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An Unforgettable Dive: Eye-to-eye With a Magnificent Manta Ray

Sanctuary superintendent Sarah Fangman shares a mesmerizing moment with a gentle giant
By Tiffany Duong | Updated On December 19, 2023
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An Unforgettable Dive: Eye-to-eye With a Magnificent Manta Ray

Sarah Fangman observes a sponge at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary.

Greg McFall/NOAA

As scuba divers, we’re privileged to explore, enjoy and play beneath the surface—something the vast majority of people on the planet will never experience. While it’s hard to pick a favorite, each of us certainly has a dive we’ll never forget. Whether it’s crossing something off of our scuba diving bucket list, making eye contact with a humpback whale or simply enjoying a perfect day underwater with our favorite dive buddies, we love to share these dive stories with other aquaholics.

Related Reading: Buddy 101: How to Dive With Someone New

To celebrate the beauty, variety and joy that this sport brings, we’re sharing some truly unforgettable dives from around the world, as told by the divers who lived them first-hand. We hope you’ll enjoy them as much as we do!

Sarah Fangman

Sarah Fangman

Name: Sarah Fangman

Certification: Certified in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands when I was a junior in college

Current: Superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and ocean conservationist

Follow: @noaasanctuaries

My ‘Must Have’ On Any Dive Trip: My scuba mask from 1987.

When I was a junior in college, I got scuba certified in St. John as part of a semester at a field station in the USVI. I brought a Tusa Liberator mask with me. I kept it in a dive locker next to the mangroves, and mice chewed on the silicone. I still wear the same mask, and it still has mouse bite marks on it.

It’s a great mask, and I love it.

My Unforgettable Dive: Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, Georgia

At least a decade ago, I was doing habitat surveys alongside my dive buddy, Dr. Roldan Muñoz, a dear friend and expert fish biologist who was doing fish surveys at Gray’s Reef. We had no cameras, as our hands were preoccupied with slates for data and measuring instruments for the habitat. I’m glad in some ways, because when we have a camera, sometimes we forget to experience things, and on this day, I had an experience to remember.

Sarah Fangman swims past healthy pillar coral in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where she is superintendent.

Nick Zachar

Gray’s Reef is about 20 miles offshore. Not many people go out there, so it’s a place where you can have unexpected encounters. On this day, we were working at the sanctuary, me measuring the habitat and Roldan counting fish. We were task-focused.

Suddenly, the light changed, and we both stopped. The most enormous manta ray was soaring immediately above us— a few feet away. I could’ve touched it. We stopped what we were doing. To hell with science, I thought.

Related Reading: Overcoming Fear: From Scuba-Phobic to Manta Ray Expert

FKNMS Superintendent Sarah Fangman removes a bunch of line from coral reefs in the Florida Keys.

Courtesy Sarah Fangman

We were in awe of this majestic creature. It was that big. It had at least a 20-foot wingspan. I even made eye contact. I literally saw its eyeball—because it stopped to watch us! We were in awe, and it was whatever it was. We were underneath, and our bubbles were hitting its underside as they flowed up.

We had this moment when all three of us were just observing one another. I have no idea how long the interaction lasted; time evaporated! When we got back to the boat, the captain asked us where we’d been because we’d exceeded our dive plan (but not our limits). We probably were just watching it for 15 minutes. It’s impossible for me to tell you how long it was because I wasn’t thinking about anything except the size and majesty of this creature and the engagement I felt with this marine organism. We were connected in a way in that moment, and I wondered what it was thinking about us… however mantas think.

I’ll never forget that moment. Roldan will never forget it, either. It was really, really cool. Magical, even.