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  • Writer's pictureCody Sheehy

Field Update: Exploring the Depths of the Ocean with Giant Manta Rays

Updated: May 3

The crew untied Sea Venture from the dock and I’ll never forget the look of excitement on my friend Terry’s face as we headed out into the rough, dark waters of the Pacific Ocean.

It was the same pure joy that I often see on the face of my two year old son, but this time it was transforming the wrinkles of an old man who had earned each grizzled line during his time as a Navy Seal, Hells Angel biker, and in the last half of his life, one of the world’s most accomplished divers.

We were headed 250 miles offshore to the place where two weeks before, hurricane Otis transformed overnight into a category 5 hurricane and destroyed Acapulco Mexico. It was a risky move to venture a trip into “Hurricane Alley” at this time of year, but we had a great boat, a solid crew, and more than anything, Terry wanted to find his old friend, Willy.

Our destination was Isla San Benedicto, which was where Terry had lived for twenty years with the giant Mantas there. Giant, meaning huge animals with a twenty foot wingspan that weigh several tons. To our knowledge, Terry was the first person to ever ride the giant Mantas. Over the years that led to a special friendship with the biggest one, Willy.

When we arrived, our veteran underwater camera man, began suiting up. He was used to the shark infested waters and had been bit twice by sharks on various documentary shoots. Terry had been attacked by sharks here as well and one remarkable time, Willy saved him by positioning his huge manta wings between Terry and the shark until the predator gave up and went after easier prey.

Underwater, I was blown away. We were diving on the famous boiler, which is a hundred and seventy foot tall spire that rises up through crystal clear water that is filled with fish, sharks, and life. Imagine diving down the Empire State Building if it was in the world’s largest aquarium. In fact, Jacques Cousteau referred to the sea of Cortez as “The World’s Aquarium.” He might not say that today. It is a shame that an area controlled by a single government has been allowed to be overfished so completely, that almost all the incredible abundance has been lost.

Then, with the cameras rolling, huge dark shapes emerged from the depths. The giant Mantas had come to find us. As the huge graceful shapes drew closer, a field of overwhelming gentleness and wisdom enveloped us. Emotions were flooding through me and I could see them on Terry’s face as he hugged his wife underwater. Then he swam up to one that he knew, not Willy, but another old friend named Chevy.

The giant saw him and abruptly turned and came right to Terry. Watching the footage later, our hopes of finding Willy, who hadn’t been seen in ten years, grew even higher.

The whole expedition left me shaken and forever changed. Mantas are intelligent. They are kind. They are now listed as critically endangered. It impressed upon me that it is more important than ever that scientists continue their early work to understand giant mantas and that the rest of us help protect their habitat before they are all gone.


Cody Sheehy, Director of "The Last Dive" *working title

Cody is the Director of the upcoming film "The Last Dive" *working title. This film, in the tradition of "Grizzly Man", "My Octopus Teacher", and "The Cove", explores how humans and animals relate, both through violence and friendship. Terry’s search for his old friend reveals a highly intelligent species, a little seen underwater kingdom, and the fascinating duality of violence and kinship that underpins life on Earth.

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