Maldives’ marine life is blissfully unaware of the popularity contest among species in their community. Sure, the angelfish are colourful and the clownfish are cute, but would a scuba diver come to the Maldives just to see them? Likely not. But there are, indeed, creatures that bring divers in droves.
What is it about the manta ray that mesmerizes onlookers and leaves them awestruck? What makes our hearts stop for a moment and brings a smile to our face just getting a glimpse of these birds of the deep sea? The reasons can be hard to put a finger on.
Let’s look at why mantas are winning all the popularity contests in the Maldives, and getting all the attention.
Why the Maldives?
It’s not secret that manta rays are not native to the Maldives. The pelagic species grace the open waters and near-reef habitats of tropical and sub-tropical regions all over the world, from the Caribbean to the Red and Arabian Seas and the Indo-Pacific. Swimming with mantas is a popular activity in Hawaii, Great Barrier Reef, Galapagos, Micronesia, Bali, Costa Rica, Fiji, Indonesia and Thailand.
In the Maldives there exists the conditions for unique manta ray encounters. During the Southwest monsoon season, at Hanifaru Bay, manta rays come out in droves to feed on the influx of krill brought in by the currents. Up to 200 mantas at a time have been witnessed in this location, which is now a protected site with boat and scuba diver access restrictions. The active Hanifaru period covers about July to early October when this so-called feeding frenzy can occur. As it’s not a daily occurrence, those divers that are in the Maldives specifically to see this phenomenon may want to plan several days of diving there in Baa Atoll.
Yet this is not the only place to see manta rays in the Maldives. Manta Point (aka Lankanfinolhu Faru) of North Male Atoll, as well as sites in Ari Atoll and Vaavu Atoll are all known for manta sightings. Generally, the Maldives dry season from December to May attracts mantas to the western side of the atolls, while the rest of the year they stay more to the east – all dependent on the flow of currents and the plankton flow that follows.
Size and stature
Size gets one noticed. The larger species are often the most popular in any environment – elephants, giraffes, moose, and bears all seem to draw attention. A manta ray’s larger-than-human size is part of their attraction. Their winged shape may also remind people of birds which, for the most part, are non-threatening to humans. Their wing span can get up to 9 metres, but average at about 6.7 metres.
Filter feeding lets the manta ray feed calmly and unaggressively. They glide and swoop through the water using the two cephalic fins around their mouths to direct some of the oceans smallest creatures into its mouth – krill, shrimp and planktonic crabs. The spiralling manta displays of Hanifaru, when the currents are right, are the most dramatic example of this awesome spectacle.
This filtering while swimming practice makes their movements graceful and pleasing to watch. While we would be equally mesmerized by a tiger, for example, fulfilling its role in the food chain, the toothy hunter’s methods of feeding are much more graphic. Not to mention that the tiny plankton and other miniscule creatures, which mantas feed on, can hardly be seen with the naked eye. Certainly, one way is not more important or better than the other, but in terms of human perspectives mantas give us a more relaxing show.
Their calm gliding is not an indication that mantas are not capable of moving fast, however; They can accelerate at the blink of an eye if needed.
Another practice that brings the manta many onlookers is their cleaning ritual. Manta rays live in symbiosis with smaller “cleaner fish” that remove parasites from their bodies. As the manta swims along the fish nibble at its flesh, and the fish obtain their own nutrients from this meal. Scuba divers visit cleaning stations around the Maldives to watch this harmonic relationship in action, evidence of the interdependent nature of the marine and reef environments.
Their image as gentle giants comes from all of these elements – size, demeanour, etc. Manta rays are known to come close to divers in the Maldives, but divers should be cautious to come in direct contact with them as it could cause removal of the protective mucous layer on the skin and cause lesions on the manta as a result.
Manta rays win the popularity contest in the Maldives then for good reason – they encompass the laidback, beautiful atmosphere of these islands. Photographers make sure you bring your wide-angle and fish-eye lenses to capture the massive manta. For all who get to experience it, a manta encounter will surely make your dive holiday.