Hanifaru Bay - a protected marine sanctuary the size of an average football pitch on an uninhabited island located in the Baa Atoll is now the world's largest Manta Ray feeding destination, as well as now being the premier 'must go' destinations for underwater photographers in the world. Up to 200 manta rays can be seen feeding off the coral reefs at any one time - as well as plenty of whale sharks doing the same. Access is only via live-aboard diving vessels. Contact us for full details.
The Manta Ray, (Manata Birostris), is the largest species of ray in the world; whose size often grows big enough to have with fin spans of over 17 feet; the while the largest Manta Ray on record measured 25 feet across. This gentle and slow moving creature is extremely popular with scuba divers everywhere but in the Maldives with its beautiful crystal clear waters and safe bays it is the ideal place for this tremendous experience.
This creature is essentially a flat-faced shark in a dark-grey 'ray' shape, a diamond-shape, with a darker dorsal side and a white underbelly. It's a filter feeder which means small crabs, and fish eggs and mainly plankton flow through the Manta's gills. They have a very few teeth, just a number on their lower jaw. It is an amazing looking creature – considered one of the strangest in the world. It has a series of markings on its back which biologists are using to identify individual Rays to enable them to track them, and watch them to understand more about them. These biologists have discovered that they have the biggest brain of any fish and are certain they can recognize individual humans underwater!
The memory of swimming with these magnificent creatures, being encircled by a line of graceful Rays all around you, stays with you always. So a visit to the Maldives, where these creatures live all year round, is a must! In fact they congregate at a certain island, Hanifaru, at several times a year when times and tide is right, to feed 'in a spectacular coral-reef ballet.' (National Geographic September 2011) to the extent they are trying to get this bay declared a sanctuary for them.
The Manta Ray is an endangered species but tourist interest is seen as its possible saving grace. At this bay you can see the well-known phenomenon of a gathering of Manta Rays 'cyclone feeding' where the Rays group together in a spiral shape enabling them to feed in a gorging way on the disturbed plankton. However, if you are a thoughtful tourist you will make sure not to crash abruptly into this specifically when all others are. It has been said that unless tourists, while good, in general, for the Manta Rays, are regulated, it could end this beautiful 'happening' as Manta rays and also fellow Whale Sharks go elsewhere for feeding.
Best places to see Mantas: There are specific Manta Points in Maldives where you are sure to see great manta rays such as Lankanfinolhu Faru (Manta Point) in North Male' Atoll. Your very best chances to see the best manta rays will be on the eastern edge of the atolls during the manta season. Imagine descending into transparent water, keeping still, looking above you, all around you then suddenly a line or maybe a spiral of large diamond shapes come gracefully towards you, some maybe queuing at the coral reef cleaning station, maybe one comes towards you – don't go towards them. Wait always for them to come to you with their huge mouths and strange looking nose, it will be an experience you won't forget. Huge magnificent creatures, as strange as the night circling you while you stay as still as possible, feet possibly tinkering with seabed sand beneath your feet, feeling strangely eerie and energized as if looking at underwater angels!
It is not rare to see over 100 Manta Rays at a 'cleaning stations' –at coral reefs where they let small fish through their gills enabling dead tissue and parasite to be cleaned away. This is a mutually beneficial relationship. The habits of these creatures are to migrate from one atoll to another, to one cleaning coral reef to another and this is how you will most likely get you see them. But divers must be respectful, keep their distance and not move too quickly to get the best of encounters with these wonderful and comparatively human friendly creatures.
Threats to the Manta Ray
The World Conservation Union class the Manta Ray as 'near threatened'. Their predators are Killer Whales and sharks. However, their main threat comes, of course, from Man – from people who hunt for its meat, from drift nets and long lines, and cultures that value their gills as ingredients for medicines. The gentleness of the Manta Ray is also a cause for its problems that and its curiosity of humankind in general. It's also a slow reproducing, slow-growing creature and can't keep up reproductively with how quickly it can be decimated. Also their 'pups' (baby rays) grow up hiding in the sand and are quite vulnerable. Not enough is yet known of their population ecology or their reproductive habits, their use of habitat, movements etc. The manta's life cycle resembles a mammal more than a fish; not giving birthing until they are about 15 years old, and produce only one baby a year at most.
Fortunately the Maldives, as well as recognizing their own physical vulnerability to ecological disaster, has recognized that the Manta Ray is essential to tourism in their country as well as an ecological point of view. They are protected in so much as you cannot buy Manta Ray meat in the market as well as introducing other measures to save this beautiful gentle creature from the tourists while trying to balance the needs of those that contribute so much to the economy. In other parts of the world where the Manta Ray lives, such as Philippines, Japan and Mexico, the Manta ray is barely seen. It is hunted and a victim of bad fishing practices.
The Manta Ray is a harmless creature and unlike the Sting Ray has no sting in its tail so its safe for all divers and snorkellers, so for your dream holiday to the Maldives it would be a mistake to bypass an experience with these beautiful angel creatures of the sea.