“I’ve now swum with thousands of mantas, but each time I see one, it still takes my breath away.”
– Dr. Andrea Marshall, National Geographic
Accomplished scuba diver, trip guide and underwater photographer Rodrigo Friscione was born into diving; his family has been in the diving business for as long as he can remember. An early passion for freediving and spearfishing later morphed into scuba diving and underwater photography, and involvement in research and conservation efforts through pelagiclife.org. Many more of his images can be found on his photography site.
Rodrigo, rumor has it you were one of the first divers to explore The Manta Valley. How did it begin?
Many years ago, I used to enjoy spearfishing, which is a freediving sport. While I was looking for new spots—and fish—I heard about some seamounts that were way offshore, supposedly good for fishing. This was in early 2008 and back then, the shrimping boats used to anchor out there overnight because the seamounts had created a shallow spot where it was safe. I took my first trip out there in March or April of that year. It’s over 100 km (60 miles) from Cancún, so you do need very good weather and a good boat to make the trip; it’s not easily accessible.
What did you find out there, on that first trip?
Not a lot of fish! But the moment we dropped into the water, we saw several giant mantas that were just resting on top of the sea grass, where the little fish were cleaning them. Because we had gone out there to freedive, we didn’t have the right gear to spend a lot of time in the water with them, unfortunately. After that, I started obsessing about the idea of going back and scuba diving with those mantas. But on the next trip, a few months later, we didn’t find any. No one else was doing this, so it was a lot of trial and error at first. It’s a long, expensive trip that takes lot of fuel and planning—not a location where you can just pick up and go on a whim.
“No one else was doing this, so it was a lot of trial and error at first. It’s a long, expensive trip that takes lot of fuel and planning—not a location where you can just pick up and go on a whim.”
When did you next see the mantas?
When I returned to the site in September ’08, conditions were perfect: We saw another 6 to 8 mantas in the same area. The rays were very friendly and docile—they had probably never seen a diver before.
“I got very excited about it and started to go out there to dive 3 or 4 times a year, just taking friends and family with me at first. I began to figure out the patterns of the weather, watching the moon cycles, tides and currents to predict the best possible conditions and the best times to see the mantas.”
Once I got it figured out, we had very good luck. By now, we’ve taken more than 30 trips to The Manta Valley, with about a 70 percent success rate—and it keeps improving.
Let’s talk about the rays! These are giant oceanic manta rays?
Yes! Aside from just being beautiful, amazing animals, mantas are really smart— they are the fish with the biggest brain. They have good memories; they recognize divers and patterns. And they don’t just swim by, they seem interested in us. They’re very curious and interactive—they enjoy the bubbles, make eye contact. I’ve seen them position themselves so the little fish can clean them better. They are fascinating. Oceanic mantas are the really big ones, while reef mantas are smaller. On average, these mantas have a 10- to 15-foot wingspan. They might even be a third species, which is what Andrea [Marshall] was really interested in.
Dr. Andrea Marshall is the world’s leading manta ray expert—National Geographic, right? How did you happen to connect with her?
Right—I had discussed the Manta Valley site with someone I knew and he recommended me to her. Andrea got in touch in 2015, and I ran an experimental trip with her. It was a short encounter, but the rays were out there and she got very excited about them. We then scheduled and ran a 15-day research trip so she could get some photo IDs.
Why was Dr. Marshall so excited about this particular manta population?
They might be a third species, potentially. Our rays here are slightly bigger than the ones she’s been studying in Asia. Their pigmentation is also different from what you usually see, and it’s a big population. I have personally documented more than 30 different mantas out there, and I think Andrea documented more than 300 individuals when she was last here—and that was just snorkeling. So, it seems possible to me that this remote population could have evolved with their own genetic markers. As I understand it, she’s working on some genetic studies to determine that.
Do the Manta Valley rays seem to stay in the valley, or do they migrate?
Well, we don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t seem like they go very far—this spot in the Gulf is so rich, they have everything they need within a few miles. The water is being pushed into the Yucatán Channel and the mantas seem to like that stretch of warm water; they can move within a small area for feeding and breeding. And it’s not easy for humans to get to, so they are fairly safe. We’ve learned that the best time to see them out there, in the best conditions, is between August and November.
What else might divers expect to see? What are the seamounts like?
Every seamount is unique because the conditions around it create it, eventually forming a micro-ecosystem. A lot of seamounts were formed by hot spots in the Earth’s crust, but this site is different—it’s mostly coral. The depth of it running north is about 300 feet, then the seamount comes up from 300 to about 70 or 75 feet. So, that remaining 230 feet was just formed by coral building on top of each other. It’s like an underwater mountain at a shallow depth.
“The Manta Valley is located right where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea come together, so you get a lot of different types of fish from both of those environments—frog fish, nudibranches, toad fish, bat fish, big pelagics like African pompano, turtles once in a while, oahus. I’d say it’s one of the last pristine reefs in this area.”
And it’s remote. You won’t bump into other divers out there—it’s at least a 3-hour trip and it means getting up at 5 a.m., so that’s not a casual thing for most people. It’s amazing and well worth the effort, but it is a commitment.
Diving with mantas is a lifelong dream for a lot of people. How much experience does a diver need for this trip?
The depth is around 70 feet, so Open Water divers can do it, but it’s not a trip for brand new divers—it’s a long way offshore, with strong currents and other conditions that require some experience. We want people to have least 40 to 50 dives under their belts before they do this, so we know they’ll be safe and enjoy themselves.
How do the charters typically work?
We purposely keep it small. Our trips are designed for a maximum of eight people and they are only available by advance reservation, as it does take a lot of preparation and planning. As operators, our first consideration is safety, of course. Going out that far, you want a trustworthy, seaworthy boat in case the weather turns. The second thing is speed: As I said, it’s a long way, so in a slower boat you’d be looking at more like a 5-hour ride, and that’s just too long for a daytrip. Third, we want it to be comfortable. For a long daytrip like this, you need shade, you need space for tanks and for people to rest.
With all that in mind, the main boat we use is 42 feet, 500 hp, very comfortable, spacious, and fast—we get out there in 3 hours. We leave the dock before 6 a.m., so everyone is checking in at 5:30. We are at the site by 9 a.m. and diving by 9:30.
What’s included in the trip?
We plan for two dives. For groups that have been out to the site before and know what to expect, we could add a third dive on request. We always have tanks, weights and air on board. Rental equipment can also be arranged, of course, and we can provide Nitrox for an additional charge. We include breakfast and lunch, and we always have plenty of drinks and snacks on board, too—I make sure of that, because I’m a big guy and I need a lot of food!
Understood! It always pays to be well provisioned—hungry divers are cranky divers. Is there anything else people should know before they sign up?
Just that it’s an incredible experience and worth the effort. And we also have a great fallback plan, in case the mantas don’t show—though like I said, most of the time, they do! There’s a nice tugboat wreck we can dive on the way back to shore, with a lot of life all around it.
Many thanks to Rodrigo Friscione for sharing his expertise and beautiful manta ray images. Yucatan Dive Trek is now offering private and small group charters to The Manta Valley, starting in August 2017. Space is very limited—please contact Yucatan Dive Trek for reservations or more information.
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Yucatan Dive Trek is a full-service tour operator based in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, catering to travelers who seek authentic experiences and one-of-a-kind encounters. We specialize in unique diving holidays, organizing and customizing trips to the best destinations in the region—in and under the water as well as on land.