Big Angels, Little Angels

While sharks, whales, and whalesharks get plenty of "big animal" attention on our trips to the Socorro Islands (Revillagigedos Archipelago), some of the best shots and most amazing memories are of Giant Mantas.

The largest ones, 20 ft (7m) or more in wingspan, glide through the clear blue Pacific water effortlessly, the underwater equivalent of giant celestial angels... But the real secret to interacting with the "Big Angels" actually comes from their interaction with "little angels", in this case specifically the Clarion Angelfish. Clarion Angels are endemic to the Socorro Islands but also seen in the Sea of Cortez on occasion. These small, brilliantly colored angels (even adults are usually less than 1 foot / .3m long) are mainly responsible for the fantastic encounters we have with Giant Mantas.

Some interesting facts about Clarion Angels and Giant Mantas:

  • While nearly all angelfish clean other fish during their juvenile phases, only a few species of adult angelfish do... The Clarion Angelfish (Holacanthus clarionensis) is one of them, and they clean Giant Mantas and other large fish.
  • Giant Mantas around the world are cleaned, usually by small wrasses and butterflyfish, and typically close to the bottom. The Socorro Clarion Angels can be seen "cleaning" the mantas 20 and 30 feet away from the reef, and even in blue water around the cleaning stations. 
  • Because of this phenomenon (a bit of speculation here), the Giant Mantas of Socorro have come to associate a wide variety of activity as "normal" at the cleaning stations. And this includes approaching divers and assuming the "cleaning" position.  Very close, wings flared, and hovering in mid water. This makes for spectacular encounters!

Since the Solmar V was the first live-aboard to regularly visit the Socorro Islands (we started in 1992) we've been able to observe the mantas and angels for nearly 20 years. We're delighted to report that the interactions at all the cleaning stations have not been impacted by divers in any way. In fact, the mantas do seem to use the same tactics with a diver as they do with the little angels (approach, flare their wingtips, hover, and wait to be cleaned). Do our scuba bubbles really imitate the gentle nip of a cleaning angelfish? We'll probably never know, but for the last 17 years, the dives with the Giant Mantas have been one of the most exciting and unusual attractions in the diving world.

This article is from the Solmar V eNEWS Article Archive

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