Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation of an article originally written in French. I apologise for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have resulted. If you read French, click on the French flag below to access the original, correct text:
July 26, 2009. I left Derawan and its archipelago today. I realized this dream I had since the beginning of this Indonesian journey in Borneo : swim with manta rays,, in the waters of Sangalaki !
From graceful giants
First of all (because I am always asked this question): no, large manta rays do not sting. They do NOT have a stinger, and they are totally harmless (unlike the small stingrays, but I will talk about that below...)
I start by giving you some pictures of these magic moments with manta rays, in the waters of Sangalaki (an island of the Derawan archipelago near Borneo, on the Indonesian side)... These graceful giants are powerful, fast. You have to paddle hard not to lose sight of them!
At the surface or deeper, they seem more aerial than aquatic. They glide and split the wave with a flutter of their fins, stretched like a wing.
You can easily go to meet them, simply by snorkeling or by diving with a tank. I tested with happiness both...
Added October 25, 2009 : I published a new post about manta rays in Sangalaki, with the edited video → Excursion to Sangalaki. I give it to you below too:
Swim with mantas in snorkeling
The first time, it was from a large boat with powerful engines, chartered by pilots and mechanics of the MY F (Mission Aviation Fellowship). It is an American Christian organization with bases and planes all over the world. Real missionaries, who don't forget to say grace before swallowing their nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice). They reach isolated populations by air, for humanitarian and religious purposes.
Based in Tarakan, they were a small group who had come to spend the weekend on Derawan Island, with wives and children. Paul and Becky, my English travel companions, bumped into them the day we arrived on the island. The Americans kindly offered us to use their boat for a snorkeling trip in Sangalaki. We obviously jumped at the opportunity!
I don't do much snorkeling, and it's not at all the same feeling as diving. I'm not a good swimmer than a diver, and I always feel a bit "naked", vulnerable, without my wetsuit nor my regulator, to evolve on the surface, tossed around like a little cork by the swell. Much less comfortable for pictures...
It's a funny thing to jump into the water, just like that, with your snorkel, to get closer to the black fins that you can see spouting in the foam between two waves.
But then... When you put your head in the water, what a show! A real ballet.
The trick is to keep the rhythm, between the mantas' flights. I give you below some small raw video sequences, so that you can appreciate the majestic "flight" of the beast.
When one of them decides to keep you in the curve of its trajectory and approaches well in front, mouth wide open, all to its plankton feast, a little shiver runs down your spine. You drink the cup in your snorkel and stop paddling so as not to break the spell.
The beautiful one continues its dash and dodges you all in flexibility, without effort, offering you its milky belly as a goodbye.
Meeting with the mantas in diving
The second meeting, more stealthy, took place while diving, a few days later. I was underwater with a ski instructor, Philippe, and his son Julien (I have never met so many French people during this trip as in Derawan!)
Unfortunately, we crossed, from a little too far, the road of an enormous manta, all black, this one. Like a real sea devil, with its "horns" rolled up, it did not deviate from its trajectory, and continued, impassive, its slow flight in the blue...
We were lucky to be able to admire the manta rays. They are, it seems, less numerous than in the past. The previous week, tourists went several times to the site without noticing one.
Stingray sting (sting ray)
Finally, this so beautiful first day in Sangalaki ended in pain, for me. I was stung by a stingray. In other words, a beast stingray with blue dotsThis is a very common species in these tropical waters, a miniature but venomous cousin of the harmless large manta rays. Hidden in the sand, at the edge of the beach, it stabbed me with its poisonous sting in my left foot while I was returning to the boat.
I was wearing my diving boots and walking carefully. The stinger went through the side of my foot, near the little toe, just above the rubber of my sole.
The rangers who guard the island since the Sangalaki resort is closed brought a tub of very hot water to relieve the excruciating pain. Ah... this reminds me of my Rescue ! Yes, the venom of stingrays (is thermolabile, which means that its toxicity decreases at a certain temperature.
Then, I gritted my teeth on the boat until we got back to Derawan. You can't see it at all on the picture below, but I'm hurting, really hurting.
I am brave in the midst of all these solicitous Americans, and I even find the strength to grimace a smile and raise my fingers like the Indonesians every time they get their picture taken, but this return has been a torture.
I was the attraction of the day in the village. A nice lady took me on her motorcycle to the small clinic where, by chance, a doctor was present that day. A young woman who spoke perfect English, who took care of me.
Hot water, anaesthetic injection, incision to clean the inside of the wound. Then medication to avoid infection and prohibition to go in the water for three days, the time to heal...
Three days of forced rest, therefore, watching the turtles from the pontoon, without ploufs nor snorkeling... what a torment!
But I am doing well. My foot soon swelled up and looked normal again. Marjolijna young Dutch woman who is doing her doctoral thesis here (she studies Derawan turtles and even cleans the beach edges of garbage) was less fortunate than me.
The day before yesterday, the same thing happened to him with a stingray. Except that the doctor was not there. And it is the assistant of the dispensary, less gifted, who butchered his foot, with less precautions.
As a result, his wound looked worse than mine... Stingray stings are common here, it happens very often, to islanders and tourists alike.
I gave Marjolijn what I had left of sterile compresses. We all took them from our little travel pharmacies to allow her to disinfect the wound as well as possible and to soothe the pain in the meantime. I hope she will recover as fast as I did!
Finally, it is more dangerous than it seems, the tropical beaches...
Updated August 26, 2009 : Marjolijn tells, on her blog, about her ordeal... Poorly treated, she ended up with an infection 😱 To read (in English) here : → About infections and stingrays