Magical mantas and pink pyrozomes

I grew up in the bubble of The Woodlands, Texas – a master-planned community, which grew rapidly over several decades from the influx of big oil money. I feel fortunate that at a very young age I was able to

The commode...

The commode…

experience a world outside of fake tans, Ferraris, and Furbies. My parents, both archaeologists specializing in ancient cities of West Africa, would haul my brother and me on digs – sometimes taking us out of school for a month or more. As a slightly sensitive child, I wasn’t totally zen about the idea of eating fish head stew and doing target practice with the commode. Instead of playing dress-up and talking to my Care Bears, I was digging in the dirt with a trowel (voluntarily, of course) and watching chickens get slaughtered for dinner in the courtyard.

My grubby little self with my grubby little chicklet in Senegal.

My grubby little self with my grubby little chicklet in Senegal.

Unfortunately, the most memorable moments of all these trips to Africa seem to converge on the airport. In particular, I vividly remember the moment my father and I were sitting next to each other on the plane en route to Mali. Flying had always been something I looked forward to, but this quickly changed in the course of several minutes.

After pulling out of the airport gate, the pilot had begun his routine functions checklist. A high-pitched whine and a cacophony of other sounds began to fill my ears. Slowly, I began to realize that I had never heard these noises before. These were, without a doubt, the certain-death noises of a malfunctioning aircraft. Within five minutes, I was no longer the naive seven year-old who lived for Virgin Atlantic courtesy kits. Spiking my cortisol to a level I had not yet achieved in the short seven-year span of my small life, I emerged as an armchair death-grip passenger who would ring the flight attendant call button during the slightest turbulence to ask if everything was going to be okay, who would promise a God I didn’t believe in that I would start reading the Bible every day if He delivered me safely to my next destination, who would unceremoniously spill my guts to the adjacent passenger and ask if I could hold their hand.

This was every flight for the next fourteen years. At age 13, I stayed at home while my entire family went to my Grandmother’s funeral. Xanax became my traveling companion. My mother signed me up with a hypnotherapist, which delightfully enough, worked for a year or two…until it didn’t. Not until my junior year of college, when I traveled solo for eight months, did I completely tame this frantic fear.

So, if God did hear my desperate pleas and empty promises for newfound piety, he definitely got the last laugh. Marrying a submersible pilot? Really? I get to relive this all over again…

And I haven’t even mentioned elevators or boats or sharks in swimming pools or the bat from Basil the Great Mouse Detective…but I think you get the idea.

Karl and I completed two dives this week, and I think I looked at my watch more than I looked out the viewport. An almost three-month hiatus left my mind vulnerable to the usual neuroses (ropes and overhangs and crush zones, oh my!)….


Tuesday, 4:45 AM. A  splitting headache greeted me as I stumbled out of bed to make a quick breakfast and head out the door. Karl and I had previously talked about doing a shallow dive – a whale shark was in the area, and we thought it might be a good chance to do some filming close to the reef wall at about 600 feet.  At 5:30, the hatch closed and we dropped to 400 feet to take a look up the wall.


At this point, I was fairly uncomfortable with my life decision to shoot video from a homemade submarine. I had forgotten how jarring the vertical thrusters sounded, and the noise grated painfully against my throbbing head. For a split second, I retreated into a catastrophic state of mind: I’ve never heard these sounds before – oh s***.  There is something terribly wrong. But instead of looking towards the heavens, I moved “Ashram in India” to the top of my To-Do list. My tolerance, my patience, my fortitude were at all-time lows. After about a half-hour of no luck, we drifted down to 1000 feet, hoping to catch a cat shark or some other sought-after creature. sealily_2 sealily

At 1000 feet, we didn’t encounter too many critters. I felt my anxious impatience growing every second I wasn’t filming something….anything…..please! An orange, glistening shrimp undulated on the branches of a soft coral. For a few minutes, I was released from the grip of my disquietude. As we motored on, a few creatures crept into view – a sea lily here, a rock fish there. At one point, a stunning wall of white sponges loomed in front of the viewport. Aside from these common deep sea denizens, the abyss was still.

Peace and tranquility were short-lived, however. Rocking back and forth in the front seat, I took a desperate look at my watch, and realized that I wasn’t going to be able to hold it until we resurfaced. Grudgingly grabbing a Rest Stop 1 from the storage compartment, I hunched over like a gremlin in the passenger sphere, awkwardly trying to position myself for a clean catch. After practicing with a hole-in-the-ground commode for years in Africa, I thought I was pretty good at this. But seconds later, a procession of profanity marched off my tongue, as I slowly began to realize that my seat was wet. “ARE YOU SERIOUS,” I erupted. I rambled on for about a minute, letting Rest Stop 1 become privy to my most innermost thoughts about the life of a woman in the washroom. I then sketched hearts and stars around “Ashram in India” on my mental To-Do list. It is what it is, I recited to myself. And we motored on…


A solid current had dragged us quite a ways east down the coast. Around 8:00 we began to ascend and head back towards Half Moon Bay, sticking around 600 feet in the hopes of spotting a whale shark. Conditions seemed ideal: clouds of small krill and fish would periodically envelop the sub as we passed through these patches of delectables. I kept a sharp eye out for any dark shadows moving along the wall; my eyes, however, were fixated on the gnarled ropes that seemed to lunge out towards the sub. “Do you see that rope?!” I would call out to Karl every few minutes. “Yep!” he would reply in a chipper voice, being sweetly tolerant of my passenger seat piloting. But when it wasn’t a rope, it was something else….

“Karl…why are we under an overhang? Please get out of the overhang. I don’t understand the point of going under an overhang.” Pause and repeat x 5.

….silence. The whir of motors. “Annick, we’re in a crack, not an overhang. It just looks that way from your viewport.”

“Well, I don’t care! Move away from the overhang! Why the hell would you do this? What purpose are you trying to achieve? Wait…what is that? Do you see that?”

“Yeah, I see the rope, Annick….”

“What?? There’s a rope?! No, no the thing over there to the RIGHT!”

“OHHHH! That’s a MANTA!”


So, imminent ruination was temporarily put on hold as I escaped into the safety of my camera’s lens. At 400 feet, the light penetrating the surface created a smooth silhouette as we filmed the 8-9 foot giant from below (mantas can grow to be up to 23 feet in width). Three remoras gracefully glided with the ray, moving up and down with the manta’s motion in a flawless choreographed performance. Karl pushed the sub forward, trying to catch up so we could get a frontal shot, but the manta was flying – we didn’t stand a chance.


For the next fifteen minutes, this beauty pirouetted and pliéd in front of the viewport. To signal the end of its routine, the manta rose up towards the surface and bowed down to the depths, slowly disappearing as it melted into the blue below. Not to sound cheesy, but it was pretty magical.

stiger_1We continued on, looking above for another gentle giant to film. A few minutes later, Karl spotted a sand tiger shark moseying along the reef wall. In the past 15 years of diving, Karl has happened upon this beast only a handful of times. In the past month, he’s had six different encounters all at around 350 feet. Cruising along the drop-off, the sand tiger shark began a slow digression down the wall towards the sub. Karl ramped up the motors to try and get in front of it so we could film it head-on; we came in just a few seconds too late and soared right over it, tail almost whipping the viewport, as it continued its slow descent. We caught about 20 seconds of film before it was spooked off, diving down towards the abyss.

After a manta ray and sand tiger shark, there was still more. A few minutes further towards Half Moon Bay, a large pyrozome loomed above us. If you’ve never heard of a pyrozome before, just imagine a pink sock kite and you’re there.  pyro_1

 Pyrozomes (pyro – fire; soma – body) are colonial organisms that are joined together by a gelatinous sort of tunic. They are usually found at pretty shallow depths – certainly within recreational scuba limits – as they thrive in warmer waters. This particular one was unusually large, which made it entertaining to watch as it creased and folded itself – almost like an animate pair of trousers.

pyro_4 pyro_3 pyro_2

This served as the finale to our “welcome back” dive. Eager to jump back in the water, we arranged for a tow the next morning at 5:30 am. More on this dive in the next post!

~ by twonakedapes on September 28, 2013.

One Response to “Magical mantas and pink pyrozomes”

  1. […] Karl Stanley (click on his name) lives on Roatan and he has done more for chronicling and capturing things below the sea than many who came before him. Marine Biologists from all over the world come here to go down in Idabel with Karl to 2000′ feet below the surface.  Check out his adventures here: […]

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