When Freckles the manta ray approached divers Jake Wilton and Monty Halls, they were shocked to see fishing hooks embedded under her right eye.
More surprising was that she stopped near them, appearing to ask for help.
Jake dived down several times, each time swimming up close and removing the hooks from her skin. Freckles waited patiently for him to finish.
Jake has since checked in on Freckles and told BBC News that she’s doing well, and may even have recognised him.
“I went down for a dive [to check up on her] and she stopped and hung around for about 30 seconds above me – it was pretty wild,” he said. “They have self-awareness and can recognise individual manta rays, so she could have recognised me.”
Freckles – so-named because of a unique pattern of freckles on her belly – is thought to be about 30 years old, making her a venerable old lady in manta ray years.
Jake says it’s likely she had been skimming the sea bed to scoop up plankton when the discarded hooks, used in recreational fishing, got caught near her eye.
It’s a common problem in Coral Bay, he says, although he adds that “this is the first time we’ve had one actually approach us and try and get [the hooks] out”.
“It’s all purely accidental, but a lot of the reefs out in the bay are areas where manta rays visit to be cleaned by little racks, to keep them healthy,” he explains. “People fish on those cleaning stations, and then accidentally hook the manta rays.”
Boats are another big danger for manta rays in the area – most of the injuries the divers see are caused by boat propellers.
Jake says he and his colleagues are trying to push for areas of protection on the reef, “to at least give [the manta rays] some safe spots”.
“All of the residential manta rays, who were already established here before tourism, are coming to the end of their lifespan,” he says.
“So the biggest worry now is, when these guys go, the new manta rays that are coming in… are they going to call this place home, or are they going to come here and think, ‘Oh this isn’t a very good place to get cleaned, there are too many boats, too many tourists’?”
Manta rays aren’t dangerous – in fact, they’re widely considered gentle giants of the sea. Jake adds that they’re extremely intelligent, and that they have great memories.
“Over their life they’ll have certain areas that they visit at certain times of the year, and they remember those spots and have relationships with other manta rays,” he says.
“That’s why it’s so important to protect those areas, because they have to return to them.”