Manta Hunt

It was February when I decided to go to Berau Regency of East Kalimantan. A local friend of mine name Yudhi Rizal offered us to see whale sharks that often appears in Talisayan, a coastal district. When I arrived at there, it was windy and the waves weren’t that friendly. I was hoping that the whale sharks would appear but they have decided not to. Oh well, you cannot force the nature to always give what you want to experience in life. So I went to Derawan Island instead because I didn’t get the chance to dive there when I first visited the island a while back. I have dived at some nearby islands, such as Sangalaki Island and Kakaban Island.To reach Derawan Island, I had to take a speedboat from Kampung Tanjung Batu (Kampungmeans village).  I was with my friends, Yudhi, Muhdi and Feri. We started the journey from Tanjung Redep, the capital city of Berau Regency by riding a white 4wd SUV. The road was long ahead of us, as if it is promising a special treat at the end of the road. The left and right view of it was full with green scenery as we pass. I have always liked the dense forest of Kalimantan of long tall trees and crawling plants everywhere.

Yudhi drove fast on the grey asphalt. At the half way point towards Kampung Tanjung Batu, the sky was overcast, grey and dull. Then the rain poured heavily together with the wind. I had a sudden thought that we might have to cancel the dive trip due to the adverse weather conditions. Driving through the rain, I felt our car was instantly filled with doubt and uncertainty. I asked Yudhi, ‘So, how is it? We can’t dive with this kind of weather right? What are we going to do?’ He answered calmly but I could also feel deep inside his head that he is thinking about something, ‘Kita tetap dive dong’- ‘Of course, we are still diving’ and smiled. ‘Hmmmmmm…. ‘ I said while thinking in doubt. The car was in silence. Adventures are always fun when the sun is out for diving I thought.

Arriving at Kampung Tanjung Batu, the rain was raging and the wind was dancing within it. We parked the car and ran quickly to a shelter. There were some people at a small building who are already protecting their selves from the bad weather. Standing there looking at the surrounding environment, it was unlikely for us to continue the adventure. The sky and sea was just flat dark grey in harmony leaving a poor visibility. The wind gave big ripples on the sea surface. We waited for Yudhi’s acquaintance who was a speedboat driver called Icuk Sugiarto to look for some extra fuel. As I wait, I look at the middle of the room there was a chess game on a table. It was a big wooden box coloured black and white squares with cheap plastic chess. I am sure it was left there for the Fishermans or the locals to play at a certain time. So, me and Feri decided to play the chess while waiting and pray that the weather would be much better later when we leave. After several games, the four of us wanted to have hot soup of soto ayam (Soto is a traditional hot soup, ayam means chicken). Then we ran across another building to buy a bowl of hot delicious soto ayam to warm us up. Icuk the speedboat driver finally came carrying a big plastic bottle of fuel. The rain was light but the colour of the atmosphere is still the same. After finishing up our soto, we grab our diving equipments and bags from the car towards the speedboat.

I sat at the front of the speedboat beside Icuk, while my three friends sat at the back. We then continued our journey to Derawan Island from the small port. It was still drizzly and gloomy when we left. At least in this kind of weather, I was hoping to see the green turtles that Derawan Island is well known for. Only by snorkelling, you could see the green turtles near by the shore and even though you are on top of a bridge, you could also see them swimming freely. Then after that, I was thinking of having a dive. I was imagining it already as we started to leave.

Icuk drove very fast and passionately. He tried to be in rhythm with the rolling waves, so the speedboat would smack the waves a little more gently and wouldn’t hurt us as his passengers. Icuk told me, “Ombaknya lagi kurang baik, biasanya arah pulang nanti ombaknya akan lebih kasar. Kemarin saya bawa tamu ke Derawan ombaknya lebih besar daripada hari ini, kalau sekarang mendingan Mba.” – “The waves are less good today, usually on the way back the waves would be rougher. I brought some visitors yesterday and the waves are much bigger than this. Today is a little bit better”.

Going fast and penetrating through the bad weather, I felt that my soul is growing with adventurous feeling. Despite the gloomy weather, the inner side of me could feel the fun in doing such adventurous activities. I now came into a conclusion that being an adventuress, activities doesn’t have to be in a good sunny day. It could go through any kind of weather and still feel good and explorative because having an adventurous soul means it has to be in one with the nature.  Looking down at my left side, I could see the sea has clear dark green water, filled with corals and only about 3-5 meters down you can reach the bottom of the sea. Icuk definitely knows his way to drive his speedboat so it won’t damage the corals. He sometimes stands up and bent his body while steering the boat full speed. I am sure he is very used to it especially at this kind of weather because he doesn’t seem to have fear; and smiles most of the time. Looking at him like that, it boosts up the adventurous feeling within me. I felt comfortable and I want to feel exactly how the locals would feel when they are having a voyage when they are travelling at the sea. I felt calm and my heart feels light along the way. Even though, I am just sitting down as a passenger, I still have to adjust my sit every time we played with the waves. To be honest, this was fun!  Enjoying the ride, Icuk told me that we are passing by the deep water and it will take us around 15 minutes to reach the shallow sea again. And it is! We entered the shallow sea again. After a while, we have reached our destination, the Derawan Island. The ride took us around an hour.

When the speedboat touched the shoreline of the island, we jumped out of it. We went to Yudhi’s acquaintance to borrow some diving equipments, such as weight belts, BCD (buoyancy control device), SPG (submersible pressure gauge) and cylinders. After we had checked all the diving equipment, we put it all into the speedboat, and then ready to dive nearby the island. Suddenly, Yudhi received a call from a friend at Sangalaki Island giving information about Mantas passing by their island area because it is one of the Manta’s routes to pass by. I remembered last time I dived several times there to see the Manta’s, but did not have the luck to see them yet, instead I saw two leopard sharks around there as an exchange. So, it would be definitely nice to see those Manta’s! We discussed and agreed to go. We jumped inside the boat happily. But also it means another hour speedboat ride towards Sangalaki Island. I said to myself, “Let’s just hope that the Manta’s don’t run away so fast when we reached the island”. Icuk, drove in fast speed again with full spirited, although rain started pouring again on top of our heads. Half way through the journey, we passed by some deserted small islands. Icuk try to read the wind blow in order to know where the waves are going. The waves are rolling in a long and big shift as we passed by some part of the ocean wide. He led the speedboat at one side of the desert island that had block some part of the waves that came from the ocean, so we would have a lot more smoother ride with less rolling waves.

I tried sitting on top of the speedboat bench sometimes just to have a different kind of feeling since the ride towards our last destination has not come yet, but every time it smacks the wave, my bottom and bone hurts when it smacks the hard bench. Then I sit again on the bench properly because it is much softer. I tried to understand and learn how Icuk drove the speedboat on the wild waves. It is pretty fascinating because once we are on top of the rolling waves it was such a smooth ride and once it breaks the speedboat smacked the surface down hard. What an adventurous ride it is!

Finally, we have arrived at the destination. Hopefully we will get what we want this time. We met a local person who takes care of the island of whom we met before when we came to visit last year. We said hi, talked for a little bit and he said to wait until the Manta shows up at the surface again. Then Yudhi showed his traditional spear fish gun. It was made of fine wood and his name was carved perfectly on it. The spear was heavy and long. He said to us while pointing with his finger, to go spear fishing near the two lighthouse area that we could see nearby while waiting. One of the lighthouses is still functioning well while the other one isn’t. Then we hop in again and ride not far from the island. We reached at one of the lighthouse and Icuk tied the speedboat right away at its rusted pole. When the speedboat floats powerless on the water, the current makes it rocks roughly until we need to stable ourselves standing or sitting still inside it. Yudhi prepared himself straight away. He put on his snorkel and fins, grab his spear fish then jump out to the open sea. He swam at a far distance and started spear fishing. The three of us did the same, except for having a spear fish. I sat on the edge of the speedboat and let myself drop softly at the sea. It was very wavy and the flat grey sky rained lightly. I tried to follow the mix of wave and current that rocked actively; because the more we fight the waves or act panicky we will lose a lot of energy, we will swallow a lot of sea water and probably drown because of it. The key is to follow the rhythm of waves. I then joined Yudhi who is already active looking for fishes and had done several skin dives already but had no luck in aiming a fish yet. I approached him carefully and poked him just to give him a sign that I am there so he won’t aim the spear fish wildly when I am around him. Yudhi got the sign. Feri and Muhdi started snorkelling around the area. I saw how Yudhi played with his spear fish. How he saw a fish target, skin dived and the challenge is to hold your breath long enough to aim the fish inside the seawater and carry the heavy spear while holding on to your buoyancy and shoot. After a short while when I felt enough snorkelling and studied him spear fishing – but with no luck in getting a fish, we decided to continue our travel and hunt for Manta’s. All of us put on an eagle eye; we scanned around us as if we do not want to miss the moment after the long adventurous ride since Tanjung Redep city.

After a couple of minutes, we saw some thin black fins emerged. Icuk drove at a fair distant so we wouldn’t scare the Manta’s away. At this point, we wanted to dive and see the Manta’s perfectly swimming under the water. Icuk turned off the speedboat engine in the middle of the surrounding sea with nowhere to tie it. As we prepare ourselves on the rocked speedboat, Yudhi asked us if it is okay for us to wear our diving equipments at the sea considering how small the space is on the speedboat. We agreed to it straight away. He directs us to hold the rope that was tied by the side of the speedboat once we are in the water so we won’t be drifted away by the strong current or waves. Don’t want to miss the moment, Feri jumped into the sea first after he wore his weight belt, snorkel and fins. He holds on to the rope and Yudhi threw the BCD and cylinder towards the sea for Feri to catch. Feri wore it while trying to balance himself from the slapping waves. Once he wore his BCD already, one of its straps was folded inward. I looked at him struggling and helped him by holding his BCD at his shoulders so he won’t float away from the boat and it would be easier for him to fix his stuck BCD strap. Since the waves were very vigorous, I could see Feri started to feel a little bit panicked. It was hard for him to fix his stuck BCD strap while he tried his best to stick by the speedboat. I assured him as much as I can that I have grasp his BCD shoulders tightly that he won’t float away, Icuk then wore his mask and jumped into the water to help him fix it while I try to calm him down and hold his BCD tightly. When Icuk passionately helped Feri, I relied on him to help him out. Feri was stable again and it was alright for me to let go of him.  Then it was my turn to wear the BCD. I wore my snorkel, my adjustable fins and 5kg weight belt. I dropped myself to the seawater by the side of the speedboat and directly hold the rope. I was waiting for Yudhi to throw the BCD and Cylinder. I let myself being played by the wild waves while holding on to the rope that has moved me from the side to the back of the speedboat. Feri and Icuk were still struggling on the BCD that has made Feri took it off and wear it again. Finally, Yudhi threw my inflated BCD and cylinder on the vast sea. It immediately floats away from the speedboat that I need to catch it straight away without waiting any longer. I forced myself and gave a strong kick with my fins at the medium waves to let my outstretched hand reach my drifting BCD and had to let go of the rope that I was holding on to it at the same time. Once I got it, I focused on wearing it as I struggled with the rolling waves. How the heavy inflated BCD and the rocky waves adds my adrenaline rush circling around my body. It was such a challenge at this kind of weather! Without me realising it, after all is set, I was already drifted far away from the speedboat. The big wave has pushed both me and the speedboat at opposite directions. Yudhi has noticed my distance. I gave him an ‘okay’ diving hand signal to let him know that I am under control. I stay calmed while adjusting with the waves. I saw that Feri was already set and was also drifted by the waves towards my direction. Yudhi and Muhdi are still preparing their diving equipments. So, I pushed myself swimming oppositely the waves to reach and stick with Feri. I shouted his name several times but he did not hear me. I am not sure why, maybe because of the vast sea, the wind and the wave sounds that made him not hear me or maybe he was just really focused on collecting himself together. I was instantly aware of how quick the waves have pushed me far away from my friends. I have to keep myself light heartedly despite of the weather condition because if I am panicky and I tend to struggle a lot on the seawater with my diving equipment on, it will put me in double pressure and overtire my entire body. So, I moved and kicked my fins gently opposite the waves. I have not intended to fight it but to be friends with the seawater movement. Finally, I am near Feri. I called his name and he looked directly at me. I also grabbed his BCD straight away and pulled it towards me; and I said to him nearly like an instruction and reminder at the same time that, “We have to stick together! Diving cannot be separated from a group. We have to go down together because we want to avoid unexpected things!” Feri agreed and said “Ya Fio”. After that, I look instantly to the speedboat. To my amaze, the speedboat was empty. It looks small from a far away distant. I couldn’t even see Icuk. Facing this kind of strange situation; I felt bewildered. Me and Feri looked around together for Yudhi and Muhdi. In front of us, big waves rolled immensely and slowly. It brought us moving up and down too following the rhythm of waves slowly. When the waves in front of us emerge, we couldn’t see the sight of our speedboat and when it starts going down again slowly we could see it again. That’s how the situation was like when we have to look around for our two friends. I looked down under the sea with my masks but find no sight of them. I immediately felt that this is such a waste of adventure because of lack coordination. Half losing hope and imagining me going back to the speedboat with full confusion, I let myself look down again underneath the sea surface. To my relief, I saw Yudhi and Muhdi already diving towards us, 5meters below after they deflated their BCD on the surface. The visibility was 3 – 5metres; it was clear but probably there was no sunshine, the colour of the sea was dark blue. I told Feri and we deflated our BCD immediately. In a couple of minutes, the four of us already dive together in a group. I felt light again as we dive. We started looking around for Manta’s. Then Yudhi, pointed behind my back. There was one Manta swimming the opposite direction from our diving plan. I was happy to see it but it was 5meteres away swimming at the other direction. Yudhi got in time to video that with me in the frame. After that, we continued diving. We saw one green turtle, not too big, swimming away from us smoothly. While we checked around for Manta’s, I realised that Yudhi brought his spear fish. Since we did not see any Manta’s around us, Yudhi started spear fishing and managed to get two fishes easily while diving. Muhdi helped him out with the caught fishes. I dived around not far from the group. The bottom composition was a lot of white sand and little corals around us here and there. Not much to see, I stood straight buoyantly. Being in still, I thought it was the only luck for us to see the one Manta that passed behind my back. Oh well, I said to myself that I still need to be grateful to have seen one. I inhaled one long breath and exhaled it making streams of bubbles coming out through my regulator going upwards. I followed where the bubbles go and saw my view above my head from where I stood at the bottom of the sea. It was beautiful. My heart expands admiring the beautiful scenery surrounding me. Well, it was only clear blue seawater but it was such a peaceful moment being down here witnessing the water that is very calm and the fish’s acts normally like there is no bad weather at all. Not like the waves that I could see raging vigorously up there, which is so ironic. It seems that the underwater is protected by a wide transparent glass that liberally had let the waves glide on top of it without disturbing the seawater underneath it. It was amazing. I was in deep wonder, imagining myself being like a small fish in a huge aquarium filled with clear blue water only.

We stucked together again, dived a little bit more and ascended up to the surface. The rain had stopped. Icuk saw us, turned on the speedboat engine and drove towards us. We took of our BCD and fins on the sea surface and entered the speedboat. I told Yudhi and Muhdi that we thought we have had lost them before the dive. Then Yudhi said, “I actually have thought that you and Feri descended already during that time because we have lost sight the both of you. Then we descended too. Apparently, those big waves had made me not see you two”.  Feeling amazed to hear his statement and how we all had the same thought before the dive, we laughed at it. Just because of the waves we have thought that we have lost each other. We also laughed on how we went to the wrong way diving; going farther from the swimming mantas. So, now this is our last chance to see the Manta’s because it is getting late in the afternoon. We put on our eagle eyes again when Icuk already steered the speedboat. Only in around three minutes we are able to see some black fins emerging on the sea surface again. Also, we could see their black triangular body shape like floating kite not far from us. Rather than diving, we agreed together to snorkel because we don’t want to waste our time again and lose them.

I felt a happy rush coming up from toe to head. Swimming with the mantas?! It will be an amazing adventure! I put on my mask, snorkel and fins straight away like a bolt. The three of us asked Yudhi whether it is safe for us to be close with the Manta’s and he said, “It is alright. It won’t harm you. You can even touch it”.  I was saying “Whoa” in my head. Yudhi was the first one to enter the sea then followed by Muhdi and Feri. They were snorkelling towards the floating Manta’s. After I had finished putting on my snorkelling equipments, I entered the sea without any hesitation and waiting. All I want is to experience the beauty of nature to see the natural activities of Manta’s as this is one of their crossing routes. I snorkelled like a lightning bolt in search for those Manta’s that we saw before from up there.

I have to tell you everyone; that I have seen one of the most amazing creatures on earth! It was my first time to see the Manta’s very closely. They were swimming around as if they were flying like gliding kites in the air in a smooth motion. Their bodies are big triangular shapes with pectoral fins, black colour at the top side and white colour at the bottom side. Their diameters were around 3 – 4meteres long when I saw them. So big and they look like sting rays in shape. I saw three of them not afraid swimming around us on top of the sea surface; It was easy to see them because the distance was only around 2 – 4 metres away. I video recorded them passionately. I was told before that the Manta’s were at the sea surface because they were feeding theirselves with planktons and jellyfish. I sure did see the surrounding sea is full of planktons with white and yellow colour.

I snorkelled a little bit further and stay stilled, looking around me, I saw one big Manta Ray swimming towards me. Its pectoral fins was around 3-4metres wide; making an up and down movement, and its forward face with its rectangular large mouths widely open. Also, I could see its gill slits at their ventral surface while it swam peacefully approaching me like I wasn’t its attacker. I did not know what to expect at that time. My heart was beating fast as it came nearer and nearer to me. Transfixed by its large mouth wide open and its black coloured body; it gave me a lot of wild imaginations in my mind like my head could fit inside its mouth perfectly if it wants to swallow me. I just have not been used to Mantas yet because I still have that figure of stingrays that could be harmful to human when they felt in a defensive situation. I tried to be brave and stayed still for a couple of seconds because I was told before that they are harmless creatures. But what can I say, when your wild imagination sometimes are just far greater then you, in a split second I skidded away still afraid to have touch it and also afraid that I might block its way feeding. I had been recording it the moment when it swam towards me, but since because of that, the camera in my hand wildly recorded my rush movement. When I felt that I was already moving out from its way, I turned around fast to see where it has gone because I thought I should have touched it by then, but to my nice surprise, the Manta had recognized my presence, it has swam down under me slowly and smoothly with its pectoral fins wide straight gliding. I have tried floating far up to the surface not trying to disturb its feeding time. While doing so, I could see a group of yellow tiny fishes which are known as cleaner fish, eating parasites near the Manta’s forward-face. The Manta; vacuumed all the planktons towards it wide open rectangular mouth in a slow motion beautifully. I was only centimetres away floating on top of it, video recording it passionately too. I have never been this close with a Manta Ray in my life. Turning the video camera around me, I wanted to share the joy that I was experiencing at that moment. I shouted still with my snorkels on saying, “Oh my God! This is so cooool!” Very excited, I tried to look for other Manta’s. When I saw another two of them swimming idly feeding theirsleves with planktons, I approached nearer. I heard Muhdi said “Blaaaargh!”and saw him tried to rub his hands and body then he said out loud, “Those jellyfishes!”. He quitted the sea because he had small stings around his body. I thought because he didn’t wear his diving suit that’s why those planktons would easily sting him. So, he went up on the speedboat straight away. In just seconds, we could all feel those stings so much especially at the face area. It felt like hot stings and irritating ant bites that penetrate under our skin. I squinted and said “Ouch! Jellyfishes!” It had stung around my lip area so bad and so hot that I felt quitting straight away too. Yudhi and Feri had the same experience. They both said “Blaaargh!” in different ways. I could also felt some stings penetrating through my wetsuit too. I tried to snorkel again and get close with the Manta’s but those planktons were just too much. So, we all decided to end this and went up to the speedboat. Let those Manta’s enjoy they’re planktons I thought.

We all laughed about our stings and joked about it. It had stopped raining and the waves were milder. I am very happy for this adventurous experience, although I wasn’t really that satisfied yet with the Manta’s because I was just adapting to it when the planktons stung us. I wanted to have a closer look and hand the camera to somebody else. So, I would freely examine them because they are friendly Manta rays. Oh well, I said reassuring to myself that I still have to be grateful because that kind of moment is rare. Not all people would experience it luckily. I was still given such an experience to see those Manta’s very closely. Agreeing with that ‘never-satisfied-character’-self discussion, Icuk turned on the engine and steered the speedboat going back to Sangalaki Island to say good bye to our friend and leave for Derawan Island to return some of the dive equipments that we had borrowed earlier and also have a quick dinner there because it was around 18.00pm when we reached the destination. The rain had finally stopped and the waves were milder. Done in Derawan Island, it was around 20.00pm when we left the island towards Kampung Tanjug Batu. We were swallowed by the darkness of the night. The moon and stars weren’t bright enough to shine our way; maybe the clouds had covered them.  During our half way journey, the speedboat died instantly. It made the night even darker since the only light that we got from the speedboat front lights were dead too. I don’t know what’s going on, Icuk joked that we were out of petrol and ran at the back of the speedboat. I was thinking, “Is Icuk serious? We are in the middle of the sea still far away from land, in the black atmosphere, rocking with the mild wave movement; I was thinking of rowing the boat together straight away back!” I did not feel fear at all but actually enjoying the moment. I had never experienced this kind of situation before I said to myself but I was also hoping there was a way out soon. It would not be nice to be stuck in the middle of the sea until the early morning. Then Icuk, pulled out a big bottle of plastic from the rear speedboat and filled the empty tank. Ah, now I remembered that he had brought spare petrol. Then Icuk drove us back passionately again. All of those thoughts being stranded at the sea just vanished away. Along the way, I asked Icuk about the lights that were solitarily being put in some places at the sea. He explained to me that those are signs for the Fishermans and boat riders to know where they are going. The green light means the boat will pass through a deep sea, white light means it is okay for the boat to pass by this sea area but it has to pass the right side of the sign because there are corals on its left side and the red light means that we are not allowed to pass that sea area because it is the habitats of corals. I am very happy and blessed for the adventurous day that I have learnt a lot of things especially about the weather, Manta Rays and sea signs. After an hour ride we have reached Kampung Tanjung Batu with my face still red in some places especially my lip area, irritated from the stings.

Fiona Callaghan
Model, TV Presenter, Actress, Ambassador, Adventure Blogger, Adventurer, PLAN+

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