Mass appeal of the manta rays
A I am underwater, face to face with a large flat fish which I recognise immediately as being a manta ray. For an instant I look straight into its gaping mouth and see the row of small, flattened teeth in its lower jaw.
Close on its tail comes another manta ray, and another and another. The manta rays are unaffected by my being there, cruising past in a leisurely fashion without seeming to expend any great effort.
B From above, the manta rays are great black silhouettes that fishermen called ‘devil fish’, because of the curious horn-like fins hanging down near their mouths. But looking into their eyes you get a sense of their peaceful nature. Unlike stingrays, mantas don’t have venomous spines in their tails, and unlike many fish species they seem to enjoy human company. Once, over-enthusiastically, I swim towards a manta. I am just a few inches away when it senses me. To my surprise, the whole fish twitches in alarm and shoots off, perhaps fearing that I will touch it. I feel ashamed to have given it a fright.
C I have come to Hanifaru, a small lagoon next to an uninhabited island in the Maldives, especially to see manta rays. These great harmless creatures congregate here during the south-west monsoons between May and November and, if the tides and winds are right, enter a shallow cul-de-sac in the reef to hunt for plankton, their main source of nutrition. On certain days the bay can attract more than 100 mantas. I have seen many manta rays on dives around the world, though not in these numbers.
D Guy Stevens is my guide, a British marine biologist who has been studying the mantas for the past five years. Based at the nearby Four Seasons resort, he has identified more than 2,000 individual manta rays, photographing and cataloguing them according to their distinctive skin patterns. Each day we make the 40-minute boat journey from the resort to Hanifaru. Feeding events, as Guy calls them, are never guaranteed, but, during the season, hotel guests can sign up for ‘manta alerts’. If Guy and his research assistants spot significant manta activity, the guests will be brought by fast speedboat to the lagoon to snorkel. When feeding, the mantas of Hanifaru tend to stay near the surface, making them accessible to snorkellers just as much as divers. They seem not to mind the human competition in this quite small space, and indeed they are often joined by other rays and even giant whale sharks, which feed on the same plankton.