HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE STING RAYS
People who make friends easily are bold, confident and have empathy. They need to be bold to make the first move, confident not to worry about provoking rejection or aggression, and constantly aware of how their approach is being received.
Some might say that the latter involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but personally I think it is more like putting yourself in someone else’s fins. You see I like to make friends with fish.
I put my aspiration to the test whenever I go diving but had particular success at the 2011 Heron Island Dive Festival. There is an abundance of fish (and turtles) that lives in the waters surrounding Heron Island. There are gazillions of tiddlers and multitudes of meal-sized fish, but also some splendid beasts of significant size, many even bigger than I am at 190cm and 100kg.
You might think that creatures this big would be fearless and pretty well do much as they please, like me, (ha!) but actually it is very easy to spook even animals as large as Whale sharks and Manta rays that are much bigger than divers. One thing you never do is grab! Especially me, from behind, while I am wearing my dive knife.
I was interested in getting close to some rather fabulous large stingrays that the locals call “Bull rays” and scientists Taeniura meyeni. Other common names for the ray are “Marble ray” and “Black-blotched Fantail ray” and the reason for so many names is that they are widespread all along the Great Barrier Reef, and throughout Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands.
They have round discs with white bellies, and backs that have black blotches over a white base. Sometimes the white is entirely obliterated by the black blotches – then they become “Black Stingrays”! Their short tails have a sting consisting of one, or sometimes two, long sharp venomous spines, potentially dangerous for divers. These are giant rays and can reach 2 metres across.
But the stings are used only for defense, usually against Hammerhead sharks that like to feed on them, so it is vital that any diver approaching one of these rays makes sure that the ray realises you are a friend. Any aggression, or even just carelessness on the part of a diver could have harmful, even fatal, results. If you meet a Bull ray unexpectedly just stay calm and watch from a distance. In the crystal water round Heron Island you will still see these wonderful animals clearly.
A very special dive at Heron Island is called “The Ridge”. It is not far from the resort jetty and stretches from the fringing reef out into the Wistari Channel as if attempting to block it. Tidal currents catch The Ridge and thus it is a favourite home for large fish hanging out to see what the current brings them to feed on.
One fine morning during the Heron Island Dive Festival, when the current was just right and the seas calm, experienced divers were invited to dive The Ridge. The dive involved a swift descent through open water to the sandy bottom at about 25m then a drift to the edge of the reef. I had barely been drifting for a minute before teeming schools of fish and parading Grey Reef sharks and Black cobia came into view. And there at the base of The Ridge were several huge Bull rays.
So here’s the trick, and it works with most big marine animals.
Do not swim straight for the fish – this is regarded as aggressive and may result in flight – or an aggressive response. So instead I faced the same way that the ray was facing and let the current gently close the gap between us. When I was a couple of metres away I held my position and pretended to hang out just as the ray was. Meanwhile model Kirtley Leigh had drifted past behind the ray and was now doing the same thing on the other side.
Out of the corner of my mask I was watching the ray. It was quietly doing its own thing and not disturbed by our presence. I tried to avoid eye contact. When the opportunity presented and the ray lifted its wings to make an interesting composition with Kirtley behind it, I turned and took a photo. The ray slowly moved off and we let it go.
A few minutes later as we drifted up to the top of the ridge we realised the ray was following us. So we stopped.
The ray had clear choices as to where it could swim, but chose to approach us. Then an amazing thing happened.
The ray swam around Kirtley, so close that its tail ended up under her arm. The deadly sting was brushing her. Moving around it headed to me. I kept still, thinking beautiful thoughts, took the photo, then let it lightly bump into me and swim past. We did not react, as we did not want to startle the ray. We were striving for empathy while the ray was close – but acted with euphoria once it had passed. Kirtley made a wild underwater “Whoop!” It had returned the compliment and confirmed our friendship!
I’ll be asking to dive The Ridge at this year’s Heron Island Dive Festival, and hope to meet our friend again!
When I first visited Heron Island in the 1990s I decided to snorkel right round the Island. I had to wait for high tide but then set off with my Nikonos camera to explore the reef flats.
I remember it took me quite a while to swim all the way – more than an hour – but I also remember the many fascinating creatures I met on my journey of discovery. I also remember that I enjoyed it so much that I did it a second time.
I saw many turtles. In those days the Research station fixed large plastic tags to turtles they caught and released – and I was not very impressed. That has ceased – I saw no tags on my last visit, if there are any they are discrete!
I also met many Shovelnose shark/rays – fascinating creatures up to 2m long that lie in the sand and swim off when approached, and dozens of stingrays.
At Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean they have what they call “The Greatest 12 foot Dive in the World” – “Stingray City” – where after years of feeding stingrays the rays are so used to divers that they approach fearlessly. Nobody has ever been speared by a stingray’s spine and the dive is a somewhat miraculous encounter, and very popular. I thought that perhaps Heron Island could boast the “World’s Greatest 6 foot Dive”!
There were plenty of other fish and even Eagle rays and Black-tip sharks. Most of the rays were concentrated at the opposite side of Heron Island to the Resort and Jetty at a place known as Shark Bay. When I joined the Heron Island Dive Festival celebrations in 2011, I was determined to check out the reef flats at Shark Bay again.
But this time I noticed a pathway sign posted to Shark Bay and discovered I could get there without having to swim all the way round. You can of course also walk there along the beach and I did that too on my next visit.
I watched the rising tide spill over the edge of the reef flat. Merging with stranded pools of silvery water, the Coral Sea was soon lapping at the soft white sandy beach and drowning the isolated rocks where herons perched, and around which low tide reef-walkers had recently peered.
On my beach walk I soon saw the first fins. Two big dorsal fins and a wagging tail, inexorably bound for the shore, led a wake through the otherwise unruffled water. I was expecting Black-tip sharks but the two large olive dorsal fins revealed that this was a Lemon shark. A species I had rarely seen before.
I stayed in the shallows. The water was barely a metre deep but stingrays were surrounding me. Cowtailed rays Pastinachus sephen and Pink whiprays Himantura fai, came close enough to touch. Shovelnose sharks were shy and rushed away if I came too close. Herons and Terns were flying above me.
Suddenly I realised there was a school of trevally just a few metres away and a Lemon shark was moving with them. They came to check me out – and moments later had my first ever image of a Lemon Shark. Wildlife photographers live for moments like this. The right time and the right place and, miraculously, with camera ready to shoot.
There were hundreds of stingrays. I took care to avoid stepping on those partly buried in the sand, or snorkelling right on top of them, but they were easy to approach. A bunch of Whiptail rays had joined together in formation, creating a spectacular sight and photo!
Shark Bay is a magical place where nature responds dramatically to the light and tides. It is a few hundred metres from the resort but takes us to a different world, almost primordial, untouched and extraordinarily rich and lovely.
UNDER THE JETTY
Jetties, wharves and piers are fabulous places to dive. They always produce unexpected encounters with fish that use them for shelter, and critters that are rare elsewhere. They are typically in calm waters, and are shallow, allowing long, comfortable, leisurely and often spectacular dives.
For several years in the 1980s I dived a small jetty at remote Woodlark Island in Milne Bay Province. My colleagues thought I was crazy and mocked me noting that since the dive I was doing – the first of the day – was in only two metres of water, I would have to be careful not to exceed that depth on my subsequent dives!
Fortunately the fallacy declaring “reverse profile” dives hazardous has been long exposed and rejected by educated dive instructors, so that would be no problem today – but it was no problem then either when I explained that the jetty was the only habitat I knew that was guaranteed to deliver live Cypraea onyx. My fellow divers were soon in the water and joined me in photographing the beautiful Onyx Cowrie.
PNG’s Samarai Wharf is world famous for its startling Tubastrea corals whose orange polyps are often displayed even in daytime. Baitfish by the zillion school through flickering sunlight among the wharf piles while predators such as Wobbegong sharks and Lionfish patiently wait for them to stray too close.
In Australia, Portsea Pier, Busselton Jetty and the Navy Wharf at Ningaloo are all popular and wonderful dive sites. Now I am going to add to that prestigious list – Heron Island Jetty.
While boarding a dive boat at the jetty I noticed that there were a lot of fish around so next day, rather than take a boat ride out to one of the scheduled dive sites, I asked if I could simply dive the Jetty. High tide was approaching and I would be able to dive without compromising the boat traffic at the wharf. The plan was to get in the water as soon as the boats departed and to make sure we were out of the water before they returned. Easy really as the boat rides added to their dive times was much longer than our intended dive time, and the Heron Island staff were happy to oblige and provide an obligatory lookout.
There is a water-level platform and a ladder making entry and exit easy. The sun was shining, the sea around the jetty sparkling, and life was grand. Model Kirtley Leigh passed me my camera then jumped in herself. We settled to the bottom just a couple of metres below and I adjusted my camera settings. As I did I noticed the head of a Green turtle peering at me out of some algae on the bottom. We did not even have to search for our first subject.
If you like string quartets (Kirtley is a classical violinist) you will understand how the four elements – instruments – weave together to achieve perfection. I regard Underwater photography in a similar way. The environmental conditions (especially light), the subject and the model have to weave together just as the photographer joins into press the shutter. It is this aspiration for harmony that creates the best images.
And the highlight was the schooling jacks and sweetlips. There were a lot, of various species, swimming under the Jetty. Although we were told to look out for Eagle rays, Sting rays, Blacktip sharks and other marine creatures, we concentrated on getting photos of the schooling fish milling around in the deck-scattered sunbeams.
Shooting into the sun with digital is challenging, but the Jetty deck planks were breaking up the suns rays and producing a spectacular effect common on many wharves and one that contributes to their popularity. Heron’s Jetty was perfect.
I soon had far too many images on the memory card and it was time to exit. One thing for sure at this year’s Heron Island Dive Festival – I’ll be diving the Jetty again.
These stories are part of a promotion of Heron Island that I am involved with. Some of it I am being paid for, not much – but I am happy to do it because the diving at Heron Island, apart from being of historical significance to the History of diving in Australia is truly worthwhile.
There is also the fact that an incredible amount of damage is being done to the dive industry by the Global Warming Alarmists continually proclaiming the imminent demise of the reef.
These people, often “Scientists” paid with taxpayer’s money, are traitors and liars. The GBR is GREAT, and the predictions of constant bleaching, COTS outbreaks and acidification are just speculation designed to bring them research funding, or political gain. They are not true!
I have talked to potential visitors, who have been fooled by the alarmists and think the GBR is dead. Help support our dive industry by diving the GBR as much as you can – you will have a great time, and Heron Island is a good place to start.
TIPS FOR DIVING HERON ISLAND
Diving habits are good for you. Stick to standard routines, and go diving often, and you will rarely forget to pack all the necessary gear, to put it all on and check it is working, and to successfully follow your dive plan.
Problems usually arise when you make a giant stride out of your comfort zone.
I had divers confidently tell me – when I enquired about their diving experience before launching them into the water in PNG – that they had hundreds of dives and were VERY experienced. When I asked about dives in currents one group explained that they were members of a “sophisticated club that dived in currents all the time”.
Great! I thought. This was going to make my life easy. I took them to one of our standard drift dives along a deep wall. I instructed them to jump in from the drifting boat, stay on the surface, swimming until they could see the wall and then descend to their chosen depth. We would follow them along the wall and pick them up when they surfaced.
But being sophisticated divers they obviously felt that any briefing from me was superfluous, and did not listen. They jumped in and immediately descended, heading for the bottom.
Which was, unfortunately for them, more than 60m deep.
There were bubbles all around the boat but none along the wall and realised I’d have to rescue the lot of them when they eventually surfaced having seen … nothing. Oh Well, lesson learned.
They were indeed experienced current divers but their experience had been limited to hundreds of dives in the Gulf Stream where they … jumped in, swam to the bottom at 20 – 25m then drifted along as a group while a surface boat followed a marker buoy their leader carried. They had never made a drift dive along a wall. Experience Zero. Sophistication?
I mention this so that you can get the best out of your Heron Island Dive extravaganza, either at the Dive Festival 25th-29th July 2012, or whenever you feel like diving there.
First Lesson: Listen to the dive briefing! Then these tips might help:-
I am, rather pathetically, tropically acclimatised. I like it hot. Diving the Bismarck Sea with a stinger suit in 30 deg C water is my norm. I have dived in cold water. At Port Moresby the “winter” temperature plunges to 25 deg and I wear a 3mm wet suit. I’m definitely experienced. Not.
Although balmy for most of the year, Heron Island waters do cool down in the SE trade wind season and when I dived in 2011 the temperature was 20 deg. For me that was seriously chilly. So while Melbourne and New Zealand divers mocked me – particularly that guy in a dry suit – I was shivering!
This year I will bring a full 5mm wet suit and a wind-cheater for use on the boat to and from dive sites. Once ashore the blissful hot showers got me thinking “no pain – no gain”, a saying I remember from my youth in England. But I’d emigrated from England because I preferred the gain without the pain.
Since there are currents on many of the Heron Island dive sites a common practice is to dive from a live boat. That means the boat is not anchored, except possibly for the start of the dive.
The procedure is to jump in and descend immediately to the reef that is just a few metres below and easily visible (except for The Ridge – read about that fabulous dive elsewhere). You can then descend to your chosen depth and drift along very comfortably until time to make a long slow ascent ending up in the shallows.
This is wonderful and super-safe diving where you see a lot of the reef and its critters. But here is the problem – when you are ready to get out you look around underwater for the boat – perhaps you see it and start swimming to it still underwater. Or maybe you surface, see it and start swimming, again underwater. It is very tempting and easy – BUT WRONG!
Live boats must always be approached on the surface. It is the only way the crew can be certain where you are. If you are underwater the boat may have difficulty manoeuvring and end up on the coral. I used to remind guests while live boating on Telita that I had plenty of customers but only one boat – so keep clear and be on the surface!
When you get close to the boat for pick up make sure you are on the surface – put some air in your vest – then wait for the crew to call you over ON THE SURFACE.
I never saw it happen but if you really don’t know which way to go and end up a long way from the live boat you need to use your safety sausage so that the boat can see you and pick you up. Don’t worry; they will be looking for you! But make sure you carry a safety sausage so they can easily see you.
Dive gear in action is heavy and wet. So here is the way to handle it. Buy a heavy-duty bag that can survive salt water dunking. Store it at the dive shop – and label it so the dive crew can bring it down to the jetty on their cart. Leave it on the boat for the day if you are making multiple dives. At the end of the day let the crew take it back to the shop. Tanks and weights stay on the boat of course.
If you wish you can go to the shop and rinse it all, but, frankly, there is no need for the mere days or week that you will be diving. Just give it a real good long soak at the end of the dive trip and all will be fine.
Wet suits should be rinsed of course, but they will not be in the bag.
*Snorkelling from a beach
This is so terrific you must be prepared. I take a string bag for my snorkelling gear, and an “Esky” for dry towel, camera and bottle of, er, “water”.
If you can combine sunset with an incoming tide and snorkel, then bird and fish watching from the sublime beach, well, life does not get much better! It is a habit you could get used to.