By Nicko Place

The advertisement read: “Wanted: Citizen scientists.’

Something called Project Manta, in conjunction with the University of Queensland and Earthwatch, was looking for volunteer divers to assist scientists in researching manta rays, off Lady Elliot Island, Queensland, at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Volunteers would have to fly themselves to Hervey Bay, and pay several thousand dollars towards the project for the right to join the science team underwater, getting up close and personal with one of the ocean’s mysterious giants, the manta ray.

I was recently single. And 47 years old. Never a good combination.

Some guys turn to drink or to gambling or maybe don lycra, pedalling a Tour de France every day. Me? I go underwater. My scuba diving log-book never fills like between relationships.

This was the gear change I needed, something so crazy it just might work.

Earthwatch offers all kinds of programs, for all kinds of skillsets or no skills at all, from observing turtles or koalas in Australia to taking notes as orcas hunt prey in Iceland. I found myself paying a small fortune for my most intensive physical ever, to be declared fit for commercial diving, then staying at a beige timeshare-esque hotel in Hervey Bay, drinking alone at the character-free bar, wondering what the hell I was doing, before meeting the other half dozen volunteers at the airport the next morning, for the straight-shot flight in a tiny plane, 80 kilometres out to sea, to the tiny speck that is Lady Elliot Island.

A manta ray checks out the scientific work of Project Manta divers. Pic: Nick Place, Lady Elliot Island
A manta ray checks out the scientific work of Project Manta divers. Pic: Nick Place, Lady Elliot Island

A long, long time ago, my Year 10 science teacher had gently informed my parents that ‘science will always remain a mystery to Nick’. Mostly, he’s been proven correct. I’ve worked in media my entire adult life but still don’t understand how images and sounds invisibly travel through the air to land on a radio, TV or computer screen. I don’t get the miracles of how a human body works, or a car engine or any of that stuff. So turning up with my scuba kit, reporting for duty, felt like the most blatant kind of fraud.

But the head of Project Manta, Dr Kathy Townsend, was Canadian, smiling and welcoming. Her team didn’t actually need us to do much to achieve their goals; mostly my dive partner Takahiro and I trailed around in their wake, holding equipment or taking photos or video as the real scientists tried to get biopsies of mantas, by swimming gently under them and jabbing a skin-grabbing spear. Incidentally, this didn’t hurt the mantas much if at all. They’d flap their huge wings in surprise for a few metres and then relax again.

Project Manta is still going, working hard to understand more about mantas and specifically why they congregate in huge numbers at Lady Elliot, of all places. Just off the continental shelf, and in a kind of plankton eddy, it seems to have a lot of food, calm waters, and deep sea nutrients but the science is probably slightly more complicated than that (see above disclaimer about me and science).

I didn’t care anyway. I was there just to be underwater, to forget my real life for a while, and to spend time with these incredible rays, measuring up to five metres across their wingspan, incredibly curious and gentle and graceful. Mostly, mantas are like underwater eagles, gently flapping huge wings to soar above the coral. But even so, ever the loyal citizen, I did my time flipping through endless ‘manta identification’ folders, trying to discover if the manta’s one-of-a-kind belly markings I’d photographed underwater matched any of the mantas in the project’s books – secretly hoping it didn’t, so Takahiro and I would get to name a unique manta, as goes the protocol on the project. (Dammnit, ‘TakaNicko’ was never christened.) And I did manage to somehow film rarely captured footage of a female and male manta in the last, rolling, twisting, aerodynamic dance of a pre-mating ritual, which had Dr Kathy genuinely excited.

Was I trying to save mantas or were they saving me? Pic: Nick Place, Lady Elliot Island
Was I trying to save mantas or were they saving me? Pic: Nick Place, Lady Elliot Island

In the evening, diving completed, we sat on Lady Elliot’s beach, drinking beers and watching the sunset, with whales breaching in the dying sun’s water-trail. I learned so much about the ocean, and the lives of all these people who had been strangers at the start of the week. I became genuine friends with Dr Kathy, and Chris, Lady Elliot’s head of diving. Underwater moments like listening together to whales singing, filling the water around you, or of watching a manta drift directly over your head, that big eye checking you out as the massive wings block out the sun … these are moments you share forever.

Takahiro headed back to Japan, to continue his real life as an air traffic controller. The Project Manta and Earthwatch teams left for the desk job portion of their work. The volunteers trudged back to reality. The mantas? They just kept doing what they do, hovering above coral bommies for the cleaner fish to give them a scrub, or maybe gliding along the surface of the waters just off the island, enormous mouths wide open to scoop the plankton so thick it makes the water misty.

I flew back into Melbourne, armed with GoPro footage of reef sharks and leopard sharks, huge schools of fish and so many manta shots. But it wasn’t about that, and the slide show couldn’t convey the feeling that something in me had changed; that what would normally have been a holiday had instead had a purpose, had adventure, had a narrative. Thinking about the concept of doing what I love but not just for the hell of it, instead for a reason.

Some people spend their holidays working in a kibbutz, or riding bikes through Asia for charity, or building community facilities in third world countries. The list of possibilities is endless. I recommend it.

I’ve now been back to Lady Elliot three times and am planning another manta expedition in a couple of months. My heart is beating faster already.

For more info on Project Manta