Seeing manta rays in the wild is one of the world’s great marine experiences. Kirsty Ballard from the Manta Trust reveals where and when to see them, plus how to make sure your encounter is sustainable...
The undeniable stars of the BBC’s Blue Planet II, manta and devil rays are arguably the most beautiful and fascinating creatures in our oceans. Close relatives of sharks and other rays, they are found throughout the tropical and subtropical oceans of the world, living a balletic life of perpetual motion.
Known collectively as mobulidae, manta and devil rays are cartilaginous, filter feeders, who need to keep water flowing over their gills to breath. Their movements are tuned to the daily and seasonal ebb and flow of the ocean currents. Where the plankton goes, they follow.
There are two species of manta rays: the reef manta ray (mobula alfredi) and the oceanic manta ray (mobula birostris). Oceanic manta rays are huge, reaching up to seven metres in width and weighing up to two tonnes. The smaller reef manta ray can reach up to three and a half meters in width, and are found in large numbers in Baa Atoll.
Manta rays are extremely intelligent and their complex social interactions set them apart from other fish. They remain enigmatic, too. They have only been studied in detail over the last 10 years or so, and much of their life cycle remains a mystery.
Perhaps that is why they are so loved by the diving and snorkelling communities.
It’s possible to come face-to-face with manta rays in the Maldives by diving or snorkelling, and to be honest, neither experience offers a ‘better’ encounter. Rather, just the chance to watch them feed or watch them clean.
Manta rays feed close to the surface, providing those who do not have scuba diving qualifications the chance to observe these gentle giants up close. Just grab a snorkel and you’ll be able to swim along with them. It’s a truly unforgettable experience.
If you want to observe manta rays getting picked clean by cleaner wrasse, you’ll need to scuba dive.
Cleaning stations are usually deeper in the water and diving qualifications are required to access them. A PADI Open Water certification, is usually enough, but check with your diving operator.
Few experiences can top diving or snorkelling with a manta ray. Despite their colossal presence, mantas are gentle creatures.
They have the largest brain of all fish, and their intelligence and curiosity make encounters with manta rays particularly magical. Their excellent eyesight means they will often come close to snorkellers or divers to ‘check them out’.
Their sheer size and large mouths can intimidate snorkellers or divers in the first instance. But fear soon turns to fascination after watching these graceful creatures feed or clean in their natural habitat.
There is no question that manta tourism needs to be sustainable. Mantas are very sensitive to disturbance, and if left without proper supervision, tourism has the potential to do more harm than good.
There have been occasions where uncontrolled human interactions have negatively impacted local manta populations, driving them away from important areas where they clean, feed or breed.
Whilst many dive operators around the world have taken it upon themselves to develop guidelines for manta encounters, none have been validated by scientific studies.
The Manta Trust want to address that, and after several years of research conducted in the Maldives, we have developed a Best Practice Code of Conduct for this kind of travel experience.
These guidelines outline how divers and snorkelers should behave during their encounters, to both enhance their experience and to ensure their presence does not disturb the mantas in their homes.
Many venues follow these guidelines. For example, at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, Manta Trust researchers accompany guests during manta excursions and explain them to every group going underwater.
The most reliable and world-renowned site to snorkel with reef manta rays in Baa Atoll is Hanifaru Bay Marine Protected Area. During the South-west Monsoon (May to October), Hanifaru Bay accumulates high densities of planktonic life due to its unique location and geology.
In turn, the vast amounts of zooplankton naturally attract large aggregations of reef manta rays and whale sharks. Hanifaru Bay was declared a Marine Protected Area in June 2009, and in 2011 was inscribed as a UNESCO World Bisophere Reserve, due to its ecological importance.
Hurai Faru is located close to Hanifaru Bay and is another great site to encounter feeding reef manta rays. Aptly nicknamed ‘mini Hanifaru Bay’ by our team, Hurai Faru is easy to visit if you're staying in Baa Atoll.
Last year alone, we had 121 sightings of manta rays at Hurai Faru. While Hurai Faru is not a Marine Protected Area just yet, It has been known to host huge aggregations of feeding manta rays, on a similar scale to Hanifaru Bay.
It is smaller, geographically, making it easier to find the rays, but large aggregations of feeding manta rays are seen less often. Having said that, wherever you find lots of plankton, is where you'll find the mantas.
Manta rays can be seen in other atolls of the Maldives: North Male, Lhaviyani, Ari and Laamu in particular. Their movements are dictated by the two monsoon seasons.
The Manta Trust have dedicated researchers in all four atolls, allowing us to collect data on these ocean giants throughout the year, whatever the weather.
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