This Magic MomentBy Jennifer AndersonIt was

It was like many Maui mornings, the sun rising over Haleakala as wegreeted our divers for the day’s charter. As my captain and Iexplained the dive procedures, I noticed the wind line moving intoMolokini, a small, crescent-shaped island that harbors a large reef.I slid through the briefing, then prompted my divers to gear up,careful to do everything right so the divers would feel confidentwith me, the dive leader.The dive went pretty close to how I had described it: The gardeneels performed their underwater ballet, the parrot fish grazed onthe coral, and the ever-elusive male flame wrasse flared theircolors to defend their territory. Near the last level of the dive,two couples in my group signaled they were going to ascend.As luck would have it, the remaining divers were two Europeanbrothers, who were obviously troubled by the idea of a “woman” divemaster and had ignored me for the entire dive.The three of us caught the current and drifted along the outside ofthe reef, slowly beginning our ascent until, far below, somethingcaught my eye. After a few moments, I made out the white shoulderpatches of a manta ray in about one hundred and twenty feet of water.Manta rays are one of my greatest loves, but very little is knownabout them. They feed on plankton, which makes them more delicatethan an aquarium can handle. They travel the oceans and aretherefore a mystery.Mantas can be identified by the distinctive pattern on their belly,with no two rays alike. In 1992, I had been identifying the mantarays that were seen at Molokini and found that some were known, butmany more were sighted only once, and then gone.So there I was: a beautiful, very large ray beneath me and myskeptical divers behind. I reminded myself that I was still tryingto win their confidence, and a bounce to see this manta wouldn’thelp my case. So I started calling through my regulator, “Hey, comeup and see me!” I had tried this before to attract the attention ofwhales and dolphins, who are very chatty underwater and will comesometimes just to see what the noise is about. My divers were justas puzzled by my actions, but continued to tryto ignore me.There was another dive group ahead of us. The leader, who was afriend of mine and knew me to be fairly sane, stopped to see what Iwas doing. I kept calling to the ray, and when she shifted in thewater column, I took that as a sign that she was curious. So Istarted waving my arms, calling her up to me.After a minute, she lifted away from where she had been riding thecurrent and began to make a wide circular glide until she was closerto me. I kept watching as she slowly moved back and forth, risinghigher, until she was directly beneath the two Europeans and me. Ilooked at them and was pleased to see them smiling. Now they likedme. After all, I could call up a manta ray!Looking back to the ray, I realized she was much bigger than what wewere used to around Molokini – a good fifteen feet from wing tip towing tip, and not a familiar-looking ray. I had not seen this animalbefore. There was something else odd about her. I just couldn’tfigure out what it was.Once my brain clicked in and I was able to concentrate, I saw deep V-shaped marks of her flesh missing from her backside. Other marks ranup and down her body. At first I thought a boat had hit her. As shecame closer, now with only ten feet separating us, I realized whatwas wrong.She had fishing hooks embedded in her head by her eye, with verythick fishing line running to her tail. She had rolled with the lineand was wrapped head to tail about five or six times. The line hadtorn into her body at the back, and those were the V-shaped chunksthat were missing.I felt sick and, for a moment, paralyzed. I knew wild animals inpain would never tolerate a human to inflict more pain. But I had todo something.Forgetting about my air, my divers and where I was, I went to themanta. I moved very slowly and talked to her the whole time, likeshe was one of the horses I had grown up with. When I touched her,her whole body quivered, like my horse would. I put both of my handson her, then my entire body, talking to her the whole time. I knewthat she could knock me off at any time with one flick of her greatwing.When she had steadied, I took out the knife that I carry on myinflator hose and lifted one of the lines. It was tight anddifficult to get my finger under, almost like a guitar string. Sheshook, which told me to be gentle. It was obvious that the slightestpressure was painful.As I cut through the first line, it pulled into her wounds. With onebeat of her mighty wings, she dumped me and bolted away. I figuredthat she was gone and was amazed when she turned and came right backto me, gliding under my body. I went to work. She seemed to know itwould hurt, and somehow, she also knew that I could help. Imaginethe intelligence of that creature, to come for help and to trust!I cut through one line and into the next until she had all she couldtake of me and would move away, only to return in a moment or two. Inever chased her. I would never chase any animal. I never grabbedher. I allowed her to be in charge, and she always came back.When all the lines were cut on top, on her next pass, I went underher to pull the lines through the wounds at the back of her body.The tissue had started to grow around them, and they were difficultto get loose. I held myself against her body, with my hand on herlower jaw. She held as motionless as she could. When it was allloose, I let her go and watched her swim in a circle.She could have gone then, and it would have all fallen away. Shecame back, and I went back on top of her.The fishing hooks were still in her. One was barely hanging on,which I removed easily. The other was buried by her eye at least twoinches past the barb. Carefully, I began to take it out, hoping Iwasn’t damaging anything. She did open and close her eye while Iworked on her, and finally, it was out. I held the hooks in onehand, while I gathered the fishing line in the other hand, my weighton the manta.I could have stayed there forever! I was totally oblivious toeverything but that moment. I loved this manta. I was so moved thatshe would allow me to do this to her. But reality came screamingdown on me. With my air running out, I reluctantly came to my sensesand pushed myself away.At first, she stayed below me. And then, when she realized that shewas free, she came to life like I never would have imagined shecould. I thought she was sick and weak, since her mouth had beentied closed, and she hadn’t been able to feed for however long thelines had been on her. I thought wrong! With two beats of thosepowerful wings, she rocketed along the wall of Molokini and thendirectly out to sea! I lost view of her and, remembering my divers,turned to look for them.Remarkably, we hadn’t traveled very far. My divers were right aboveme and had witnessed the whole event, thankfully! No one would havebelieved me alone. It seemed too amazing to have really happened.But as I looked at the hooks and line in my hands and felt the torncalluses from her rough skin, I knew that, yes, it really hadhappened.I kicked in the direction of my divers, whose eyes were stillwide from the encounter, only to have them signal me to stop andturn around. Until this moment, the whole experience had beenphenomenal, but I could explain it. Now, the moment turned magical.I turned and saw her slowly gliding toward me. With barely aneffort, she approached me and stopped, her wing just touching myhead. I looked into her round, dark eye, and she looked deeply intome. I felt a rush of something that so overpowered me, I have yet tofind the words to describe it, except a warm and loving flow ofenergy from her into me.She stayed with me for a moment. I don’t know if it was a second oran hour. Then, as sweetly as she came back, she lifted her wing overmy head and was gone. A manta thank-you.I hung in midwater, using the safety-stop excuse, and tried to makesense of what I had experienced. Eventually, collecting myself, Isurfaced and was greeted by an ecstatic group of divers and acurious captain. They all gave me time to get my heart started andto begin to breathe.Sadly, I have not seen her since that day, and I am stilllooking. For the longest time, though my wetsuit was tattered andtorn, I would not change it because I thought she wouldn’t recognizeme. I call to every manta I see, and they almost always acknowledgeme in some way. One day, though, it will be her.She’ll hear me and pause, remembering the giant cleaner that shetrusted to relieve her pain, and she’ll come. At least that is howit happens in my dreams.

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