Mantas Rays - No End In Sight

Just a single one is already a sight to behold but imagine having nearly a hundred manta rays swimming around you! It is an absolutely wonderful experience and something that always makes me realise how lucky I am to be in the Maldives doing what I am doing. As in the last few days, the conditions this morning were just right for the presence of the large filter-feeders, with the currents bringing in plankton-rich water and the tide being almost at the highest level. The sky was blue and the sea was calm, so that my snorkelling group of 11 guests and I were in a good mood and looking forward to seeing a few manta rays at Hani Faru, the place where the animals regularly aggregate to feed on plankton soup. What we didn’t expect was to see sooo many mantas! When we jumped off the boat and swam towards the feeding animals, we encountered only around 10, but when we kept waiting at the surface, more and more mantas would arrive in amazing formations, perform somersaults to capture plankton, and gently move around us passive observers. There must have been nearly a hundred individuals! Then they went out of sight again, possibly feeding at the end of the bay and filtering the water along the way, only to come back again 10 minutes later to impress us with yet another body-after-body appearance.

While my guests were happy watching or photographing the many manta rays, I was busy trying to get good photos of the animals’ ventral and dorsal patterns, as these are used just like fingerprints to identify individuals. I always forward these photos to my colleague Guy Stevens of the Maldivian Manta Ray Project, who has been working on a photographic database since 2005. The sighting history and locations will help him gain a clearer picture about seasonal migrations, localised daily movements, population size and cleaning and feeding behaviour. So far he has identified around 700 individual manta rays, and he estimates that there are at least 1000 in Baa Atoll alone.

The manta rays in our area of eastern Baa Atoll are abundant during the southwest monsoon season between June and November, when the water is teeming with plankton. They are best observed either hovering above cleaning stations, where cleaner wrasses free them from parasites or dead scales, or feeding in the bay of Hani Faru, where we saw them today. Because of the manta rays’ regular appearance at Hani Faru, the bay seems to be a significant habitat for the animals – but it has also become really popular with the resorts in Baa Atoll, as well as amongst dive safari operators. With many boats, snorkellers and divers in their main feeding area, however, the natural behaviour of the animals may be disturbed. We are therefore working towards making Hani Faru a Marine Protected Area and have already implemented strict guidelines for the boat captains, snorkellers and divers. Hopefully the need for protection is also recognised by our new government, which could really make a difference and ensure the continued existence of all these wonderful fish in the Maldives.

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