Reef mantas are an incredible mix of grace and symmetry combined with intelligence and curiosity
From a distance, there is little to distinguish the small island of Gonu Bara Bara from the myriad others in this part of southern Milne Bay Province. And few would guess that just off its northern beach is probably the best place in all of Papua New Guinea to see the magnificent reef manta ray, Manta alfredi. Reef mantas had been known to patrol the beach for many years, but all attempts to try and interact with them were random at best—maybe you would see one or more, maybe you wouldn’t…
Then, back in 2002, almost by accident, Craig de Wit discovered why the mantas were there. Craig is the skipper of the Golden Dawn liveaboard, which had been charted to search for mantas, and he had gone to all the best-known Milne Bay locations but did not find a single one. Finally, in an act of inspired desperation, he responded to the pleas of James, the boat’s engineer, who assured him that there were lots of mantas just off the beach of his home island, Gonu Bara Bara.
“I decided to go for a dive along the beach hoping to get close, and while drifting along in the current came across the cleaning station, and I guess the rest is now history,” recalls Craig, who christened the cleaning station “Giants@Home.” I was fortunate to experience it first-hand just two weeks after that discovery.
In the years since the manta cleaning station at Gonu Bala Bala was first discovered, it has become renowned among savvy divers and underwater shooters
Time for a Service
Cleaning stations are a kind of underwater demilitarized zone, where the normal Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest rules of the reef are put on hold while matters of personal hygiene are attended to. Mantas, like most medium and large underwater creatures, suffer infestation from tiny parasitic crustaceans and have no real way of removing them without some help.
That help comes in the shape of small creatures like shrimps, gobies and wrasses who cohabit in specific locations known to both sides as places of mutual benefit: The larger creatures get rid of their unwanted guests and the small ones are allowed access to areas they would normally never venture to feed on the rich pickings found there.
A cleaner shrimp sanitizes the mouth of an appreciative moray eel
Interestingly, most of the creatures that do the work have developed stripes, which are believed to identify them as “cleaners” to their potential customers! Cleaning stations, in general, are easy to recognize, tend to be quite common, and are great places to observe—and photograph—the interaction between hygienists and their clients.
Typically, when a large fish enters a station, it signals its needs by assuming a trance-like posture, often with its mouth wide open and gills extended outwards so that the cleaners can get access to the most difficult areas. It is quite normal to see the cleaners foraging in the deepest recesses of a fish’s mouth. The usual signal that the truce is over is a shudder from the fish, and the cleaners quickly make a sharp exit!
Reef mantas are big animals with few predators and have wingspans that max out at about 18 feet
Most are white, but some mantas’ bellies are covered with black splotches
Ideal Manta Encounters
Manta rays are filter-feeding planktivores that use their mouths and modified gill plates to strain plankton and small fishes from the water. They have teeth—which are tiny and peg-like, about the size of a pinhead—but they are not used for feeding. Instead, they are utilized during breeding so that the mating mantas can hold on to each other.
Manta rays are essentially harmless to the cleaners, but they are big animals, the maximum wingspan of reef mantas reaching around 18 feet, with the larger oceanic manta, Manta birostris, getting to at least 23 feet. Truly intriguing creatures that are both intelligent and curious, mantas have brains that are significantly larger in proportion to their body size than other fish. Being in their presence is an absolute joy, and cleaning stations are a great way to maximize that interaction time.
Open-water encounters with reef mantas are typically fleeting in nature. They will check you out, but that’s usually it; then they move on. By contrast, at a cleaning station, there are more mantas and they stay longer as they take turns being serviced.
At cleaning stations, mantas tend to hang out in larger numbers and for longer
Cleaning stations will usually be close to an area with a strong current that brings the rich plankton that mantas feed on. This explains the mantas near Guna Bara Bara, as close by is the China Strait, which connects the Coral Sea to the south with Milne Bay and the Solomon Sea to the north.
Giants@Home is a particularly good station, as it is shallow at about 30 feet, so bottom time is not an issue. It is literally just off the beach, which makes it very safe, and water clarity is usually (though not always) pretty good. But the exceptional thing about its location at Gunu Bara Bara is that it can only really be dived from a liveaboard, and therefore the total number of divers in the area is the size of the group on the boat, and shifts can be organized to minimize the number in the water at any point in time.
Timing at Giants@Home does not seem to really matter, and I have seen mantas on the bommie throughout the day. They are not always there, but very rarely will you dive there and not see at least one; often, it will be many more.
Make sure to underexpose a little to avoid any burnt-out areas in white-bellied mantas
When using flash, position your strobes behind the camera, pointing outwards, to avoid backscatter
Manta Ray Protocol
We have all seen those old images of “intrepid divers” riding on the backs of manta rays by holding onto a couple of resident remoras. So 1970s! But at least the offenders could claim ignorance… Today, reef mantas are on the IUCN Red List as “Vulnerable”, which means they are likely to become classified as “Endangered” unless the circumstances threatening their survival and reproduction improve. Oceanic mantas, meanwhile, are even more threatened and were moved up on that ominous list to “Endangered” at the end of 2020.
As divers, we are privileged to experience such creatures, and it goes without saying that it is our responsibility to behave properly when we do. We should never, ever, try to ride a manta like those guys from back in the day, and we should never touch, chase or harass them in any way.
What we should do—and in my personal experience, this is by far the best way to get the most fruitful interactions—is to position ourselves around the cleaning station so that the mantas have a clear entry and exit. Don’t get too close, as you will be in the way and the mantas won’t come in, as they appear to feel vulnerable when hovering to be cleaned and are easily spooked. Once they have made a few passes and got used to you, they will often come close to really check you out. This is the best type of encounter, as it is on the manta’s terms and they are in control. Basically, behave and you will be amply rewarded!
Mantas make versatile subjects that can be photographed a dozen different ways
How to Dive Gonu Bara Bara
The only way to dive at Gunu Bara Bara is from a liveaboard, and there are two that service the area:
- MV Chertan, which is owned and operated by Rob van der Loos, is based in Alotau, the capital of Milne Bay Province, and operates year-round in Milne Bay, with regular visits to the China Strait, Samarai Island and of course Gonu Bara Bara. Rob has been running dive trips in Milne Bay since 1986 and knows the area better than anybody else.
- MV Oceania, which is normally based from Kimbe Bay in New Britain, also dives Gonu Bara Bara during its annual relocation to Milne Bay from January to March each year. Oceania’s skipper and owner Dan Johnson is a seasoned PNG operator who is very committed to diving the country’s best locations.
For your next big-animal adventure, make sure to short-list Gonu Bara Bara, where awesome manta encounters are all but guaranteed
In more normal times, Don is based in Bali, and his website www.indopacificimages.com has extensive location guides, articles and images on some of the world’s best diving locations and underwater experiences. Make sure to check out DPG’s Photographer of the Week article featuring more of Don’s awesome pictures.
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