Black on top, white underneath, a surprisingly long and rigid tail, it flapped languidly over the reef. With an enormous wingspan, 20 feet at least, it glided towards us.
When it turned, I could see its huge gill slits exposed, and a kind of massive riffling of the black back skin as the wings moved. An enormous whitish lobe, a fleshy part of its vast mouth, hung pendulously in the water and wobbled as it went.
Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the old beast faded back into the obscurity of the deep.
I had seen a manta ray. But no one in the dive group, including the instructor, was able to get a picture. The water was troubled that day with the vision of the giant filtered by the murk.
The only image that existed was in our collective memory.
I was on Ishigaki, a small island at the very southern end of the Japanese archipelago. My morning routine was to take a long swim along the beach and book-end the day with a shorter swim in the late afternoon.
On the way to the beach, I would walk past a concrete and tin shack with the name Uruma Dive Club. In the afternoons, a line of wetsuits were hung up and drying out front. Ishigaki is renowned for its diving, and I had long been wanting to give it a try.
So on my way back from a morning swim, I walked in and talked to a woman named Hiromi who was working behind a long, dark-wood counter. With a deep brown tan that came from working on the water, she was an “instructor,” or dive leader, but was catching up on the books that day.
Quickly she concluded I was looking for an “introductory” dive and I was told to be at the dive club at 8:10 the next morning.
After an hour-long boat ride the next morning, we anchored off Taketomi Island, on a bright, windy day. The island was tropical, covered in green. The shore was pristine, the water deep blue.
Air tank strapped on, I jumped off the back of the boat, and Hiromi held my hand for my first dive. My breathing was fast, but once the ears squeaked to equalize pressure on our descent, I focused on my surroundings. There were fish all around, and of all kinds.
A clown fish mottled in white and orange was parked in an orange sea anemone, a fleet of fish with vertical black stripes hung around, a large school of tiny translucent fish wheeled past, a thin spotted eel ribboned its way downward, a green sea turtle sat on a rock, larger game fish hung in the water.
Underneath them were purple, orange, green and gray corals, one huge one spreading over the rock like a pink, bumpy, bathtub mat, another shaped like a human brain.
It was all quiet, except for the sound of my breathing through the aqualung. Letting go of my hand, Hiromi pulled a writing slate out of her weight belt and wrote “fish eggs” as she pointed to a purple spray on the underside of an otherwise bare rock face, then grabbed my hand again, guiding me along the reef.
The corals were young, she had explained before we went under, and they were replacing a mass die-off from a few years ago. I had understood the die-offs to be the result of warming seas, so I was surprised and happy to hear the coral were coming back.
Compared to most diving sorties that include two dives in a day, the Ishigaki boats take divers down three times with a break for lunch on the boat, in this case bowls of the local specialty Yaeyama Soba, noodles and pork in fish broth, named for the local island chain.
On the long ride back to port, the boat’s load of diving enthusiasts, some of them retired, almost all Japanese, rest or stand quietly. After the day of diving, the boat ride back through the islands in the sun and wind provides a profound sense of peace.
I sit next to Hiromi at the tail end of the boat and she tells me her story. A small and single Japanese woman, she has reached the age of 40, at the limit of the time when she can dive three times a day. The instructors also work as boat hands and lift a large number of heavy air tanks on and off the boat and then onto small trucks to take back to the club.
Lifting the tanks, she pulled something in her back a while back and must take a pill to deal with the pain. But this is her job. The boat captain, a local Ishigaki man who farms sugarcane in the winter, is fair. He regularly gives her a day off from diving when she catches up on paperwork for the business.
At the end of the day, I reluctantly leave Hiromi and the cool, concrete clubhouse, with racks of wetsuits and regulators and crates of masks and flippers. Under the water, my hand on hers, I had regained the sense of amazement and wonder that children must have, and was still in its thrall.