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The manta in the mirror

By John Weller and Shawn Heinrichs A meeting of minds Chain upon chain of jagged islands jutted up from the sea. Dense vegetation clung to black, pitted rock walls that dropped sharply into cerulean blue lagoons. A Sulfur-crested Cockatoo landed in the top of a tree, its raucous call bouncing around the cliffs before daring out...

By John Weller and Shawn Heinrichs

A meeting of minds

Chain upon chain of jagged islands jutted up from the sea. Dense vegetation clung to black, pitted rock walls that dropped sharply into cerulean blue lagoons. A Sulfur-crested Cockatoo landed in the top of a tree, its raucous call bouncing around the cliffs before daring out across the water under the merciless sun. The smells of wet earth and mulch mixed with the organic salty breath of the sea.

Well-used outboard motors roared. The last chain of islands in this part of Raja Ampat, Indonesia sat on the horizon as the boat suddenly slowed and changed direction: the inky black of the ocean had given way once more to sky blue, but this was no lagoon. Thirty feet below us was an entire island. Shawn and I made final equipment checks, and slipped into the water.

The top of the seamount glowed in the dark water, an unbroken garden of coral. Blue trevallies, bat fish, silversides, yellow fusiliers, and massive schools of barracudas hung in place, swimming into the current, bodies of all shapes and sizes shimmering in the filtered light. Down on the reef itself, life burst from every square centimeter of space. Clownfish darted in and out, hiding between the swaying arms of yellow anemones where translucent commensal shrimp scavenged for food. Pygmy seahorses clung to sea fans, invisible to the untrained eye. Then great shadows fell over part of the reef. The giant mantas had materialized out of the blue.

Giant mantas in Raja. Credit: Shawn Heinrichs
Giant mantas in Raja. Credit: Shawn Heinrichs

They were circling. The current swept over the seamount like a prairie wind. I took cover in the lee of a 100-foot vertical wall on the edge of the seamount and turned my attention to deep water. I strained to see further, trying to resolve every slight variance in the pallet of blue. Finally, one of the ghostly shapes did resolve, and a moment later the manta soared into the seamount, surfed the powerful current to hover above a cleaning station, circled once, and then flew away, dissolving back into the blue.

I repositioned behind a coral mound on the top of the seamount closer to the cleaning station just as a second manta appeared at the edge of my vision. They moved like they were caught in a dream. The slow rhythm of their wing beats seemed disconnected from their speed and power. The manta flared its wings as wrasses swam up from the reef to clean its gills. The web of interdependence is unspeakably beautiful. But there was something else. As the manta finished surfing, it turned not away into the blue, but right towards me, drifting low across the reef. As it approached, it gently lifted its left wing, passing so close that it brushed my hair, and in its eye I recognized intelligence, curiosity, benevolence.

And how else could you explain what followed? Shawn set up his camera on a mound of coral and then hid down behind it, covering his face, then peeking quickly around the camera housing at the manta parked at a cleaning station in front of him. The manta immediately drifted over, seemingly curious as to what Shawn could be doing, playing hide and seek. Shawn looked up at the manta, reestablishing eye contact, and the manta seemed satisfied, floating back over to the cleaning station again. A minute later, Shawn hid his eyes again, and the manta came right back over to him. On went the game.

Shawn Heinrichs and manta. Credit: John Weller
Shawn Heinrichs and manta. Credit: John Weller

Over two dives, Shawn and I spent almost three hours with the mantas. There were seven of them, traveling in twos and threes. They danced, playing follow the leader, cutting tight circles across the reef. Then the mantas included us in their game. All three mantas in one line brushed our hair with their wings, circled around, and did it again. Both Shawn and I had dropped our cameras. There was no way to capture this on film. But I picked mine up for a final shot, as Shawn raised both his arms, extending an embrace to one of the animals in an uncontrollable expression of thanks.

On the boat, stripped of our gear, we looked at each other once, back to the water, and then dove in again with snorkels. As we swam out from the boat, one of the mantas came straight up from the reef and met Shawn, skimming the surface with one wing in an arcing turn, as if to return the thanks. It glided back down to the reef, then out into the blue and disappeared. Back on the boat again, Shawn and I sat in the warm sun. Neither of us wanted to speak yet.

Manta Over a Cleaqn#123F814
Gliding manta. Credit: John Weller

Empirical evidence of self-awareness

“Self-recognition is conventionally identified by the understanding that one’s own mirror reflection does not represent another individual but oneself.” – Ari and D’Agostino 2016

In March of this year, Csilla Ari  and Dominic D’Agostino confirmed experimentally what we came to believe on that day: manta rays are self-aware. Using techniques developed to test the self-awareness in primates, the researchers placed a large mirror in one chamber of an enclosure that held two captive oceanic mantas.

Mantas have well-known social behaviors that are easily differentiated from other behaviors that indicate self-awareness – contingency checking (when an animal moves in unusual and repetitive ways in front of a mirror, testing to see if the reflection moves as well); and, self-investigative behavior (when an animal uses a mirror to see parts of its body that would be otherwise impossible to see, like a great ape turning its head to check out its own back.) Would the mantas interact with the mirror? If they did, would they behave socially, as if their reflections were other animals? Or would they exhibit behavior implying that they recognized the “new” mantas as their own reflections?

The study stops just short of declaring proof of self-awareness, but the results are crystal clear. The animals did interact with the mirror, spending more than triple the amount of time in that chamber of the tank when the mirror was in place. They did not direct any social behaviors towards their mirrored images. On the contrary, they circled, flipped the tips of their wings, and blew bubbles in front of the mirror as if to watch the reflection move. They positioned themselves vertically in the water and checked out their own bellies. They behaved as if they knew they were looking at their own reflections. And though Ari and D’Agostino present astounding and rigorous new evidence, numerous divers would independently attest to the very same conclusion: manta rays are self-aware. But if you need more proof, this next experience, has no other possible explanation.

Giant manta in Raja. Credit: John Weller
Giant manta in Raja. Credit: John Weller

A manta asks for help

Shawn reports: “Wrapping up our day of filming mantas off Nusa Penida, Bali, we had been blessed with hours of free-diving encounters with a dozen reef mantas. I was capturing my final images when I looked down and noticed a large female manta hovering 20 feet below me. On closer inspection, I noticed a bundle of thick monofilament fishing line trailing behind her. Entanglement in fishing gear is a common and serious threat faced by mantas, particularly in areas with intensive fishing activity. Fearing she might swim off, I darted toward the boat, calling for a knife or scissors to use to cut the line off. Once in hand, I made my way back to the spot where I had seen her.

I was delighted to see she was still waiting in the same place, and taking a deep breath, I descended down to her. The lines were wrapped tight over her mouth and trailed behind across her back and belly, where they joined into a mess of knotted monofilament. The lines had twisted so tightly that they had cut deep into her flesh, preventing her from opening her mouth and feeding. I felt a knot in my stomach as I realized that if I failed to remove these lines, she would likely suffer a slow and painful death by starvation.

On my first dive, I managed to cut away the large bundle of trailing line. Returning to the surface for air, I looked down expecting her to move off but she did not. Taking a second breath, I descended and cut away the remaining lines. She flinched in pain as I tugged on the lines that were embedded in her wounds. I returned to the surface and looked down again. She was still waiting below me. Once again, I kicked down to her, and holding on to the front of her head with my left hand, I set about removing the hook from her upper jaw. The wound from the hook was deep and infected, and despite the pain she must have felt as I worked out the hook, she remained calm and motionless. With the hook finally free, I swam up to the surface.

Looking down, I saw she was still in the same spot, and I felt compelled to make one final connection with this graceful and intelligent being. I swam down and placed my hand gently on the top of her head, and drifting down beside her, I looked right into her eye. No words were spoken in that quiet moment, yet we both understood exactly what was being communicated. I told her she would be ok now. Her deep dark eye moved back and forth, and gazed into each of my eyes. Through her eye, I felt her express gratitude, as if I was hearing her words directly in my soul. In that moment I knew that she understood I was trying to help her. I smiled and told her it was ok and she could go in peace. And then with a gentle pump of her wings, she was off, drifting slowly out of sight.”

A global movement for conservation

Recent years have seen great strides in manta conservation, but mantas are still threatened across the globe. For an update on manta conservation, check out John and Shawn’s new video:

And you can find out more and get involved at and

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Meet the Author

Carl Safina
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.