Diving with Manta Rays
As it is the season for whale sharks and manta rays, the following article is reproduced to help you understand why we are out diving whilst you are reading this! The Sea Bees Team
I am underwater, staring back at an eye as big as a golf ball. Dark and limpid and knowing, the eye fixes on me from two feet away as the manta ray swoops by. For an instant I can look straight into its gaping mouth and see the row of small flattened teeth in its lower jaw. Close on its tail comes another manta, and another and another – a line of creatures seven or eight feet wide all pursuing the nutritious black specks of plankton that collect in this small bay when the lunar tide is high.
The manta rays are unaffected by my presence, cruising past me with inches to spare, now swooping, now spiralling in the water column, crossing and crisscrossing each other in a dizzying dance. Like planes in an aerial dogfight they are unhampered by gravity, turning, banking and swerving through the soupy green water without seeming to expend any great effort.
From above, the rays are great black silhouettes, scything streamlined shapes that fishermen called “devil fish” because of the curious horn-like fins hanging down near their mouths. But side on and up close you can look into their eyes and get a sense of their peaceful nature. Unlike stingrays, mantas don’t have venomous spines in their tails, and unlike many fish species they seem to enjoy human company. They tolerate our presence and sometimes perform loop-the-loops through the air bubbles exhaled from my scuba gear.
Once, overenthusiastically, I swim towards a manta cruising so slowly it seems to be suspended in the water. I am just a few inches above its broad flat back when it senses me. The whole fish twitches in alarm and with one beat of its massive wings it shoots away, perhaps fearing that I will touch it. I feel ashamed to have given it a fright.
I have come to Hanifaru, a small lagoon next to an uninhabited island in the Maldives, especially to see manta rays. These great harmless filter-feeders congregate here during the south-west monsoon between May and November and, if the tides and winds are right, enter a shallow cul-de-sac in the reef to hunt for food. On certain days, usually near to the full moon, the bay can attract more than 100 mantas.
Guy Stevens is my guide, a British marine biologist who has been studying the mantas for the past five years. Based at the nearby Four Seasons resort, he has identified more than 2,000 individual manta rays, photographing and cataloguing them according to their distinctive belly-spots and skin patterns. Many of them he now recognises by sight.
Each day we make the 40-minute boat journey from the resort at Landaa Giraavaru in Baa Atoll to Hanifaru. Feeding events, as Guy calls them, are never guaranteed, but during the season hotel guests can sign up for “manta alerts”. If Guy and his research assistants spot significant manta activity, the guests will be brought by fast speedboat to the lagoon to snorkel.
“The rays come in the largest numbers at high tide,” he explains, “and when the plankton has been concentrated at one end of the lagoon by the winds and current.” Word among the diving community about the possibility of finding massed manta rays at Hanifaru has slowly been spreading over the past year. Outside the shallow lagoon I can see five large safari boats – live-aboard cruisers that take divers around the best underwater sites in the Maldives. They will send smaller boats into Hanifaru in the hope that their divers will get lucky and see schooling manta rays.
It is something that Guy has been monitoring closely. “Word is out that Hanifaru is a top manta spot,” he explains, “and although the government has declared the bay a ‘protected area, we still don’t have any regulations in force to limit the number of divers and snorkellers who can swim at any one time.”
On several dives I am lucky enough to get close to the mantas, sometimes in the bay at Hanifaru and sometimes at nearby underwater “cleaning stations”.
Here, the mantas come in small numbers, or individually, to pause above a coral outcrop and wait while small fish pick at their skin, removing parasites or dead flesh, in the way we might visit the dentist.
Adapted for fast swimming with flattened and perfectly hydrodynamic bodies, they can accelerate rapidly with a twitch of their tapering wings. They gaze at human swimmers with a kind of knowing calm, something people commonly express when they try to capture the emotion they feel after seeing them.
Divers fall in love with them and swimming with manta rays imparts a sense of peace.
“The mantas have the biggest brain of any fish,” Stevens explains, “and some manta researchers are convinced that mantas can recognise individual people underwater.” Hanging in the water a few yards below the surface, I watch the mantas dance. An hour on scuba passes too quickly and it is time to return to the boat. And now we are not alone. Another group of divers has entered the lagoon and a boatload of snorkellers is preparing to swim with the rays. I want to stay with the mantas as long as possible, so I return to the water with mask and snorkel. I have seen many manta rays on dives around the world, but not in these numbers. And now Guy says there are at least 40 mantas in an area about the size of a football field.
When feeding, the mantas of Hanifaru are often happy to stay near the surface, making them accessible to snorkellers just as much as divers. They seem not to mind the human competition in this quite small space, and indeed they are often joined by other rays and even giant whale sharks, which also feed on the same plankton.
During my stay at Landaa Giraavaru the resort receives a visit from the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. Since coming to power in 2008 he has made his interest in the marine environment and concerns about climate change well known. In 2009 he held an underwater cabinet meeting, urging other world leaders to act decisively to combat climate change. More practically, he has banned shark-finning in the Maldives. The protection of wildlife areas such as Hanifaru is clearly one of his objectives, and I asked him why he took such an interest.
“Maldivians have lived with the reefs and their fish life since long before there were tourists,” he tells me after snorkelling over the corals at Landaa Giraavaru. “Yes, our reefs and our fish life are a resource for tourists, but the fish are our main source of food, too. And while tourist dollars are good for our country, the sea and its produce are even more vital to my people. I have to balance what tourists want to see with what Maldivians need to do to preserve the marine environment – and in some cases, like Hanifaru, those objectives coincide.”
For Guy Stevens, for President Nasheed, and for the guests who stay at luxury resorts such as the Four Seasons, the lagoon at Hanifaru represents different things. Balancing those interests – science, tourism and fishing – is one of Nasheed’s challenges.
I return to the lagoon over the course of several days and learn more from Guy about his hopes for the future. “People can visit this place, but I want to be sure that they don’t harass the mantas by touching them or crowding them out while they are feeding. We’re working to get a full-time ranger’s station and some kind of permit system to limit the number of boats that can enter the lagoon each day.”
At Landaa Giraavaru I meet other tourists who have been to the lagoon on a manta encounter. Anne, a middle-aged woman from England, is typical. “I had never seen a manta ray before, and I’m not a diver,” she told me with shining eyes. “But being in the water with them was such a privilege. I think I’ll be smiling for days.” For now, the rays at Hanifaru are safe, and it’s easy to see why they exert a kind of magic. But in other parts of the Indian Ocean the rays are being increasingly hunted for their gills – an ingredient in Chinese medicine.
These graceful giants seem too gentle to be butchered for unproven quackery. Their lives are in many ways still a mystery to science, but their grace and streamlined power drew me into the water again and again. Like shadows from a dream, they seemed creatures unworldly; pure, quiet ambassadors of the sea.
Published with the kind permission of Tim Ecott – author of Stealing Water, Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World and Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance
Article originally published by The Daily Telegraph – visit http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/sunandsea/8266639/Maldives-diving-with-manta-rays.html