Patient cameraman Peter Schneider was the fortunate diver on the spot when two manta rays decided to get it on in public. Here, in a DIVER exclusive, is what he saw
RANGIROA IS THE PLACE I have called home since moving here five years ago. The biggest atoll in French Polynesia and the second biggest in the world, its name, which translates as 'huge sky', is no exaggeration. On a windless day, the smooth surface of the lagoon melts with the sky. Rangiroa is famous for its abundance of pelagic fish, especially sharks - great hammerheads, silvertips and hundreds of grey reef sharks. Film-makers such as Howard Hall, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Mantello make the long journey to the mid-Pacific to capture their images. With some of them I have had the honour to dive, my mini DV camcorder parked next to their huge Beta Cams, HDs and 3D Imax cameras. I have watched them work, sometimes with envy, though not for the tight shooting schedules that always force them to leave sooner than they might have wished. I have been able to dive again and again, filling tape after tape, first mini DV and now HDV, looking for the beauty in the beast, for a better shot than the last - for the 'one'.
IT IS 7 AUGUST, 2006 AND THE END of an afternoon drift dive through one of the two passes that connect Rangiroa's lagoon with the ocean. Starting in the blue, we have ended up in the Aquarium, a sandy patch dotted with coral heads and all kinds of tropical fish. I am welcomed by a tornado of barracuda, pass above the enormous school of grey reef sharks that guard the entrance of the pass and observe a great hammerhead scanning the bottom of the pass for prey. I am drifting at 8m, ready for a slow ascent, when a manta ray overtakes me. I try to follow and prepare my camera for recording, but she is swimming fast, as if late for an appointment. I feel like a snail on a racing track. But before disappointment can set in, a second, slightly smaller manta comes into sight, facing the current and hovering effortlessly on the spot. He looks to be the female's rendezvous point, and as I hit the record button of my Sony HDR-FX1, the female seems to accelerate. How have I figured out the gender of the two rays? I haven't - until now. The female passes the male and he turns, ready to follow her. She speeds up and he tries to keep pace. The two rays are soon out of sight and I stop recording. My pressure gauge is telling me it's time to surface. I have only 40 bar left in my 12-litre and am starting to think about the full beer bottle in my fridge. Three metres down, exactly a minute after I stopped the recording, I see an amazing spectacle and am almost paralysed by its beauty. I also became slightly panicky: 'Do the right thing... don't mess it up... Should I use a little zoom?... The current is pushing me closer all the time... Probably better to switch to automatic focus... I hope I don't disturb the act ... Start recording, start recording - now!' The camera is already running when my mind becomes clear again, and I make the final adjustments. Like flamenco dancers, the two rays whirl around each other. The male faces the female's back, trying to seduce her, but she is not yet ready and tries to keep some distance between them. The spectacle is so fascinating that I am having trouble keeping my eyes on the monitor. I am tempted to let go and watch the mantas 'live', but I realise it is possible that nobody has ever recorded this behaviour before. The male starts to push harder, trying to get into the right position, whatever that might be. He opens and shuts his mouth as if gulping for air - what is he doing? A moment later, it becomes evident. He is trying to bite her wingtip. She still seems to be trying to get away, but as their spins become faster he finally accomplishes his mission to latch onto her wing. This, it seems, is the key to success. The female ray is giving in. She stops flapping her wings, while he starts to flutter more rapidly. Her wingtip still held in his mouth, he pulls his body around this fixed spot until the two rays are facing each other. Belly to belly, he is ready to start. She appears paralysed, but his movements are getting faster. The copulation lasts some 30 seconds, then the two manta rays separate. He heads left and she exits my camera frame to the right. The two rays will probably never meet again, and I'm sure I will never again get the chance to witness such behaviour in the flesh.