The Maldives is known for its white-sand beaches and crystal-clear seas, but go when the water gets a little bit murky and you can swim with some very special residents…
Submerged in 12m of water, drifting in a surreal kind of weightlessness, it was like being in outer space. I’d never known darkness so complete. I glided downwards and only realised I’d reached the bottom when my fingertips touched the coarse sand. In my other hand I clutched a torch so tightly I felt as though it might break. I took a deep breath and heard the bubbles ripple in front of my face. Then I flipped the switch.
A V-shaped glow illuminated the pitch, and my entire world became that slim shot of light. At first all I saw was a murky green. But as the seconds passed, tiny, near-microscopic zooplankton began to appear, wriggling in the beam. Then I looked up to see a giant shape coming towards me. A manta ray, once known by fishermen as the devilfish. And here, below the surface of the Indian Ocean, we were about to dance.
My journey had begun on dry land, on an island in the Biosphere Reserve of Baa Atoll, where I was given a traditional Loabi massage while watching fish through a glass-floored overwater studio at the Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru. I’m someone who thrives on adventure rather than luxury, so it may sound like I was dancing with the devil the moment I stepped foot in a Four Seasons. But, as I quickly found out, this hotel was not all it seemed.
“Since 2001 we’ve not only launched a coral regeneration programme, but also turtle rehab, manta ray research and fish breeding too,” explained marine biologist Sapphire, who I met at the onsite Marine Discovery Centre. She was busy tending a hawksbill that had had one of its flippers ripped off by a boat propeller; the centre had nursed him back to health and were preparing him for reintroduction into the wild.
Sapphire was one of the ten or so biologists that are stationed at the resort at any one time. Profits from the hotel help to fund the scientific research they are undertaking, while the biologists can help guests learn about the local marine life and the threats it faces. And there are many. Rising sea temperatures are causing coral bleaching events and a lack of the zooplankton on which most animals feed; entanglement, unintended bycatch and boat strikes are harming many creatures; endangered manta rays are being illegally fished – recent claims in Chinese medicine have resulted in manta gill plates being valued at $10,000.
Sapphire showed me some of the conservation work being done on land, such as looking after injured animals, recording manta numbers and creating sponsored coral frames that help replicate conditions of a real reef to highlight their importance to visitors. However, to really appreciate the marine creatures’ plight, I needed to take to the water.
The following morning I left my private bungalow and boarded the Manta Trust’s expedition ship, the Four Seasons Explorer, which would be my home for the next four nights. I was joined by nine equally curious travellers as well as Dr Guy Stevens, the founder and CEO of the Trust, and his research assistant Audrey, who we would be helping over the next few days. Starting almost immediately.
“This is a well-known cleaning station for the mantas,” explained Guy as we pulled on our wetsuits. “It’s where they come in groups to be ‘cleaned’ by tiny wrasse to remove dead cells and parasites.”
Our group was a mix of snorkellers and divers, and we wished each other luck as we plunged beneath the waves. Straight away my mask was filled with the types of scenes witnessed on Blue Planet. Schools of tangerine fish gathered in their hundreds around green spiky coral. Clownfish danced amid the thick tentacles of purple sea anemone. Giant starfish sprawled on the rocky walls and turtles swam like floating rafts, bobbing from side to side. But no mantas.
We headed back to the boat where hot Maldivian food was waiting on the back deck. We feasted on coconut water fresh from the fruit, curries made with barabo (pumpkin), tora (a type of gourd) and bashi (aubergine), mopped up with a roshi (chapatti). After feasting on more food than a single swim had called for, we retired to our beds in sumptuous cabins that belied the ‘expedition ship’ moniker, but were more than welcome.
The following morning, after breakfast and a briefing, we headed to our two sites for the day – Dharavandhoo and Dhigu Thila. Once in the water we spotted octopus and moray eels. And sharks. I’ll never forget the moment. The instructor, unable to speak underwater, gestured their presence by holding his hand to his head like a fin. I stopped and looked around nervously. Then, out of the darker water below, the unmistakable shape of a white-tipped reef shark – about 1.5m in length – swam towards me, its pointed nose almost close to touching. At the last minute it swerved. Then more came behind it. Any fear was replaced with overwhelming awe as these graceful creatures propelled themselves amid the current before disappearing into the speckled darkness.
“You’ve come to see mantas and tomorrow I think we’ll be lucky,” said Guy at our recap that evening. It was late August, which is technically low season in the Maldives because, up until November, the water visibility is not as good (though it’s still around 20m). However, for our purposes, this was exactly what we needed. “The ‘bits’ we’re seeing in the water are the zooplankton – the reasons the manta come here,” he explained. “So the fact we see a lot of it is a very good sign.”
Guy began recording manta sightings in the region on a electronic database more than 15 years ago. This database now extends to other regions around the world where mantas are found – in the tropics and semi-tropics such as Mexico, Thailand, Australia and Mozambique. He has built up a huge body of research comprising more than 60,000 sightings of 4,500 mantas – 2,000 of which are from Baa Atoll in the Maldives. These statistics can be used to prove how mantas are affected by environmental factors and help push governments into changing practices, from banning single-use plastics to altering the way commercial fishing is carried out and even creating ranger-patrolled protected areas such as Baa Atoll.
“So how do we tell them apart?” I asked Guy the next morning as we prepared to snorkel in a known manta feeding hotspot called Hanifaru to do our own research.
“On the white underside of each manta are a series of spotted and darkened patches – no two are the same, like a fingerprint. Get a photo of that and we can identify the ray.”
“But how do I get one to turn over?” I wondered.
With that we jumped off the Zodiac and began swimming. While diving is the best way to find mantas at cleaning stations, snorkelling is far better for seeing them feed. The sea was choppy, so at first all I could see were the limbs of my fellow snorkellers and the occasional unicornfish, with their comically protruding noses. Then, with no real warning, a huge blanket-like shape began heading towards us. My first manta.
Looking right into its wide, open mouth was like staring into a skeleton, its gill plate resembling a human rib cage. Its two cephalic fins – like the horns of Beelzebub, hence the devilfish name – swayed with the motion of the water and, as it got closer still, I realised just how large it was: around 3.5m, just shy of the length of a VW Beetle, but not even one of the biggest. I froze, mesmerised by its enormity. It continued coming at me and then swam directly beneath, so close I was within a hair’s width of lying on top of it. As its tail skimmed past my leg, a second manta came from the opposite direction and soared below. Despite the snorkel, I giggled in uncontrollable delight. And that was only the beginning.
As we swam further, more and more mantas arrived, swimming in a line, one behind the other, which Guy described as chain-feeding. Floating amid it all was like being caught in a hypnotic and relaxing cyclone – which should definitely be the collective noun for mantas (there currently isn’t one).
Then it happened. One began to swim upwards towards me and, at the very last minute, turned over backwards, somersaulting inches away. This is called barrel rolling – another feeding technique for these filter grazers. They funnel the plankton-rich water into their bodies; the tiny particles get caught on their plates and the rest of the water simply passes through. When they’ve gathered enough plankton it gets rolled into a ball and passed to their throat to digest. As this particular manta banked in front of me I snapped a photo, capturing its blackened spots. Over the course of around 50 minutes (the maximum time you’re allowed to spend in this protected area) we saw more than 30 manta, effortlessly spinning and rolling in an underwater vortex.
Back on the boat, looking through the database I discovered my first encounter was with MV-MA-0231 – aka Sahara – a mature (and now seemingly pregnant) adult female who has been sighted more than 80 times since 2006 at four different atolls making her, as Guy put it, “a real traveller”.
After that I was hooked. We snorkelled again at Hurai Faru where four mantas were feeding, including another regular they call Fuzzball – sighted over 60 times since 2011. Then we undertook more dives to search for them cleaning. Though we didn’t see this behaviour, we were treated to two other very special encounters.
The first was from the boat, while eating fresh fruit on the roof. Unexpectedly, a humpback and her calf fluked on the horizon, causing our boat to explode in a mass cheer. The second happened beneath the water. Our captain mysteriously stopped the boat and Guy ordered us to grab snorkels and get into the Zodiac. We obeyed, suspecting it to be another group of manta, but as I jumped into the sea I realised this was something else entirely. Directly beside me was the huge mass of a whale shark.
For the next few minutes I swam faster than I’ve ever swum before, trying to keep up with the largest fish in the world. Also a filter feeder, this dark, spotted creature is the epitome of a gentle giant. This particular one was easily over 4m in length, its size accentuated when a diver far below swam parallel. I felt so privileged to spend around 20 minutes in its graceful presence.
That night I joined some of the crew for a quick land exploration on nearby Dharavandhoo Island, where the locals were celebrating Eid. As children played in the streets beneath pink bunting and fruit bats swooped between the palms, I noticed that several buildings seemed to be made from coral. “They don’t do it anymore,” explained my guide, “now they understand it’s something we need to protect.”
That night Guy explained just how important having coral, and the marine life it attracts, really is for the Maldives. The annual revenue from people coming here to snorkel totals US$8.1 million. But why did he specifically choose the mantas to protect?
Guy pondered: “I could say it’s because they are the most intelligent – they have bigger brains than any other fish. I could say it’s their size or the way they almost seem to have personalities. But really to understand why, you have to get in the water.”
Later, at Maayafushi Lagoon, we did just that. On my first ever night dive, I sat 12m beneath the waves, clutching a torch and waiting for the mantas to come. Two did, including a pup born earlier that year. Her name was Sea Spirit, and for more than 40 minutes I watched as she kept returning to my torch, barrel rolling again and again in front of me. Despite her young age, she already had scars from encounters with humans – her pectoral fin had been cut by fishing line. For the past 420 million years these remarkable creatures have evolved to be the gentle filter feeders we see today. Yet now they are endangered.
The Manta Trust is doing more than cataloguing individuals; it has started to educate Maldivian communities about the importance of the creatures. “People will only try to protect what they care about,” said Guy. “If we can create empathy then the rest will take care of itself.”
As I peered into the eyes of Sea Spirit as she swam playfully, casting a shadow like a UFO, I couldn’t argue. If everyone was able to swim with mantas, no one would ever want to hurt them. Then, without realising it, I began to float towards her and for several minutes it was like dancing. Dancing with the devilfish. Though at that moment, in the dim, otherworldly light, it was like communing with an angel instead.
The author travelled on a four-night Manta Trust Expedition on board the Four Seasons Explorer, a small ship with 11 guest cabins (maximum 22 passengers), accompanied by Dr Guy Stevens and members of the Trust. Expeditions take place several times a year during peak manta-watching season, with options for three- and seven-night cruises also available. Click here for details
The Maldives has a range of accommodation, from B&Bs to guesthouses and more high-end resorts. To bookend the Manta Trust Expedition, a stay at the Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru is recommended. You will be assigned your own cruiser bicycle and can visit the Marine Discovery Centre and watch the wild baby lemon sharks around the bar in the evening. Other amenities include a free Ayurvedic consultation and yoga sessions.
Pre-departure, the author stayed at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa, which is a 25-minute speedboat ride from Malé International Airport.
1: Manta rays
The signature marine experience in the Maldives. Whether snorkelling to watch them feed and barrel roll or diving to visit a cleaning station, coming face to face with the devilfish is an unforgettable experience.
2: Hawksbill & green turtles
The former are frequently spotted on dives and snorkels, drifting through the water in no particular hurry. The latter can sometimes be seen on Landaa’s beaches between October and December, when they come ashore to nest.
3: Fish (lots of them!)
There are far too many wonderful species to single out just one, but dip your head beneath the water to see: needlefish (long, thin, silver), unicornfish (nose like a horn), spadefish (flat, tall, striped), clownfish (hides in anemone), lionfish (beautiful spines and fins but ultimately poisonous) and oriental sweetlips (black-and-white striped body, black-spotted yellow fins and tail).
4: Whale sharks
Gentle and graceful, these are the largest fish in the world. The best way to see a whale shark is actually by snorkelling, as divers’ bubbles tend to get in the way. If the opportunity arises, don’t hesitate to get into the water with them. Well and truly life-changing.
Grey heron frequent the shores here; Maldivian waterhen also tend to strut around outside beach bungalows. Out at sea, look for petrels, terns and gulls.
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