Fifteen years of data collection by the Manta Trust, the world’s leading manta ray research and conservation organisation, shows that the Maldives is home to the largest recorded reef manta ray (Mobula alfredi) population in the world. It is a wonder that the Maldives, a small archipelagic nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean, can harbour such a large population of these majestic animals.
Reef manta rays migrate across the archipelago according to the shifting monsoons and the cycles of zooplankton distribution. It is the abundance of zooplankton that attracts hundreds of manta rays to spots such as the marine protected area Hanifaru Bay in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Baa Atoll.
Travellers from across the globe visit the Maldives to swim with the majestic manta rays. Swimming alongside a manta as it peacefully glides through the water is a memory that can last for a lifetime. It is an encounter with one of the most incredible and charismatic animals underwater. However, it is important that we understand their fragile role in the ecosystem - and that we make sure our encounters leave no negative impact on these amazing creatures.
If you are seeking an encounter with manta rays, read the FAQ below and hopefully we’ll get all your questions answered.
1. What are manta rays?
Three known manta species belong to the genus Mobula, although, taxonomically within the Mobulidae family there is just one genus: Mobula, which contains ten species. That is the reef manta ray (Mobula Alfredi), giant manta ray (Mobula birostris) and the lesser known Caribbean manta ray (Mobula cf. birostris) as the putative third species. Giant manta rays are also called Oceanic manta rays and as the name suggests, they are much larger than reef manta rays.
The manta ray commonly found in the Maldives is the reef manta ray. The Maldives also supports a seasonal migration/visitation of the Oceanic mantas (in FVM - March - May). The average width of the reef manta ray is 3 - 3.5 metres and the animal can weigh an incredible 1,300kg. Like whale sharks, manta rays are filter feeders meaning they glide towards their food with a wide open mouth. This lets the plankton- rich water pass through the gill filaments. They have a variety of feeding techniques. Even though manta rays have long tails like stingrays, they do not possess a barb and cannot sting you. Instead, they rely on their size and swift speed to escape predators.
2. What is the best time to see manta rays in the Maldives?
We’ve got good news for you. Manta rays are year-round residents, so you can encounter them during your trip any time in the Maldives. However, it depends on where you are.
North Male’ Atoll: The atoll is home to the famous ‘Lankan Manta Point’ where divers can encounter manta rays between May to November. If you are not keen on diving, snorkelers can have this amazing experience in Rasfari North, a shallow reef regularly visited by the gentle rays, during NE monsoon season between December and April.
Raa Atoll: Residents glide across Raa Atoll year-round and so you have a chance of encountering them throughout the year. However, you have the highest chance of an encounter:-
- North East Season between December and April has good sightings on the west of the Atoll (Sola Corner and Maamunagau Falhu).
- South West Season between May and November yields sightings along the east of the Atoll, namely along Kottefaru, Vandhoo and Neyo.
South Ari Atoll: Although South Ari is famous for one of the largest congregations of whale sharks in the world, manta rays also like to visit this fantastic atoll. Mantas can be found on the eastern side of the atoll at Mahibadhoo Manta Point between June and November. They can also be found on the western side of the atoll at Rangali Madivaru Manta Point between January and May. Another well known site in the west is Moofushi Beyru.
Baa Atoll: The UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and world famous Manta-spot Hanifaru Bay is located in Baa Atoll. Undoubtedly the best spot to encounter manta rays (hundreds of them!) in the Maldives. From May to December during the Southwest monsoon, strong lunar tides overcome the force of the monsoon current which sucks in plankton rich water from the oceans depths outside the atoll and back into the shallow atoll channels. If that sounds a bit confusing, let’s just say that the Hanifaru Bay traps the plankton attracting hundreds of manta rays for a feeding party.
3. What are the threats faced by manta ray populations across the world?
Manta rays are no exception to the effects of the climate crisis. A disruption in the delicate food webs will inevitably reduce the food availability for manta rays. Degradation of coral reefs also means that the rays will lose their cleaning stations and habitat. Aside from the effects of the climate crisis, harmful fisheries practice, over-development and unsustainable tourism practices, boat strikes, and mooring line entanglement continue to threaten manta populations.
4. How can you have a sustainable encounter with manta rays?
As we enter the water for an encounter, we must acknowledge that we are entering their home. As precious as the experience is, it is one that we must take with absolute care and concern. The experience is not worth it if it leaves a negative impact on the mantas. The team at Manta Trust have developed a “Best Practice Code of Conduct for Manta Ray Tourism”, a guide on sustainable practices for both tourists and tourism operators. Operators can sign up to be responsible operators and be acknowledged on the wall of operators.
The following are the 10 steps one must take during an encounter (courtesy of Manta Trust).
1. Enter the water quietly and calmly, no closer than 10 metres / 33 feet from the manta ray.
2. Keep your fins below the water's surface when swimming. Splashing and noise can scare mantas away, so you want to approach the manta as quietly as possible.
3. Do NOT approach closer than 3 metres / 10 feet. Instead, remain still and let the manta come to you.
4. You should approach the manta from their side, giving them a clear path ahead.
5. As the manta swims past you, do NOT chase after them! You will never catch up to a manta anyway, and will likely scare them away in the process.
6. Do NOT touch a manta ray. You will ruin the encounter and may receive a fine depending on local laws.
7. For scuba divers only.
Chances are if you are diving with a manta, you will be encountering them on a cleaning station. These are important sites for manta rays.
During the encounter, remain at the side of the cleaning station. Do NOT swim onto the main cleaning area.
8. For scuba divers only.
Keep low and hover close to the seabed, but be careful not to damage the reef beneath you. Depending on the dive site, you may need to stay in an area designated for divers.
9. For scuba divers only.
When a manta swims towards you, do NOT block their path as they swim overhead. Stay low and stay where you are.
10. In addition to the above steps, be sure to follow any extra rules, laws and regulations that may be specific to the manta site you're visiting.
5. How can you contribute to manta ray conservation and protection efforts?
There are several ways one can contribute to manta ray conservation and protection efforts. One of the most impactful ways is to learn about the manta and their role in the ecosystem, and advocate for sustainable practices that help preserve their populations. You can also play a role in citizen science by submitting pictures and basic information to Manta Trusts’ IDTheManta database. Please click here to learn more on how you can ID a manta.
If you would like to support the Manta Trust, please click here to learn more on how you can contribute and support the conservation efforts.