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Diving with mantas is among one of the ultimate bucket lists for divers and why so many passionate divers come to Komodo Island, but how about swimming with 150 of them?

I started my morning with Wicked Diving on their boat, Charlie, with about a half dozen others who signed up for this full-day excursion. We were already off to a good start seeing dolphins playing in the water on our way to our first dive. We don’t always see a lot of dolphins around here so it was a nice surprise to see them from a close distance as they passed our boat.

charlie

We just finished up our second dive at Batu Balong, one of the best dive sites in the world, and were on our way to Makassar Reef (also nicknamed “Manta Point”), a dive site northwest of Komodo, known for finding mantas hence the nickname.

Our captain and some of our boat crew noticed something in the waters about 100 meters in the distance, and we notice there are about a dozen mantas. Our captain decided to turn the boat around, and that’s when we saw a long stretch of about 150 mantas. We watch the mantas from the second level deck of Charlie, and we are ecstatic. Everyone runs to grab their cameras and watch them in awe as they form a line behind each other looking like aquatic birds.

About ten minutes pass and we decide to keep going but continue to keep seeing mantas everywhere. I want to jump in! Everyone wants to jump in, so the captain and our dive instructor make the call to turn around and allow everyone to grab their mask and fins and hop in!

One of the Wicked staff members joined the boat trip today on her day off has never even seen a manta. This is someone grew up on this island, works in a dive shop, and barely snorkels. She escapes through travel books like the works of Paulo Coelho. Can you imagine the joy she felt not only seeing her first manta but hundreds let alone being able to go out and swim with them?? I’m pretty sure I can vouch for her by saying this is one epic moment in her lifetime.

Or could you imagine a couple who traveled from the other side of the world with only one dream to see a manta and then gets to see an entire sea full of them? Hell, even our dive instructor was ecstatic and said the last time he saw something like this was a year ago.

We all jumped in, and the captain was guiding us about the proper direction to go in, and once we found their path, it was craaaazy!! They were in every direction! On either side of me, below me, coming at me! There was one manta ray that was literally swimming 6 inches below me and so close to flapping it’s wings on me if I didn’t move. I remember coming manto y manto (er, I mean, mano y mano. hehe) with one manta ray with its mouth wide open. I’m thinking, “Oh sh#t! What if stay in place? Will we have a head-on collision?” Naturally my instinct was to get the hell out of its way.

snorkel selfie manta (1)

After about twenty minutes of being able to snorkel with these beautiful creatures, we get on the boat and head to our last dive at Manta Point.

We gear up, take a giant stride into the water, and descend into a drift. Sure enough, mantas are passing by in several directions. Not quite as many as our impromptu snorkel session, but still incredible to see and a different experience. You get to study their bellies as they pass you from above in twos, fours, and sixes or lean close to the ocean ground steadily watching them circle around you.

After experiencing an epic day with nature’s playground, it was no surprise that at the end of our trip back to Labuan Bajo that we were gifted with a beautiful sunset and three eagles passing in the distance. Incredible day!

eagle

My activist friend, Marta, runs the Wicked Good SEED (Support Environment & Education Development) accelerator project in Labuan Bajo, a 7 month scholarship program sponsored by Wicked Diving. She invited me to spend a couple of hours talking with the teenage students of SMKN 1 High School, a vocational tourism high school, in Manggarai. I love getting in touch with the local culture through my travels, especially, curious and enthusiastic teens, and agreed to meet her the following morning.

She meets me on her motorbike in front of La Cucina Restaurant at 7:15 am, but she didn’t have an extra helmet for me. The cops can be a bit strict on the helmet policy around here, unlike many other places in Indonesia, so we decided to hail down a motorbike cab instead. It’s about 10 minutes away in a ruralish area outside of Labuan Bajo. The students are all dressed in a matching baby blue and yellow uniforms wearing Vans or Converse shoes in crew cuts and ponytails.

I was a few minutes ahead of Marta, and while I wait for her to arrive at the school, I get plenty of rubberneckers wondering what this foreigner is doing standing by herself in front of the school on the side of the road until she arrived.

LBJ high school

Marta escorts me pass about a half a dozen of full classrooms, and I get big hand gesture waves, bright smiles, and welcoming hellos from the students. If there’s anyone that knows how to boost my self-esteem, it’s definitely Indonesian kids!

We get into Marta’s classroom where she teaches 4 hours a day on Monday’s and 2 hours a day on every other weekday and most of the kids were already in their seats. They’re all wondering who is this foreigner guest their teacher brought into the room.

Marta introduces me to the class and then allows me to tell them something about myself and encouraging they ask me questions to help practice their English.

“Hello, my name is Celia. I’m from California…in America. I have 3 brothers and 2 sisters which is a big family for Americans. I have been traveling since October, and this is my third time to Indonesia.”

I’ve never been great at introductions.

There are several students quick to raise their hands and ask me more questions about myself wondering if I like Indonesia, what my hobbies are, and then one of the girls followed up and asked…

“How old are you?” she asks.

HOW DARE SHE!?

I hear the turntables scratching through my head with “How old are you?” Beat. “Erwee, Erwee.” Scratch. Beat. “Erwee, Erwee.” Followed by a dozen pots and pans falling through a glass ceiling.

Marta quickly steps in and explains to them about cross-cultural relations and what’s appropriate to ask people, and this was wasn’t necessarily polite among Western culture. 🙂

Thank you, Marta! But I answered anyway.

“I’m 34.” I say confidently.

32 pairs of eyes went big in the classroom as if they felt sorry for me. Hey, kids! I’m not that old, okay! Am I?? Well, whatever, the 30s are the new 20s in America! Take that even though you Indonesians all look like you’re 30 when you’re 60 and 60 when you’re 90. Oh, go away with your impressive anti-aging genetics! 😉

Whew! That was a digress. Ha! Back on topic. Where was I?

Oh, yes… the introduction.

As I am finishing up introducing myself, one male student walked into class late apologizing for being late and proceeded to say to me, “Sorry, sir.”

The class chuckles and corrects him before he apologizes again and accidentally calls me sir a second time.

Oh, kids. You have a long way to go, but you’re so adorable.

I take a seat in the back of the classroom and observe Marta going back and forth between speaking Bahasa and English. She then asks for a few of the students to give a presentation on a topic about a place that tourists could go but also how to make it environmentally conscious. I was interested to learn about the Bajawa Hot Springs to Cunca Waterfalls to the Batu Cermin Caves. I haven’t really even thought about the land attractions since I’ve been here. 

Then the class concludes, and Marta welcomes me to spend 15 minutes with the students and allow them to practice their English. Several of the not-so-shy types run over and ask to take photos with me. We needed to allow the next class to prepare and finished off with a few group photos of the class.

group photo

One thing I’ll say is I’ve always loved the inquisitive and warm Indonesian teen minds. I spent a month with them in Java a few months ago and now a couple of hours this morning on Flores Island, and, while adults are usually much more my speed, I sincerely love their age in this culture.

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