The Hanifaru Bay diving ban explained
Hanifaru Bay is a world-renowned snorkelling and diving spot but as of this year diving has been banned in the bay.
The bay is located in Baa Atoll and is roughly the size of a football pitch in size. During the Southwest Monsoon when the moonlight, tide and other conditions are right, the bay comes alive with vast concentrations of zooplankton. ‘Mega fauna’ like whale sharks, manta rays and giant oceanic mantas are attracted by the plankton and are drawn to the bay in unusually high numbers, making for an incredible natural spectacle.
The opportunity to see up to see several whale sharks and up to 200 mantas in one place draws tourists from all over the world. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List Threatened Species assessment, whale sharks are classed as ‘Vulnerable’ while manta rays are ‘Near Threatened’. Hanifaru Bay is one of the only places in the world where scientists have recorded whale sharks and mantas aggregating in such high numbers to feed.
The government of the Maldives decided to implement strict rules and measures in an effort to minimise damage to the ecosystem there following a massive increase in the number of tourists visiting it. One of the most significant changes is the ban on diving in Hanifaru Bay, making it effectively a snorkelling-only zone. Divers can still dive in the area outside of the bay and in the rest of Baa Atoll but inside Hanifaru Bay all visitors must adhere to the new regulations. The diving ban came into effect in January 2012.
Hanifaru reef is a semi-oval shape surrounded by deep channels. On the eastern side it is exposed to open ocean. The western corner is the shallowest part of the lagoon, protected from the open ocean, and there is a small sand cay there. There isn’t very much hard coral in the lagoon but turtles and seabirds can be spotted there. On the south-eastern side of the reef there is a small bay which is around 700 metres long and 80 to 200 metres wide, connected to the main reef in the east and a channel opening into open ocean to the west. The whale sharks and mantas use this channel to enter the bay unless the tide is high enough for them to cross the reef. The southern part of the bay, near a sandbank, is where the zooplankton gets trapped in large numbers and the whale sharks and mantas feed on them.
Hanifaru Bay was declared a Marine Protected Area in 2009, which gives it the highest level of protection in the Maldives. It was made a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in June 2011. There are three main functions of a Biosphere Reserve – conservation, sustainable development and learning.
A Hanifaru Management Plan was drawn up to co-ordinate and implement the programme. It is co-financed by the Global Environment Facility and implemented through United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Maldives.
Under the regulations, only five safari boats, resort vessels or local boats are allowed to drop off visitors near Hanifaru Bay at one time and each vessel can only have access every other day. Vessels must stay at least 50 metres from the mega fauna. No vessels can enter the bay and the special drop-off zone can only be used by vessels, researchers, in water tour guides, Environmental Protection Agency rangers and visitors in possession of Hanifaru Tokens.
How this affects visitors ?
There is also a restriction on the number of visitors allowed in the water at one time. Anyone wanting to snorkel in the bay must have an official Hanfaru Token purchased either from a safari boat or from the Baa Atoll Conservation Fund . The token entitles each group to up to 45 minutes of snorkelling time in the bay. Visitors have to leave the boat in the drop off zone and enter Hanifaru Bay by swimming through a designated entry point.
Visitors also have to abide by special guidelines (the national Maldivian Whale Shark Tourism Guidelines) when they come across any of the mega fauna. They must stay at least three metres away from the creatures and not attempt to touch them. If the whale sharks happen to swim in their path, snorkellers have to remain motionless and wait for them to move away from them.
Every visitor will be given a laminated map of Hanifaru Bay and the main sites within it. On the back is a list of permitted and prohibited activities in the area, which tour guides are also required to explain to visitors.
Anyone who breaches the Hanifaru Management Plan is liable to penalties under Maldivian Law defined in the Environmental Liability Regulations, and the Hanifaru Management Authority can withdraw or suspend licences and permits for anyone breaching the Management Plan.
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