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THE ELUSIVE BYRON MANTA

By Nigel Marsh

 

I always dive Byron Bay with a photographic subject in mind. The subject depends on the season as Byron’s reefs receive a number of fascinating visitors throughout the year. While I have achieved my photographic goals numerous times, on other occasions my subject has eluded me, only to be rewarded by something else.

 

Manta rays are seen at Byron Bay over the warmer months, and before heading to Byron at Easter I was told they were being seen daily. Loading my gear onto the dive boat at Sundive I was pretty confident of seeing, and  photographing, at least one manta ray, a species that I haven’t had much luck with at Byron. When dive guide Paul informed me that they had played with a manta ray just the day before, I thought this was going to be my lucky day.

 

Heading down to the beach to launch the dive boat the conditions couldn’t have been better; light winds, small swell and sunshine, very unusual as it always rains at Byron at Easter. We quickly had the boat in the water and were off to Julian Rocks.

 

When Skipper Roger tied to the mooring at The Nursery the water looking clear and blue. Once in the water we found the visibility to be 15m and quickly encountered some Byron regulars - spotted and ornate wobbegongs, blue gropers and green turtles. While I general don’t like to follow a guide, I thought it might be a good idea to follow Paul today and hope he would lead me to the manta rays.

 

Paul led us on a tour, through a number of gutters and then to the famous Cod Hole, which was full of fish. Swarming around the cave were schools of mulloway, kingfish, bullseyes, trevally and surgeonfish, while inside were giant sweetlips, red morwong and some large banded wobbegongs.

 

We then drifted to the northern end of Julian Rocks, with an eye out for manta rays, but instead saw more kingfish, mulloways and a couple of black cod. Heading down the east side of the rock we glimpsed a leopard shark in the distance, then another one, then another. Suddenly there were leopard sharks everywhere.

 

Leopard sharks are most commonly seen lazing on the bottom, but these were all cruising around the reef. Leopard sharks are also summer visitors to Byron and disappear as soon as the water cools. I attempted to photograph the sharks, but they were very skittish, and wouldn’t come any closer than 6m.

 

While waiting patiently for a leopard to come close I looked up to see an amazing sight - a school of a hundred plus Australian cownose rays flying by in a giant flock. These rays proved to be even more elusive than the leopard sharks, staying around 10m away. The only time I have got really close to these unusual looking rays in the past has been when I have run out of film, and that is not likely to happen these days with digital. I watched the cownose rays glide away and noticed a couple of ring-ins in the pack, a spotted eagle ray and a mobula ray.

 

With bottom time quickly disappearing I still hadn’t got any images of a leopard shark, even though there were about a dozen swimming about me. I settled on a ridge and had two sharks heading towards me, the first took off as soon as it saw me, but the second, a small female, came straight at me and proceeded to circle me for a minute. I got my leopard shots and ascended.

 

After a quick trip back to Sundive, for a change of tanks and divers, we were again at The Nursery. I was determined to see a manta ray and thought it was a good sign when we saw one on the surface not far from the mooring. We decided not to go with the guide this time and headed towards The Needles, confident of finding a manta ray.

 

We encountered wobbegongs, moray eels, blue gropers, turtles, leopard sharks, globefish and anemonefish as we swam through The Nursery, but no manta ray. At The Needles we found similar marine life, but no manta ray. Heading through the gutters at the southern end of Julian Rocks we found stingrays, lionfish, schooling fish, turtles, leopard sharks and even a grey nurse shark, but still no manta ray.

 

We spent the last of our dive with a dozen leopard sharks cruising around us. I had missed my manta ray again, but I couldn’t really complain as the leopard sharks were just wonderful. But when we got back to the boat we discovered that the other divers had all seen a manta ray that had circled them for five minutes. I should have followed my own advice and stuck with the guide!

 

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