In 2009 at the Arabian Seas Whale Shark Symposium in Fujairah, I was lucky enough to listen to Guy Steven’s do a presentation about his research of manta rays found in a small bay called Hanifaru located in Baa Atoll of the Maldives. I had previously heard many things about this special place and how, if lucky, you could witness a natural phenomena where up to two hundred mantas could be found feeding together in a bay no bigger than a football pitch. Information on where to stay, site access, transportation and times of the year to visit were not freely available and so as I watched guy’s presentation I waited with great anticipation for anything in his presentation that would give me a better understanding of when and where to go. The presentation was extremely informative and by the time it was over I had learnt that the best time to go was during the South West monsoon period (May to November) and that numbers were especially high during the months of August and September. Catching up with Guy after his presentation, he told me about the best places to stay, which were fairly close to the bay, and that I would be welcome to join him and learn more about his research. Six months later, I had booked my stay at the Reethi Beach Island Resort in Baa Atoll and my visit dates were to co-inside with the new moon of August.
Day 1 - Like every other day, Guy’s research boat was always first to arrive at Hanifaru. Picking me up on the way from the Four Seasons, the journey from Reethi Beach to the bay had taken about 40 minutes. Arriving at the bay and Oli made a quick note of all of the safari boats that were anchored in the distance before introducing me to the site. I was surprised how small the bay was and as I explored the predominantly sandy site, I thought how could this place ever be as special as it is supposed to be. For over two hours I explored the bay continuously looking down into the water at the plankton waiting for something to happen. Eventually, Guy who had been surveying the bay from the roof of the boat entered the water and as he told Oli and I that there was activity further up the bay, I excitedly thought to myself, ‘this is it’. Finning against a strong choppy current for what seemed like an eternity I found myself in deeper water with a much higher concentration of plankton. The swim was worth it and as I slowly approached the 3-metre wide manta, I floated mesmerised by its graceful swimming pattern and my exhaustion. Snapping out of my daze I began to photograph the manta as it circled just under the surface. Deeper down more mantas fed and as Guy free dived down effortlessly to 10-metres to take his identification shots I thought to myself, ‘I really need to learn how to free dive’. Two minutes later and my manta had decided to join Guy and the other rays and as they fed, the tranquil silence of the day was disturbed by the sound of a boat engine. Within five minutes of our reaching the mantas, almost like we were being watched from afar, a boat full of tourists in day glow yellow and orange life vests jumped in to see the mantas. Distracted by how many of the group could not swim or use fins, I had not noticed that the mantas had moved away from us. It was obvious that they had been disturbed by the new visitors splashing at the surface and as the mantas moved on, the group thrashed about to trying to keep up. Eventually the mantas stopped to feed on a cloud of plankton at the surface and as the group caught up I watched as the chaos continued. While some of the visitors panicked and treaded water, other more confidant members of the group ducked down to try to touch and grab at the feeding mantas. Shocked, I watched as the group’s supervisor turned away in the hope that his guest would simply stop what he was doing. Oli had also seen this and as he swam towards the snorkeler to tell him to stop, the supervisor, doubled back quickly and signalled to the guest that touching was not allowed. As the food disappeared so did the mantas and as the last of the manic group of sightseers boarded the small boat, silence fell upon the bay again and it was all over.
Day 2 - had resulted in a complete blank and on the return journey I had decided to spend Day 3 on Reethi Beach for some R&R.
Day 4 - Swimming over to the cleaning station and with plenty of plankton in the water, I watched as a giant shoal of fusiliers fed on the soup of microscopic sea creatures. After twenty minutes, a manta ray glided along side the small reef to be cleaned. Moments later, two more mantas arrived and as the density of plankton increased, so did the manta activity. Waiting patiently I peered down at the cleaning station, wondering what would happen next and as another manta joined the group, I checked my camera and prepared myself. I did not have to wait long and before I knew, several mantas suddenly started to circle towards the surface, feeding on the soup of plankton all around me right. The experience was incredible and as the group synchronised so that they could all feed together, I watched with amazement as twenty-five large manta rays circled and barrel rolled, with mouths wide open less than a metre away from my camera. As quickly as they had surfaced in front of me, the group suddenly changed their swimming pattern and led by one manta, followed one by one to the shallow bowl of the bay. Swimming frantically after the group I watched them gracefully avoid each other as they fed on the dense soup of plankton that naturally collected in this part of the bay. After thirty minutes another boat arrived and as it reversed into the bay, divers entered the water like groups of navy seals jumping out of a plane (GO!-GO!-GO!). As divers descended I watched the behaviour of the large group of mantas suddenly change. With the boat revving to get back out of the bay and away from snorkelers, white foaming water disturbed the mantas that were trying to keep in formation. With twenty divers stirring up the sediment, all trying to position themselves for their dream money shot, I watched in amazement as the scene turned from tranquil into hectic. With the boat well clear of the bay, the mantas soon re-grouped and as they negotiated endless streams of bubbles I saw yet another side to Hanifaru Bay.
Day 5 – Observing from the roof of the boat, Guy had noticed some activity at the far end of the bay and as we approached the corner, which led out into the channel, a group of fifteen large mantas swam effortlessly in the strong current. Clutching my camera I jumped into the water and instantly felt the strength of the current as it pulled at me towards the channel. Getting my bearings I turned to face the reef and as I started to fin towards it, I suddenly found myself being face to face with the giant trail of mantas. Although full of plankton, the bright early morning sun made the water look clear and as I photographed the group swimming and feeding in the strong current I thought to myself, how different and natural this encounter was. Eventually the activity dropped off and as I handed my camera up and followed it onto the boat, I collapsed exhausted and thought to myself, ‘I really need to get into shape’.
Day 7 –Unfortunately I had no choice about missing Day 6 as it fell on the only day of the week that the boat did not visit the bay. However, with some great encounters, some good photographs and a few more days ahead of me, I enjoyed the day relaxing on the island and tried very hard not to think about what I could have been missing. As we approached the bay, Guy observed the weather conditions and mentioned that they were favourable based on the new moon, tide and wind direction. With the boat anchored on the edge of the bay I noted that the safari boats had returned and as I prepared my cameras I realised that photographic opportunities were going to get tougher from here onwards. Fining over the cleaning station and I was the first in the water. Several boats from neighbouring islands that passed the bay every day on their way to their morning dives had turned up in hope of manta activity but had moved on quickly after confirming that there were no mantas in the bay yet. With plenty of plankton in the water, it was not long before the mantas arrived and as I made the most of being on my own, I became gradually aware that the dive boats were finally moving in. Watching in sheer amazement, I found myself staring into the eyes of a hesitant snorkeler who was shakily standing on the dive platform of a boat reversing directly towards me. As I watched the deck hand trying to hurry the woman to join her fellow snorkelers, the boat engines suddenly stopped, almost as some form of gesture to the snorkeler that it was safe to jump off the platform. Suddenly the captain shouted at the deck hand and with this, the cautious snorkeler was suddenly nudged into the water with urgency. Shouting back to his captain that the snorkeler was clear, the engines roared and as the boat moved away, it left a mass of foaming white water right in front of the trailing mantas. Finding myself competing with so many people I decided to wait patiently away from the crowds of snorkelers and divers that were packed in and around the shallow bowl and the cleaning station. Eventually my patience paid off and as the impressive trail of giants made several passes to and fro I enjoyed and captured the graceful action pretty much un-disturbed. Confused by the dwindling numbers I made my way back to the boat where I joined Guy and Oli who were also taking a break. Chatting to Guy, I managed to establish that the earlier than normal disappearance of mantas was due to the strong wind that had blown all of the food out of the bay. This had resulted in most of the mantas to following it and as I stood on the roof of the boat, I could see the dark shadows of mantas in the shallow outskirts of the bay.
Day 8 – Descending, down the slope into the shallow bowl, I checked my contents gauge before settling down for my first and last manta dive encounter. The mantas had arrived early that morning and as I settled into one spot, I learnt that the mantas would come closer to a diver if they kept still in one place. Staring up at the sun, I watched as thousands of shiny fry fed on the plankton while a manta circled a group of snorkelers at the surface. Mesmerized by the bright sun and the collage of movement I finally lifted my camera to capture the moment. Looking back across the bowl I continued to watch mantas do their tight turns before trailing back to the cleaning station. Suddenly, one of the rays glided towards me and as we watched each other, it stopped and gently rested itself on the seabed only metres away. Amazed by this encounter, I slowly lifted my camera to adjust my settings and as gradually lowered myself into position, I watched in sheer amazement as a videographer swept right across me only to scare the manta off. With only forty minutes bottom time and little to show for it, I finally made my way back to the boat where I happily exchanged my BCD and cylinder for a snorkel.
Day 9 – By the time day nine had arrived I had mixed feelings about it being my last day. On the one hand, I had never felt so overwhelmed about such amazing animals encounters. Even my experiences with the whale sharks of Djibouti earlier this year had not been as special as this. However, on the other hand, with the big groups of divers arriving over the last couple of days, I had become increasingly aware of the competitive squabbling that was going around the bay. The peace and quiet of the bay had also gone due to one of the dive boats that ran it’s noisy compressor continuously. Clutching my camera I finned my way over to my most favourite spot in the Maldives and waited for the giants to arrive. The encounters on this day were as spectacular as all of the others. With lots of plankton at the surface, many groups of mantas barrel rolled together keeping perfectly spaced to ensure that they did not collide with each other or the divers and snorkelers. With about forty mantas and over double the amount of people in the water, I decided that it was time to call it a day. During the chaos I had accidently dragged my fin along the back of a trailing manta and feeling quite bad about the incident, I felt my being in the water was simply contributing to the problem that Hanifaru was suffering from on this particular day (too many people in the water). Back on the boat and the drama continued to unfold as a dive boat drove right across cleaning station only to pick up a bunch of divers that were too lazy to swim back to the boat. With a strong wind and current pushing this boat towards the shallow reef and a lot of people still in the water, I sat and watched the frustrations of other observers elevate while the captain tried to negotiate his boat out of trouble. The drama continued as more boats arrived and while they all competed for mooring space around the slope of the shallow bay, more snorkelers entered the water. Finally, as one of the boats hastily tried to secure its position by prematurely dropping its anchor directly over the shallow bowl of the bay, the tension erupted.
Sitting on a seaplane looking out of the window and I say a sad goodbye to Reethi Beach. Up in the air I try to get my bearings and as I do, I look for Hanifaru Bay. As the plane sets its course back to Male I realise that I am going to have one last chance to see the bay. A kilometre above sea level and as I peer out of the planes small window I can see that no one is at the bay yet. It looked so peaceful and as I quickly reflected back over so of my amazing experiences I contemplated with sadness that the mantas would most probably disappear from this special place if monitoring measures were not properly enforced to control visitor activity and behaviour.
A very big thank you Guy Steven’s for making my visit to Hanifaru Bay possible.
If you would like to see the mantas of Hanifaru consider the following:
Learn to free-dive and when you visit the bay leave your dive kit back at the resort. There is no need to dive Hanifaru bay and the chances of getting a decent photograph without bubbles, divers and sediment is extremely slim.
Watch the behaviour of the rays and don’t chase them. The rays will hang around for some time, so observe and get into position and you will find they will keep on coming back to you.
Hotels that offer access to Hanifaru - Nearly all hotels in the region offer some form of access at some point during the week but I found there are no guaranteed daily visits other than by the Four Seasons. The Four Seasons have a hotline to Guy and whenever there is good manta activity the resort is the first to know. Most dive centres deliberately plan their dives so that they pass the bay during the periods that mantas are expected. Check with the dive centres before booking your resort – Reethi Beach offered snorkelling excursions specifically to the bay twice a week.
Photography - go wide but not too wide. I used a Nikkor 10.5mm fisheye, which was a little too wide. Next time would use the 16mm fisheye. Leave your camera strobes and shoot with whatever natural light there is.
Make sure you familiarise yourself with the rules of the bay and don’t assume that because someone else is doing it, that its okay for you to do it.
Don’t expect the mantas to be there at a specific day or time and try to overlap your visit three or fours days either side of the full or new moon.
Try not to tread water and if you do always pay attention to your fins and the mantas below.
If free diving, always be careful when surfacing to avoid overhead collision with mantas.
Consider wearing distinctively coloured hood for protection from the strong sun and making you visible in the water.
Keep an eye out for boats entering the bay.