It was one of the days I'll never forget.
“Everybody loves my magic sauce,” said Nyoman, smiling as she cleared the table. She must have seen my look of satisfaction. She was the third-born in her family, that was why we knew her as Nyoman.
Her warung was a simple establishment: A small, smoky kitchen that served meals to visitors seated on white plastic patio chairs placed on sand. It overlooked a calm bay where fishermen harvested seaweed and cockles. Swallows darted through the dusk sky hunting for bugs. Kites dotted the horizon.
Here, time stopped.
Shirley looked at me with a sunburnt smile. She had reason to be happy: Earlier that morning we swam with manta rays, something I’d wanted to do for a long time.
Batman crashed down the rocky coast of Nusa Penida, speeding past lush jungles, waterfalls, and temples buried between the peaks of misty mountains. At some points we inched closer to the shore, providing opportunities to examine small sandy coves and limestone caves.
We were heading to Manta Point, a dive site just off the coast of the island. There, we were going to dive at a cleaning station, a location on the reef where marine life convened to be rid of parasites by industrious “cleaner” fish.
“I can't guarantee we'll see anything” yelled Ollie, attempting to be heard over the outboard motor. He was a tall British oceanographer-turned-dive master. He caught the bug for diving while on sabbatical from long days on a research ship. He had curly sunbleached surfer hair and a smile that wrinkled his face, framing his piercing blue eyes.
“He looks like Thor” Shirley confided. I begrudgingly agreed.
Ollie said everything with a gentle smile. “It’s not manta season, but there have been some sightings this week.” His world was laid back and happy. We settled in and spent the rest of the journey admiring the scenery and contemplating the adventure that lay ahead.
After an hour, we arrived at the site. The divers on the boat began to get excited. The captain, a solemn man whose eyes hid behind dark aviators, steadied the boat and shut off the engine. Sunlight broke through the morning clouds as turquoise waves lapped against the hull.
Distant shouts of glee erupted from divers who had just surfaced. “Looks like we'll be seeing some mantas today” Ollie said, grinning.
He briefed us, describing the terrain, currents, and wildlife we'd see underwater. We listened intently as we donned our gear. It‘s always a struggle putting on a wetsuit. Every part of the body refuses to go in, like trying to bathe a cat. After I won the battle with mine, I put on the heavy BCD that carried the steel air tank. I wrangled the air hoses and went through the pre-dive checklist:
I felt the iron strapped to my waist.
I inhaled as air swooshed into my lungs.
I stepped on to the side of the boat and leapt into the sea. A flurry of bubbles circled in front my mask as the shock of cold water took me by surprise. I inflated my BCD with a big pffffffftttt of air and gently bobbed on the surface.
Shirley followed, then Ollie. We all looked at each other, gave the OK sign, and signaled that we were ready to go down. We let the air out of our BCDs and began our descent.
I equalized the pressure in my ears by pinching my nose and blowing out gently. Small breaths in, deeper breaths out. I rid my lungs of as much buoyant air as possible.
At this point during a dive things become zen. The chaos of suiting up, pre-dive checklists, and noisy motors are left behind, making way for a world where gravity barely exists...
... you're in freefall ...
... a slow-motion skydive onto another planet.
Underwater, the ocean sounds like thousands of Rice Krispies crackling in milk. I've never figured out where the noises come from, and apparently, neither have scientists–some think it's the fish farting.
When we reached the bottom, 60 feet below the surface, Ollie led us towards the huge underwater mountain, with miles of reef circling its base. Schools of colorful fish cautiously kept distance as a nurse shark meandered along the sea floor.
We situated ourselves along the side of the mountain, controlling our breathing to stay in one place while the current gently rocked us back and forth. I looked over at Shirley to see how she was doing. Even though the mask was covering her face, I could see that she was was preoccupied, and for good reason.
I looked up.
There they were, giant masses silhouetted by rays of light, gliding effortlessly with a small flick of their fins. Nature’s reminder that humans were not made to swim.
I was awestruck.
At first, the curious and timid mantas kept their distance. The more time we spent with them, the closer they'd venture. I saw Shirley point at one out of my field of vision.
It turned slightly and headed towards me. I started breathing faster. Stay calm, I thought to myself. Don't disturb it. Don't crash into the reef. Don't forget to enjoy the moment! It was on a direct course towards me.
It flew over my head, about eight feet above, eclipsing the sun. I saw its gills, markings, and scratches to its underbelly. I did some mental math and figured it was at least 12 feet wide. It passed and slowly disappeared into the deep blue beyond, with a smaller manta following directly behind.
I looked at Shirley incredulously. She nodded her head in agreement. Couldn't have ever planned that, I thought. After spending what seemed like hours observing, we were getting low on air. It was time to make our way back.
Back on the boat, Ollie and the other dive masters were buzzing like us. “Their behavior was nothing like we'd ever seen before. Each time we come out here we see something different – but this time was something special.”
Ollie handed us lunch for the day: A simple meal of rice, sauteed veggies, curry, and some fruit, each served in a separate compartment of a tupperware. I washed it down with 3-in-1 coffee as the captain turned on the boat to begin the journey back.
“Ready to go?” Shirley asked as she played with the sand trickling between her toes. She leaned back in her chair, eyeing the bottom of her bottle for the last sip of beer.
“Sure…” I reluctantly replied as I gazed out to the sea, happily exhausted from the dive earlier that morning.
Here, time was non-existent, but for some reason, it had to end. We said goodbye to Nyoman and promised we’d return. We got on our trusty pink scooter “BAYU”, which I rented earlier from a woman who had just returned from the local market. She didn't ask for a signature, deposit, or license, just $10 and a promise that I’d return it one piece. She topped it off with petrol from a soda bottle and watched cautiously as I got on.
I fumbled with the ignition and made sure the key was turned to ON and pressed the START button. Nothing.
Shit, you used to know how to do this.
“You drive scooter?” she asked suspiciously.
I nodded unconvincingly and tried again. Nope.
She walked over, squeezed the brake, and pressed START. It sputtered to life.
I smiled and twisted the throttle. The engine roared and off I went, intently looking ahead to avoid crashing –– and more importantly –– eye contact.
We went south on an unpaved road along a stretch of beach dotted by huts of local fishermen. The sun was setting, unleashing a searing orange light across the grey cloudy sky. Dozens of moored fishing boats swayed gently back and forth in the water.
I slowed down and parked next to a sleeping dog unperturbed by the ruckus. Children flew their homemade kites, running as fast as they could to launch them into the sky. I approached one of them and waved. I pointed at his kite, making the best inquisitive-and-non-threatening face I could muster. He proudly held it up for examination.
The kite was a simple wooden structure bound together with fishing line with black plastic stretched across. It reminded me of a bat-shaped kite my mom used to fly with my brother and me on the grassy windswept hills of our local park. There’s something simple and profound about kites, how they enable man to break his terrestrial bonds.
I looked back at the kid. He smiled proudly.
After playing language barrier charades, I guessed he wanted help launching his kite. He put it into my hands, looked at me, and took off running. Right as the string became taut, he yelled, which I think meant “let go!” I released the kite, which shot off into the sky. He cheered as we watched it get smaller and smaller as it climbed higher and higher.
At that moment I was flying with him, one hundred feet in the sky.
After the kite settled in the steady evening breeze, he tied it to a plastic soda bottle filled with sand. He thanked me and ran back to his family’s hut.
Shirley and I decided we had enough for a day and hopped back onto BAYU and puttered off.
Special thanks to Carlos Ochoa, Ben Wong, and Tyler Wolff.