with these mantas within meters of our bedroom window! So our landlord, a local fisherman, took us out in his small boat to try and get a closer look but it proved too difficult to keep up with the mantas by snorkelling. The waters were a little rough, the visibility dreadful and the mantas were not hanging about, just passing through on route to another unknown destination. Within the space of a few minutes they had vanished again. Photographing their bellies in these conditions would be impossible.
Tikehau Plongee checked the cleaning station for mantas daily but the rays did not return. Instead they took us diving at a site known as ‘The Pass’ where they have seen mantas a number of times before. For Graham and I it was not to be, the mantas didn’t show up for any of our dives but we did see an abundance of other incredible wildlife.
Huge schools of jacks and barracuda swirled over our heads while cumbersome napoleon wrasse cruised by swivelling their bulbous eyes around in their sockets to stare at us strange, gangly, bubbly-making creatures. Tikehau’s healthy, mature reefs are teeming with fish, nudibranchs, eels, octopus, crustaceans and a whole world of exciting macro life; we could have happily spent hours searching just a few square meters of reef with our cameras there was so much to find. On almost every dive we had the pleasure of hanging out with multiple sea turtles, all far more interested in their dinner than they were in us. Check out this video I took of a particularly determined sea turtle feeding on the reef.
So where have all the manta rays gone and why did they leave the cleaning station? We’ll save that for the next post!
Thanks for reading,