Islands of the Manta Rays

About the author: Anne-Marie Kitchen-Wheeler is the Project Manager for the Manta Ecology Project, supporting Manta Research. Also her husband Matt Kitchen is the project videographer and filmmaker. (www.mantaresearch.com)

The giant manta swam over the divers’ heads and made a graceful turn to look closely at each of the divers watching it. The divers looked back and were entranced by the beauty and agility of the huge creature in front of them, it was difficult to draw their eyes away from the magical beast, and it was love at first sight! This is probably how most people will describe their first experience of seeing a manta.

Manta rays are giant diamond shaped fish, the name manta coming from the Spanish for cloak, as the animal does appear as a dramatic dark cloak sweeping through the sea. Despite their family name of ‘devil ray’, they are completely harmless to humans and do not have biting teeth or stings. Manta rays are evolutionary cousins of sharks. They may grow to nearly 7 m (23 ft) across the wing tips but in the Maldives they are more commonly seen at a size of 3-4 m across wingtips, equivalent to the size of a medium sized family car! In common with dolphins and whales, their large size and curiosity of humans has intrigued divers and snorkellers for decades, who seek out interactions with these enigmatic, graceful creatures.

Mantas are deeply embedded in Maldivian culture and manta symbols are often used in the international advertising of resorts and dive centres. They are not actively fished  as their size makes landing them very difficult and their meat is poor quality in comparison with the excellent tunas easily fished in Maldivian waters, but fishermen have been long aware of areas where mantas congregated to feed, and led pioneering scuba divers to these areas. The divers discovered manta ‘cleaning stations’: areas of reef occupied by smaller fish which remove dead skin and parasites from larger fish and these cleaning stations are now where most manta watching by scuba divers is made.

Two world famous sites are Lankan Reef in North Male atoll and Madivaru in South Ari atoll. At the cleaning stations the mantas compete for access to the best cleaners, a little like humans wanting to get the attentions of the best hairdresser or masseur. On a typical day 10-20 diving boats from nearby resorts or safari boats will visit these sites. Despite the diving pressure, the same mantas still visit the sites year after year. There are at least 50 known manta cleaning stations located throughout the Maldives, in every atoll. As resort expansion continues into the far north and south, new sites are discovered, and will be discovered for many years to come.

There are other sites where mantas can be observed whilst snorkelling, including Hanifaru in Baa atoll, Sandune, near Guraidhoo island in South Male atoll and Rasfari in North Male atoll. Mantas are particularly attracted to feed on zooplankton consisting of small shrimps. They can be seen swimming up and down, or somersaulting with their mouths wide open using their head (or cephalic) fins to siphon huge amounts of water containing the tiny shrimps into their mouths. Snorkellers need only stay on the surface near the food source and the giant rays will swim past and underneath them as they continue with their feeding.

The movements, behaviour and ecology are being researched as part of a long term project by the Manta Ecology Project² (MEP) to understand more about their lives. Long term observations of mantas at the various cleaning stations have provided several insights into their behaviour. Mantas may be individually identified by the ovals and spots markings on their undersides (ventral surface) which are unique and do not change over a period of at least 10 years. Mantas with particularly distinctive markings can easily be recognised by divemasters and pointed out to tourist divers.

‘Butterfly’ manta is easily distinguished by the butterfly shaped markings pattern and is regularly seen at Lankan Reef and Boduhithi thila. We know she is a large, ‘alpha’ female who displaces smaller mantas when she arrives at a cleaning station and is at least 20 years old. She was seen pregnant in 2005 and 2007 and likely gave birth in October or November of those years but has not been seen pregnant since despite regular reports of her attendance at the cleaning stations.

This accumulated knowledge on the life of ‘Butterfly’ came from reports from divemasters and tourist divers who dived with her and photographed her. Another divers’ favourite is ‘Bubbles’ manta, named after her fascination of bathing in the exhaled bubbles of divers. Apparently, she has integrated this Jacuzzi effect of bubble massage into her cleaning routine as it probably dislodges dead skin. Many other mantas appear to enjoy bubble baths, so this appears to be a new behaviour, learned from interactions with divers at the cleaning stations. Divers or snorkellers should never attempt to touch or ride mantas as bacteria in our skin (or gloves) may easily give the manta a skin infection.

Manta tourism is of importance to the Maldives economy. During 2006-08, 143,000 dives and over 14,000 snorkels were performed annually and this was estimated to be worth about USD8.1 million per year in direct revenue1. Estimates up to USD200 million revenue should be considered when hotel accommodation, F&B and transportation is taken into account.

The Maldives is, without doubt, the best place in the world to observe manta rays. They may be seen year-round, at different locations typically on the leeside of monsoon winds so that from May to November they will be seen at eastern sites and from December to April at western sites. East and west located resort dive centres know the locations of the various seasonal manta points and make, at minimum, weekly dive excursion to visit the sites. Most liveaboards include scuba diving at least one manta location as most scuba-diving visitors expect to see mantas. Many resort lagoons have jetty lights which attract feeding juvenile mantas at night so that resort guests do not even need to get wet to enjoy the beauty of the balletic feeding dance of the manta. The Maldives are indeed, the islands of the mantas.

  1. Anderson RC, Adam MS, Kitchen-Wheeler A-M, Stevens G. Extent and economic value of manta ray watching in the Maldives. Tourism in Marine Environments. 2010;7(1).
  2. Support the “Manta Ecology Project” on Facebook.


Editor’s note:  This article was first published in the MATATO magazine ‘Maldives Finder’ 2011 issue. (www.maldivesfinder.com)

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