If you’re looking for a once in a lifetime experience you need to add snorkeling at Hanifaru Bay to the top of your list of Maldives experiences. Located in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Baa Atoll Hanifaru Bay is a Marine Protected Area due to its importance as a feeding ground for Reef Mantas (Mobula alfredi).
Manta rays are the gentle giants of the Maldives and one of the largest animals in the ocean, with a wingspan of up to 15 feet (23 feet for the Oceanic Manta). They unfurl their cephalic fins on either side of their mouth to funnel plankton-rich water into their mouths and then use comb-like gill rakers to filter out the food from the sea water. During the northeast monsoon season large numbers of mantas aggregate in Hanifaru Bay. Between May and November the strong lunar tides overcome the force of the monsoonal current and plankton-rich water is sucked from the depths into the atoll and then trapped inside the shallow bay of Hanifaru. With the huge volumes of plankton in Hanifaru Bay, it is common to witness large feeding aggregations of Manta Rays making it making it an ideal location for visitors to swim and snorkel with these magnificent creatures.
Swimming with manta rays is a true “pinch me” experience. During manta season you can see anywhere between a handful and a couple of hundred manta rays, and entering the water to witness this spectacle, surrounded by these ocean giants is awe inspiring. The sight of these gentle giants gliding effortlessly through the water is unforgettable, and their curious nature often leads them to swim within just a few feet of snorkelers.
One of the most common questions we hear is about how safe it is to swim with Mantas. While Mantas and stingrays are related they are vastly different and the safety question likely comes from the misconception that mantas have a sting…you’ll be pleased to hear they don’t and are perfectly safe to swim with. Although their large size can be daunting they are gentle giants…even if they have little concept of personal space sometimes. When in the water with these beautiful creatures it is important to remain aware of your surroundings, give them space wherever possible and don’t touch them as this can upset the delicate balance of microbes on their skin that keeps them healthy.
There are some excellent resorts in Baa Atoll that will get you close to the action with some resorts offering a “Manta on Call” service and the benefit of having a Manta Trust Marine Biologist on hand to share their knowledge and passion for Manta Rays with you sharing insights to manta life history and biology as well as the critical research the Manta Trust is undertaking in the Maldives. This research has included developing Manta ray interaction best practices and as such their it is important to follow these strict guidelines in order to protect the delicate ecosystem, prevent damage to the coral reefs and reduce any potential negative impact on the Reef Manta population. Visitors are required to obtain a permit to enter the MPA (this will be handled by your resort), and the number of visitors is limited to help preserve the area's natural beauty and biodiversity and to give the mantas a break from visitors every once in a while.