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Maldives manta magic

by Mark Webster

Reproduced from in focus 68 (June 2000)

There are certain dives, which provide an adrenaline rush and stick in your memory luring you back for more of the some. Some divers will find this in wreck, deep, fast drift or technical diving but for me it is undoubtedly close encounters with big marine creatures and by that I mean close enough to touch. These meetings are not common and I had waited for some years for an opportunity to rendezvous with, and photograph at close quarters, one of the sea's most graceful creatures - the Monta ray.

Mantas are common in tropical and serni-tropical waters and although I had seen them before it had always been fleetingly, at a distance, or most frustratingly on the surface after a dive when film and air had been consumed. On a recent trip to the Moldives I had these elusive beasts on my shot list but incorrectly assumed that I was visiting at the wrong time of year for a good chance of meeting them. This assumption was proved totally inaccurate on the first day when our German dive master announced that after the worm up dive we would be visiting a manta cleaning station which had been very active over the last few days.

I had been led to believe that mantas are only prolific in the Maldives during the major plankton blooms between October and December. However, it seems that the truth of the matter is that these creatures migrate between the atolls following the dominant current direction dependant on the season. These currents ore rich with plankton and nutrients from the Indian Ocean, so once you have plotted the changes in current you con begin to predict the movements and location of the mantas.

Like all fish mantas attract all sorts of unwanted hitchhikers in the form of parasites and skin legions and like most tropical species they make use of the reef's valet service at the cleaning stations. A monta cleaning station demands one overwhelming criteria - strong current to enable the monta to remain stationary whilst still passing fresh oxygenated water through its gills. These sites ore generally found in the shallows on the top of 'thilas' (Moldivian for a submerged reef rising to within 8-12m of the surface) where cleaner wrasse and angelfish are abundant. The first indication of the mantas presence is generally a siting on the surface of one or more manta rays circling close to the top of the reef awaiting their turn for a wash and brush up.

Boduhithi thila in North Mole atoll, our target location, did not look too promising from the surface, showing not a single sign of manta activity. Our German guide dived first to investigate and returned ten minutes later with a smile, he had seen one manta at, least! We quickly prepared equipment and cameras whilst the dhoni motored 100 metres or so up current of the thila. In these conditions you need to hit the water with a completely deflated BC and dive immediately if you don't want to miss the reef. As I submerged I could see the top of the thila at 8 metres approaching extremely fast and realised just how strong the current was - probably in excess of 1.5 knots and certainly impossible to swim against! The group managed to come together in a sand channel behind some coral heads which offered some protection from the current, which seemed to increase in intensity in waves. At it's strongest it would at best fill your mask with water, or at worst dislodge it, if you turned your head sideways whilst stationary. Once everyone had caught their breath we launched ourselves after the dive guide and into the current and headed for a forge coral head in the distance which we settled behind to wait.

For more than twenty minutes absolutely nothing happened and some of the group were showing signs of boredom and signalling for a return to the boot. I began to wonder if this was to be another fruitless quest as some of the group disappeared down stream when suddenly the remaining divers became aware of a movement on the limit of visibility. This shadowy shape slowly focused into the graceful form of a rnanta ray effortlessly cruising into the current towards our coral head. I become aware of frantic activity from the small cleaner wrosse and angel fish above the head as they began to advertise their services and the manto, seemingly oblivious to our presence, positioned itself directly above us whilst the valet service commenced.

I frantically shot off a few frames believing that this mythical creature would suddenly object to our presence and disappear, but it continued to hover patiently above us and I was able to relax and appreciate this close, owe inspiring encounter. Within minutes there was a second monta queuing 5 metres or so behind the first and soon after that we became aware of three more on the edge of visibility awaiting their own turn. I started then to consider the type of photographs I wanted to produce, but soon found that any movement away from the protection of the coral head threatened a very quick trip down current away from the cleaning station! So I had to content myself with shots from below the manta on the cleaning station and trying to compose the departing or arriving mantas for a slightly different image. I was relieved that one camera was fitted with a fish eye lens which allowed me to get the whole of the manta's 3 metre wing span in the frame from such close quarters.

All too soon, it seemed, both film and air were consumed and it was time to go. I realised then that only two of us remained with the mantas, my buddy being a very patient Tim Browne, our English dive master from our live aboard the Fathulhul Bari. Bottom time was approaching ninety minutes, fortunately in a depth of only 8 or 9 metres, but it seemed like only twenty or thirty to me as we moved up and caught the roller coaster back to the surface and the pick up dhoni. I was almost speechless, but I knew that the first thing I had to ask was when can we dive here again! We planned to return the following morning and I spent the night pondering the correct f-stops, shutter speeds and flash power to use to ensure some pleasing images from this magical experience.

Further Information:

Currency: Dollars and Sterling are widely accepted. Major credit cards in Male and on the resorts

Medical: No inoculations (ire required but some doctors will recommend anti malarial tablets.

Climate: Between December to March the north east monsoon prevails with hot dry weather. April to October brings the south-west monsoons and the likelihood of rain and high winds in June and July.

Recompression: Decompression incidents are rare in the Maldives, but there are no less than four recompression chambers in the islands: Banclos and Farukolhufushi in North Male Atoll Kuda Rah in Ari Atoll Alimatha in Feliclhu Atoll Evacuation and treatment at these centres is potentially very expensive, so it is worth considering insurance.

Tour Operators:

Dolphin Diving Holidays, Tel. 01604 405500
Maldives Scuba Tours, Tel. 01379 651555
Dive Sportif , Tel. 01273 844919
Kuoni Travel, Tel. 01306 740500
Hayes and Jarvis, Tel. 01817419942
Maldive Travel, Tel. 0171352 2246

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