Manta rays feed in groups of as many as 200 in Baa Atoll in the Maldives - but will this phenomenal attraction be managed in the right way?
ITS 10 YEARS SINCE my assistant Hassan and I were swimming with a whale shark off a submerged reef in Baa Atoll in the Maldives, and chanced on an animal-human
encounter that would have epitomised the wildest dream of any underwater photographer - a manta feeding frenzy.
Swimming and shooting as fast as I could, we had followed the gentle giant through a narrow channel.
The vista inside sent my heart racing - 50 or more manta rays in a chain gang, feasting alongside the whale shark on a broth of plankton.
But those were the days of film. Even with two camera rigs, I had run out of it long before I entered the lagoon.
I was unable to return, as I was flying off the next day, so I put the awesome encounter down to serendipity; one of those things the sea sometimes bestows on a fortunate few.
Over the years, a few trusted colleagues working in the Maldives told me of similar encounters in Baa Atoll, including 100-plus mantas performing loop-the-loop manoeuvres endlessly from surface to bottom.
I was enthused, but this remained a surreptitious phenomenon, a well-kept secret of the Maldives.
Then came Shafraz Naeem, one of the new breed of enthusiastic digital photographers. Proud of his countrys heritage, as he should be, he uploaded the manta phenomenon to Facebook and YouTube in 2008.
The rest is history. Last July, a shrewd photographer descended on the atoll and published his discovery across the world.
Overnight, Hanifaru became the new sliced bread!
The Maldives, or garland of islands, is a country of infinite horizons, one of the Earths remaining coral-reef sanctuaries.
Baa Atoll is about 10 hours by boat north of Male, the island capital. Hanifaru, on the eastern side of the atoll, is an islet barely above sea level.
The hypothesis is that, between May and November, the lunar tide pushes against the Indian Oceans south-western monsoon current, creating a suction effect that pulls plankton from the ocean to the surface, close to Hanifaru lagoon.
When tide, current and wind are optimally aligned, huge concentrations of plankton are pulled into the lagoon and remain trapped when the tide changes. The lagoon is about the size of a football field, so the concentration of food is akin to a gigantic bowl of plankton soup, attracting hundreds of manta rays and whale sharks.
TEN YEARS ON, I ARRIVE BACK in trepidation. I had been ill-prepared for that first encounter, but this time I am armed to the teeth with three camera rigs, each set up to shoot 800 hi-res images at six frames per second.
The vagaries of nature have played cruel jokes on professional photographers before, and this one is on a tight 10-day schedule.
My fear of getting nothing is neither inane nor unfounded. Lisa Alison, Cruise Director of mv Sea Queen, who has worked the Hanifaru site for the past five seasons, has told me that five weeks before our arrival, two professional photographers invested lots of money and time and got zilch.
Bucketing rains, winds and big seas had not kept the mantas away, but the numbers had been way down. On a few days there were 20-50 rays, but visibility was often bad, and surface conditions awful as well.
There had been no frenzy, nor a 200-manta and whale-shark whirlpool. On a day on which 200 or more mantas had been predicted, based on tide cycle, oceanographic conditions and data from previous years, only a few dozen had appeared, feeding loosely on small plankton patches.
Just when the experts think they have it all figured out, nature shows whos boss! Until now, Lisa and her other half David have done an excellent job of keeping this magical occurrence low-profile. They know more about the nuances and idiosyncrasies of Hanifaru than anyone.
So is it happening I ask. Will it happen within the next 10 days
I cross my fingers and toes, whisper my prayers and have a serious talk with the fishes in my dreams, as I slumber through the entire crossing to Baa.
On a sunny morning we sail towards Hanifaru lagoon aboard the Sea Queens specially fitted dive dhoni. A 6m whale shark appears near the entrance to the lagoon. Its a good sign, I think, watching several excited punters jump in with masks and fins.
However, Lisa remains on board and commandeers the dhoni towards the lagoon. For the first time in my career, I turn my back on a shark, a very big one, too. It is insane but intuitive - follow the leader, who in this instance I hope knows best.
IT BEGINS WITHIN THE HOUR of anchoring at the rim of the lagoon. Lisa and I dive in to find some 20 rays feeding across the sandy bottom, 12m down. The timing of our arrival is perfect. Nothing could have prepared me for the immense rush of adrenaline and exhilaration that is filling my every cell in that first five minutes.
I stop counting at the hundreds - immense takes on new meaning. Even with a fisheye lens, it is impossible to take in the whole panorama. If there is a sense of déjà vu from 10 years before, it is massively magnified. My senses struggle to take it all in; a million pictures flash across my mind.
Imagine more than 200 manta rays, from 1m-wingspan juveniles to 6m adults, chain-feeding in a spiral that moves continuously from 18m at the bottom to near the surface.
Appreciate the dynamics of a tornado, and imagine a large black funnel hanging down from the sky. The wind inside a twister can spin at up to 500mph, spiralling upwards and inwards with tremendous speed and power to create an internal vacuum that sucks up anything over which it passes. Fortunately, water is 800 times denser than air.
Now imagine being sucked into a tornado of mantas. I am bouncing off walls of rays, in and out, up and down in the twister. The excitement is too extreme to feel any pain.
The stars, moon, sun and our planet are aligned; 200 mantas are trapped in a sea of food in a fishbowl the size of a football field - magic happens!
The ray at the head of the line catches the tail of the last ray in the chain, which then spins into a vortex. Scientist Guy Steven was first to note this cyclone-feeding, the most dramatic of manta feeding behaviours.
Sometimes mantas in the chain spiral out into satellite twisters, bumping into one another left, right and centre in a state of ferocity.
Depending on the density of plankton in the water, the frenzy can last from a few minutes to over an hour. On our first day, it lasts for more than six hours!
WE ARE FORTUNATE; for most of that day it is just us and the scientists. But what if there had been 10 boats in the lagoon, with 200 divers and 200 mantas
There are concerns. Uncontrolled interaction between people and manta rays in the lagoon could change the animals feeding behaviour.
Lisa Alison concurs that Hanifaru Bay is the Maldives new golden goose, and the government has designated it as a marine protected area, with guidelines for boats, divers and snorkellers.
Boats are restricted to mooring at the edge of the lagoon, and people must swim to and from the mantas. Boats are not permitted to move inside the confined space of the lagoon to pick up people, which could be very dangerous for both humans and animals.
This sensible protocol should work, although the guideline should also impose a quota for boats and people visiting the lagoon. Guidelines and laws are easily declared, but management and enforcement is complex and, without policing and punitive measures, they could become impotent.
On the first afternoon, as I am swimming back to our support dhoni,
a local boat cruises right over me several times. The culprit is dropping divers right into the twister of mantas!
Lisa confronts the culprit later, but he simply turns a deaf ear as she furiously waves a copy of the guidelines at him, and settles into his afternoon snooze.
For the sake of the animals, the Maldives people and its GNP, a long-term sustainable management plan must be installed before the next season. Successful models used elsewhere could easily be adapted for Hanifaru.
Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam has observed: We need to increase our ability to enforce existing environmental laws before creating new protected areas. But now that the word is out, global communities will zero into Hanifaru lagoon like vultures.
This delicately balanced environment must be protected.
Sea Queen, www.scubascuba.com