Tag Archives: Hanifaru Bay

Eerie as the dreams of ghosts: Swimming with Manta Rays in the Maldives

1 Nov

A boat tentatively works its way through the shallow reef system of the Maldivian archipelago. Two hours earlier, the same boat had been awash with the excited voices of its passengers. Now, no one is speaking, everyone is huddled beneath thick beach towels lost in their own thoughts or in the digital displays of a variety of underwater cameras. Every now-and-then someone gasps, but no one looks up, there’s no need, we know what they have seen, we saw it too and it’s still reflected in the wonder of our eyes.

Two hours earlier we had jumped off the boat into the deeper waters fringing the Maldives reef system. No more than 6 meters of water, this would still be the deepest piece of ocean I had ever swam in. Looking down through my mask I was immediately struck by the clarity of the water and how much I could see below: huge living coral gardens and shoals of fish of more species than I could name. The same fish had provoked wonder the first times I encountered them on our resort’s reef, here they barely register with me, I’m looking for something else. I’m looking for something…bigger.

We have been in the water for about 15 minutes before she materialized out of the dark blue distance, eerie as the dreams of ghosts. Mottled in a way that allowed her to blend well with sea water shimmering with ribbons of gold from the bright overhead Sun; she is quite close to where I am swimming before I realise what I am looking at: Manta Alfredi – The Reef Manta Ray.

The Reef Manta is the second largest of all Rays with wingspans approaching five meters when fully grown it is only just smaller than Manta Birostris, the Giant Oceanic Manta, whose wingspans can reach in excess of seven meters. History first recorded Manta Rays as ‘Devil Fish’ due to their colossal size, physical power and truly alien appearance, however such a fearful moniker could not be less well deserved. All the Manta family are filter feeders, spending their lives grazing on tiny plankton and they possess a natural curiosity of swimmers, often seeking-out limited human interaction especially at feeding spots.

I have wanted to swim with Manta Rays for as long as I can remember and as the giant animal passed me for the first time, though a cliche, I had to remind myself to breath. Just as she was in-line with me in the water column, she turned on her side and curved back around, like a skilled sailor tacking on a stiff breeze, her turning circle was impossibly tight and she soon passed me on my other side. I truly have not seen a animal so graceful nor one that has left me so truly moved by allowing me to share her space.

People have asked me if I was afraid, being in such close proximity to such a big creature. Whilst it was unsettling, the first time I saw a Manta swimming directly at me with its mouth so wide open, I was not afraid. From my first encounter, I was overcome with a sense of calm that I rarely experience in waking life, something at once meditative and elating. My eyes had been welling for a while and had begun to fill the inside of my mask with tears. Even underwater, a smile so spontaneous spread across my face and water began to gush around the new gaps between my lips and snorkel, forcing me to surface, briefly.

Moments after this first encounter, having cleared my mask of tears, I slipped back beneath the surface and immediately saw the first Manta had been joined by four more. I watched as they formed into a near perfect circle about midway down the water column. Each animal maintained a distance of a couple of feet from the tail of the one in front and they swim in this strange pattern for a few minutes and then they dispersed, disappearing back into the dark blue; all except one. She stayed around to dance for us for a further 20 minutes.

The behaviour we had witnessed, research has shown, is a Manta feeding frenzy. The space in the centre of their circle was likely full of highly concentrated plankton, which the Manta were mercilessly devouring. When the prey was consumed, that was the point that they broke their formation to find better grazing elsewhere.

The remaining Manta treated our group to some startling aquatic manoeuvres. Sometimes she would hanging close to motionless in the water whilst at other times perform fast, impossibly-tight turns and barrel rolls showing both her grey back and her white, eight-gilled, tummy with black spots in the lower quadrants. These black spots are unique to each fish and used by scientists for identification purposes.

Eventually, she too swam away marking the end of my first swim with these stunning creatures as our tour guide began the near impossible task of getting a large group of dispersed snorkellers and free divers back to the boat.

Back on the boat, dripping wet and huddled beneath a resort beach towel My smile had lost none of its shine and I was crying again. This time my tears were for Tristan. Trivial as it may seem, the thought of never being able to have this experience with him immediately felt like hot steel through my heart. It still does.

Back at the resort, I got off the tour boat convinced that if it was possible I would make the trip again before returning to the UK. At the back of my mind I was wondering if doing it for a second time would turn out not to be as magical as the first time, I would be in for a very pleasant surprise…

Here is some footage from my first swim:

Two days later I was back at our resorts dive school, mask, snorkel and flippers in hand and my excitement bubbling, barely contained, beneath the surface. While the first tour had been hugely over subscribed, only six of us were booked to go on the second and I was the only proficient swimmer armed with an underwater camera. My excitement peaked realising that, if there were Mantas present, the chances of getting decent footage, something which had been difficult on the first trip, would be pretty good.

While our first tour had taken us to a more open water location due to the absence of Manta in the much shallower Hanifaru Bay, this time Hanifaru Bay was teeming both with plankton and giant, hungry, Manta. Even before stepping from the boat into the beautifully warm and crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, we could see manta wings breaching the surface everywhere we looked. What would follow would be the two of the most remarkable hours of my life.

As soon as I entered the water of Hanifaru Bay I was aware what made the day so remarkable. Everywhere I looked the ocean was teeming with just visible black specks of plankton, like a cloud of suspended underwater dust and the primary food source of Manta Rays. I soon became less aware of the plankton and more aware of the Manta Rays.

Everywhere I looked were Reef Manta, at least 20 animals, swimming in every possible direction and all specimens at the upper limit of their size range. Each animal that passed me was approaching five meters across from wing tip to wing tip. I didn’t know where to point the borrowed Go-Pro, that had been attached to my arm for the vast majority of our Maldives adventure, next.

For two hours each tableaux unfolded into the next and each more stunning that the one it proceded. Reef Manta swam within inches of me, sometimes taking me totally by surprise, passing directly underneath me so that their huge mass filled my entire field of view. Manta swam directly at me, mouths wide then at the very last second, when collision seemed an inevitability, they peeled off left or right, up or down showing almost unnatural control over their hulking body’s position in the water column so that, although close, we never came into actual contact.

I’m not sure how long I had been in the water enjoying the giant grace of the Reef Manta before I noticed something even bigger in the depths. A Manta had just passed under me and I was still looking directly down when I saw a fish with a wing span that must have been close to 7 meters, unmistakable as Manta Birostris, the Giant Oceanic Manta Ray.

After spotting the first Oceanic Manta I noticed 3 more close by. They performed the same breathtaking maneovuers as their smaller relatives but performed their aquabatics much lower in the water column and much further from the people gathered above. I made several attempts to free dive and have a closer look but my initial spot would be the best view I had – most often, I would arrive at the bottom to see the rear of their vast disk and stubby tail disappearing into the blue. I saw enough to make me appreciate just what an incredible place Hanifaru Bay is. A truly unique location in that it allows for sightings of both species of Manta and often in huge numbers (reports of 200 animals around full moons are often repeated).

Our two hours in Hanifaru Bay flew by and it was with great reluctance, largely due to the presence of so many, still active, Manta, that we swam back to our boat and left the Bay when our guides called time. The next day we would fly back to the UK, it’s been two weeks since I was in the water with these beautiful animals and I still go misty eyed and distance when I think about the experience or watch back my footage.

Here are the Manta in Hanifaru Bay:

Intelligent Ocean Stewardship

Both species of Manta that I encountered in the Maldives are on the list of endangered and monitored species, both listed as vulnerable. Their slow reproductive rate and use in Chinese medicine makes them at particular threat from extinction. Although known about for some time, there is still a limited amount of data on migration and population numbers – especially in relation to the Giant Oceanic Manta – so the exact figures on species number are not known. It is reasonable to assume we may enter the next century without either of these majestic creatures gracing our oceans.

We’re probably at the tipping point right now (some will argue we have already plunged over the edge) where it might not be too late to do something. Our current relationship with our oceans is highly atavistic and is now becoming unsustainable. I believe, to maintain anything like the levels of aquatic biodiversity that we enjoy today we must adopt a model of intelligent ocean stewardship before it’s too late.

If you are in any way inspired by my accounts and videos of swimming with Manta and want to go and swim with them yourself I would highly recommend it, but do it as a Steward for our seas. This means do your homework, look for locations where Manta are protected, not exploited.

One of the reasons I have so much respect for the way the Maldivian People operate access to Hanifaru bay is that they allow swimmers like me access to such incredible creatures while maintaining an environment that Manta have visited for thousands of years and will continue to visit for millennia to come.

One of the big steps that has been taken in Hanifaru Bay is the banning of scuba diving which has been shown to have a negative impact on the migratory habits of both Manta Ray and Whale Sharks. This is a measure that is taken at many of the Manta and Whale Shark hotspots around the world and is intelligent ocean stewardship in action.

I want as many people, not just current generations but subsequent generations, to be able to enjoy the seas in the way that I have. Gone are the times we can pretend it possible to have these experiences and not give thought to how we impact on these, often fragile, ecosystems. It’s up to us. it’s always been up to us, the only difference is now it really is starting to matter that we each act as responsible ocean stewards. The future thanks you.

Learn to swim

It’s something that I have always taken for granted, from an early age, moving in water always felt as natural to me as walking on the ground. I have gone through life so far largely assuming every one I meet will be able to meet the basic requirements of a swimmer ie not drowning.

Being on a resort with predominantly Chinese, Japanese and Korean holidaymakers aged under 30 I was struck by just how many were totally unable to swim. If I had to estimate, I would say 90% of guests from these countries lacked even the basics of swimming proficiency, not sure if this is reflected in wider populations in these countries but stark contrast to the UK where I’d estimate the same number would show 90% with a reasonable level of swimming proficiency.

If you are reading this and you are not able to swim, what are you waiting for? If you are determined you are not going to learn to swim, but have children, please encourage them to learn. The (possibly irrational) fear you have of the water won’t be shared by your children and there is no better time for them to learn than while they are young.

Big Fish Bucket List

As I am getting older and more accurately aware of the fragility of human life I’ve been thinking about the things I want to do before I die. This list includes swimming with a variety of different fish and below is my big fish bucket list:

  • Whale Shark
  • Wild Dolphins (Captive Dolphins don’t count)
  • Reef Manta Ray (Manta alfredi) – October 2015, Hanifaru Bay, Maldives
  • Giant Oceanic Manta Ray (Manta birostris) – October 2015, Hanifaru Bay, Maldives
  • Wild Minke Whales
  • Oceanic Sunfish
  • Barracuda – AprilĀ 2012, Riviera Maya, Mexico
  • Wild Stingrays (Southern Whiptail) – October 2015, Baa Atoll, Maldives
  • Wild Dugong
  • Great White Shark (caged dive)
  • Basking Shark
  • Wild Orca

Some links

Here are some links that you might find useful either to find out more about Manta Rays and their conservation or to plan your own trip:

Well that’s me done on this one, if you’ve swam with any of the above and have any tips on where and when is best to do the same, let me know and remember, if you don’t like these thoughts, stick around, I have others…

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