We were in a pristine white speedboat that had halted a short distance from the protected Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll, Maldives. Baa Atoll is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, an area teeming with marine life including manta ray aggregations and migratory whale sharks.
We were getting ready to jump into the vast, unknown ocean. Even with a life vest, the fear was paralyzing.
For all practical purposes, I think of myself as a poor swimmer. But I couldn’t imagine coming all the way to the Maldives and not swimming with the magnificent mantas. With the assurance of the resort swim guide, I took a deep breath and jumped in. I adjusted my snorkelling gear and looked into the ocean below me. My eyes took a few seconds to get used to the depth. I began to see the dark shape of a cleaning station on the seabed. (A cleaning station is usually a coral patch where mantas aggregate to be cleaned by smaller fish.)
THEN, from the corner of my eye, I spotted a graceful, winged motion. For a brief second, it took me back to the many nights I had spent watching manta rays in a Nat Geo documentary.
Soon, they were all around us!
Carpet-sized mantas glided effortlessly, in what can only be described as magical, underwater ballet. Deafening silence underwater yet they seemed like they were moving in sync with a beautiful, classical music piece. Very other-worldly!
My fear had completely vanished as I watched the elegant mantas do their feeding dance.
Mantas are filter feeders. They consume huge amounts of water to get to the planktons they need for their nourishment. Simply put, they are harmless to humans. In fact, they are known for their friendly and curious personalities. Individual mantas are identified by their underbelly markings and spots.
The marine biologists have assigned cute names to the mantas they see on a regular basis like Bubbles or Squirt or Dipstick 🙂
Manta rays have one of the highest brain to body mass ratios of all underwater creatures. And their intelligence was quite apparent. They would swim right at me and then deflect just in time to swim by or under me.
When I got back to the boat, I was in a trance. The interaction with these gentle giants was mesmerizing and my appreciation for them had grown exponentially.
On this blog, I rarely mention all the beautiful hotels and resorts we stay at, unless there is something really, REALLY special about the place. But our trip to the Maldives happened only because of the Four Seasons at Landaa Giraavaru, supporter of one of the largest manta ray programs in the world. It also offers its guests one-of-a-kind activities like ‘Manta scientist for a day’. And that for us, was the deciding factor.
Kudos to the Maldivian government for actively protecting Hanifaru Bay, by limiting the number of boats visiting at any given time. It has also banned diving in the bay. Only snorkelling is allowed.
A big thank you to the Recreation Centre staff and marine biologists at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, Guy Stevens (manta scientist and conservationist extraordinaire), the Manta Trust and the Maldivian Manta Ray Project, for all the amazing work you do with the mantas and to protect the ocean. Thank you for the most spectacular experience of our life! Nothing will ever match up to the pure, unadulterated, almost child-like joy of swimming with the playful mantas in their natural habitat. Unless, the next time, we get to swim with a whale shark 😉
Till then, dhanee my dear friends. We’ll surely be back for more quality time with the Maldivian mantas.
Want to know more about the rich flora and fauna of the Maldives? Presenting The Real Stars of Maldives 😉
The spectacular seaplane ride from Male to the island of Landaa Giraavaru, needs a special mention. Check out my post Magic in the water!
Curious about Maldivian cuisine? Here are 100 fabulous ways to eat tuna in the Maldives 😉