Ocean Watch
Susan Scott

Manta rays put on
a show in Palmyra

I'm fond of Palmyra's land crabs, but it's her lagoons that truly sing to me. Among the members of this marine choir are some soloists that deserve mention. These are absent-minded manta rays, some cheeky black-tipped reef sharks and a batfish named Bruce.

Here in Palmyra, humans and manta rays have struck a deal: We attract food for the rays, and they entertain us. This symbiotic relationship, however, occurs only at night.

During the day, mantas cruise the lagoon eating plankton and socializing.

Sometimes, the slow-moving rays turn somersaults and expose their white undersides. So big and bright are these black fishes' bellies that one time I thought a bedsheet had blown into the lagoon, but no. It was only two mantas twirling in circles.

Occasionally the rays inexplicably leap from the water. These gentle creatures have neither stingers nor teeth, but still, a flat fish measuring 8 feet wide and 5 feet long belly-flopping on the water's surface gives you pause.

Palmyra's rays are entertaining enough by day, but turn the dock lights on at night, and the space between the camp's two piers becomes a manta merry-go-round. Rays swim head to tail in circles, scooping light-loving plankton into their mouths with paddle-shaped fins at the sides of their heads.

This phenomenon also occurs under some of Hawaii's shoreline lights, especially along the Kona Coast. If you swim quietly during this feeding, both here and there, the mantas usually ignore snorkelers.

Last week, the ones here ignored us so completely that a manta ran right into me. The ray quickly recovered from its surprise collision, and I from being shoved aside by a muscular fin, and we both returned to our respective activities of eating and watching.

The black-tipped reef sharks here have the opposite approach to human activity but are just as engaging.

While kayaking in deep water recently, I thought my paddle hit something solid. But after spotting the tip of a miniature dorsal fin, I realized that something solid hit my paddle. A small shark had bumped that moving object to check it out.

I arrived at my study site soon after, and as I stood in calf-deep water unloading my kayak, that shark swam up to my legs to check me out. To let the little guy know that something big was attached to those ankles, I stamped my feet. The fish disappeared with a splash.

Another charming friend I have in this lagoon is a juvenile batfish that took shelter among the rungs of my boarding ladder.

"Look, a batfish," Alex said as we were leaving the boat one day.

"That's a leaf," I said.

"It's a batfish."

"It's a leaf."

OK, it was a batfish. But in my defense, the young of these odd-shaped fish mimic drifting leaves.

We don't have batfish in Hawaii, but they are colorful members of other Pacific reefs. Bruce is an honored guest.

I look forward to living at anchor here for another six weeks. Palmyra's lagoon is playing my song.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at http://www.susanscott.net.

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