It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … a manta ray? In the Maldives there are a limited number of actual bird species. This is not a country to which birdwatchers flock. Under water there are, however, many species that can make divers do a double take and wonder whether they are indeed many meters below the water surface.
Here are a few creatures that seem to soar like birds through the water as if it were air:
Not only is the swimming style of the manta ray similar to a bird in flight but it can actually leap into the air. The manta ray is a creature of the open sea that doesn’t dip below 40 meters. That’s why the harmless creature is accessible even to snorkelers. With just a pair of fins, a mask and a snorkel Maldives’ divers can fly with manta rays.
There are about 600 species of ray, of which the manta ray is the largest. The Latin name of the manta ray is Manta birostris and it takes its name from the word “manta”, which in Spanish means “cover”, a name that describes the flat, expansive body shape. In the up to 20 years that it lives a manta ray’s wing span can reach up to 8 meters, corresponding to 2.2 times the length of its body, without the tail. Unlike the sting ray’s long stinging tail, the manta ray’s appendage is short and harmless. Its colouring is black or dark blue on the back and white on the belly.
The Maldives is the perfect environment as manta rays like the areas the coast and coral reefs in tropical seas and temperate waters. Though it doesn’t frequent the Caribbean Sea. The manta ray is ovoviviparous (eggs hatch inside of the uterus before birth). The gestation period is 13 months, after which the mother gives birth to one or two cubs. They can be around 1 meter wide and weigh approximately 50kg, feeding mainly on plankton and small crustaceans.
You may not know but the manta rays can leap into the air. Indeed, it springs out and hydro planes for seconds of air time out of the water. These jumps can reach 3 meters. Scientists do not yet know for sure the significance of this practice, but it could be part of the courtship rituals of the male.
This harmless giant, 3 to 5 meters wide, feeds on plankton. In the Maldives, it is observed similar to the whale shark with the migration of plankton. Both massive creatures are present in Ari Atoll South from November to April, manta rays move to the north of the archipelago in the atolls of North Male, South Male and Vaavu the rest of the year. To observe their habits, locate manta “cleaning stations”. These are places where mantas are cleaned of their parasites by smaller fish called wrasses. If you are able to see mantas feeding you can witness a beautiful water ballet.
Diving with Manta Rays may go something like this: On a trip through Ari Atoll, stopping at “Manta Point” (Madivaru), divers are down in the deep when the instructor points at what seems like a blob approaches them. Divers try to stay below the approaching creature to attract it with bubbles and to avoid scaring it away by putting themselves in the manta ray’s direct path. As the majestic flying creature gets closer divers can make out the distinguishable features from the white underbelly and wingspan of serveral meters to the front mouth lobes and wide gaping mouth.
The key to prolonged and close up manta encounters is to watch from a certain distance. When startled or blocked from passage they might be scared away.
Spotted Eagle Ray
Another bird-ressembling marine species that prefers gliding through the open water is the eagle ray. With a shape similar to the manta ray they seem to flap their wings to move through the water but their size and characteristics are distinct.
The much smaller eagle ray is heavily spotted with white spots all over its surface-facing, top side and has a long thin tail. They have even been known to fly into to air when jumping out above the water surface. Eagle rays are less likely to swim around divers as they are more shy than their larger cousins.
Just like the manta ray, these rays swim as individuals or in large groups though they do not feed in the same way. Eagle rays can eat creatures larger than plankton such as squids and crustateans thanks to their strong teeth and shovel-shaped mouth.
It’s always exciting to see dolphins as they seem to appear out of nowhere when you least expect it. Playing in the wake of boats, that’s when visitors can often see them in action. They jump into the air and actually fly for just a moment.
Hopefully you will also fly in the Maldives, via international or domestic flight, or even by seaplane. Now is the time because it’s manta season and there are some great deals on dive cruises that let you fly with the manta rays. Check out our awesome dive cruise deals.