The author on the bow of <em>Cayuse</em>, an Outremer 51, as they approach the Yasawa islands of Fiji—a place known for manta rays. (Haley Hatom/)
Sun rays beamed down into the deep blue water, illuminating the faded rope that ended in a small weight, hanging just barely in sight in the clear Fijian sea. I held onto the buoy the rope was tied to, floating at the surface and staring at the weight 20 meters below me. I was familiar with this depth as a concept; I’d scuba-dived around it and Cayuse could anchor in it, but I’d never thought about sending my body down there unaided, willfully.
I’d been sailing with my parents on Cayuse, an Outremer 51, for a year at this point; we were circumnavigating with the World ARC. After graduating college I had joined them, and while sailing itself took up most of our time, I needed a new hobby to give myself a sense of purpose. Matt, my boyfriend and our other crewmember, and I had signed up for an SSI Freediving course at Mantaray Bay; I wanted a challenge, and Matt saw it as fun and a useful skill for cruising.
A siren wailed from shore after we dropped anchor in deep water off the Mantaray Island Resort, an eclectic hostel and hotel next to a narrow cut between two islands in the Yasawas. It was the manta ray alarm, which went off daily when manta rays were spotted swimming through the channel. The strong currents whipping through made it an ideal feeding ground for the gentle giants, and the namesake of the resort. We dinghied ashore as guests frantically gathered rented snorkel gear and rushed to fiberglass runabouts manned by locals to take them out to glimpse the graceful rays…