Hahalua (Two Breaths)
I am terrified of the ocean.
Wait. That's not true. Let me backtrack. I'm actually not terrified of the ocean, but I used to be. And now, I have this sense that because some arm of quantum physics purports that past, present and future are all happening at once, and that because the woman I am today remembers quite well the borderline-thalassophobic girl with the same face (albeit less lined), that somehow that old fear will again make itself known. I wait for for its harbingers with certainty. The pounding heart. The increased breathing. The paralysis, frozen in fear.
We are on a catamaran at sunset, sailing out from Keauhou Harbor on the Kona side of Hawai'i Island, otherwise known as Big Island, otherwise known as the piece of land in an endless sea that stole my heart 20 years ago. I have been wanting to get in the water at night with the manta rays for nearly that long. We are opting for the snorkel, as neither of us is certified to dive and I've only dove once before, well over a decade ago. The boat ride is a short five minutes that takes us to the backside of the Outrigger. Many years back, when it used to be the Kona Surf Hotel, the then-owner installed massive, bright lights outside the hotel bar that perches on the sea to this day. The illuminated water convinced the plankton that it was day, and they came in droves of droves. On their proverbial heels were the hahalua, known in English as manta rays. The onlooking humans quickly grew enamored with the hahalua. They were graceful and fluid, pirouetting in the aqua stage like ballet dancers. In fact, even now people still refer to these nighttime events along Kona's black, rocky coastline as a ballet.
Back on the catamaran, the sun is beginning its nightly descent into the sea. We line up like good waddling penguins to get in the water. My wetsuit is so tight that it feels like my crotch is choking my neck, if you can imagine that. I fiddle with Macaco's phone in its plastic casing in an effort to mitigate any technical obstacles that might prevent the flip-on-a-dime readiness often required when photographing wildlife. Then they hand me a noodle -- they're making us use them. As the other guests enter the water and I approach the front of the line, juggling multiple variables like a good little penguin, I wait for the telltale sound of my own pounding heart. But it doesn't come. Indeed, after waiting all these years, I am surprised to find myself eager to get into the ocean at night. I lodge my requisite noodle under my arms and swim out to the giant floatation device that doubles as a set of flood lights meant to entice the plankton, and thus, the mantas.
During our various briefings, we learn that mantas are not endangered (though NOAA reports a Threatened classification for them, primarily due to being fishing bycatch or, in some cases, direct catch for their gills, which are erroneously thought to be medicinal in some regions of the world). We are strictly instructed not to touch the manta rays, as their bodies are covered with a slimy residue that confers immunity upon them. They are cartilaginous fishes, which means that their skeletons are made of cartilage instead of bone. They are thought to be solitary and they have the largest brains of all fish. In fact, recent research provides clues that they may be capable of passing the mirror test -- in other words, they may possess self-awareness (Ari and D'Agostino 2016).
I want to know as much as I can about them because I know that our nighttime escapade is not entirely natural. It is important to me that we do not burden the hahalua with cumbersome environmental pressures in our quest to admire them. We humans are like this, careening blindly when we cross paths with things we profess to love, all too often leaving maelstroms in our wake. Hahalua are sacred in Hawaiian culture, considered 'aumakua, or "ancestral spirit[s] ... [connecting] people to the procreators of their ancient clans of origin and to the gods of creation" (Kupihea 2004). One of our guides shares that the most common interpretation of hahalua is "two breaths" (ha is breath and lua is two), likely in reference to the two cephalic lobes located on either side of the mouth that corral the (aimlessly?) floating zooplankton directly into their cavernous filter-feeders. There are two species of manta: pelagic manta rays (Mobula birostris, or giant mantas that roam the deep seas) and coastal manta rays (Mobula alfredi, or reef mantas). If we are lucky, we will be seeing the "smaller" coastal manta, which incidentally can top out with a 14-foot (5m) wingspan.
In the water, my attention is on the phone. Being in the water makes the camera think I am pressing all sorts of buttons that I am not. The orientation flips without my consent. The camera app closes and another one opens. I try to mitigate the issues that are now coming up rapid-fire on Macaco's seemingly autonomous phone. Finally, I throw my hands up in frustration and think something along these lines:
"Screw it. I don't need documentation and I'm going to miss the actual mantas."
In the water, the light sometimes illuminates the bottom of the ocean and sometimes doesn't. It is difficult to gauge, but I would guess we are at least 40 feet from the sea floor. As far as the light illuminates, the water is a cerulean crystal. The plankton float around us like snowflakes in reverse in a vortex where seconds have slowed to minutes. Below the reach of the light lies murky blackness. We cannot see the ocean floor now. Suddenly, a shape crystallizes in the abyss. It moves in rapture. It emerges from the depths and slowly assumes a clearer form: a giant, diamond-shaped creature with iridescent stripes outlining a dark back. She comes closer and closer to me, performing a languid sort of calligraphy with her powerful body, completely unconcerned with stopping. I catch a glimpse of the striations in her filtered mouth, and for the briefest of pinpoints, I can see straight inside hahalua. At the last second, she turns on a dime, more adept with last-minute changes than I will ever be. She graces those floating to my right before returning, this time exposing her glowing underbelly and its magnificent black spots.
I do not move. It's as if I am frozen, it is true. But this time it is not fear that stills me. It is something far more sublime, something that follows the same wondrous shape that hahalua leaves in her wake, which, for a moment, does the seemingly impossible and silences us bumbling humans.
Ari, C., D’Agostino, D.P. (2016) Contingency checking and self-directed behaviors in giant manta rays: Do elasmobranchs have self-awareness? Journal of Ethology 34, 167–174. DOI: 10.1007/s10164-016-0462-z
Kupihea, M. (2004) The Seven Dawns of the Aumakua: The Ancestral Spirit Tradition of Hawaii. Simon and Schuster: NY, NY.
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