At the heart of the Maldives, the Baa Atoll Unesco Biosphere Reserve welcomes an unparalleled spectacle: the world’s most significant gathering of manta rays, drawn by plankton-rich currents during the southwest monsoon. The year 2021 marked an exceptional peak, boasting 7,248 manta sightings from May to November. The Maldives Manta Conservation Programme (MMCP) has been tirelessly collecting data on these majestic creatures since its establishment in 2005. Their efforts have spotlighted the “hot dates” – periods when the manta population surges, enhancing the chances for visitors to experience an unforgettable swim with these gentle giants.
The allure of the manta rays converges in Hanifaru Bay, a unique site where up to 200 of these creatures can be observed feeding on plankton. Recognized as a Marine Protected Area in 2009 due to MMCP’s pivotal research, Hanifaru Bay is now an eminent site for enthusiasts and marine biologists alike. Guests at a nearby luxury resort eagerly await calls on their special “manta phones,” ready to rush to the bay within half an hour of a potential sighting. While some like me weren’t fortunate enough to witness the spectacle during our stay, it doesn’t detract from the richness of the experience.
The resort’s Marine Discovery Centre is a sanctuary for marine aficionados, offering enlightening programs such as the Reefscapers project. The initiative encourages guests to participate in reviving the coral ecosystem by planting frames attached with healthy coral fragments, a pertinent effort, especially after the reefs suffered a devastating bleaching in 2016.
Besides its commitment to corals, the resort harbors a deep compassion for turtles. Since 2009, the Turtle Rescue Centre has nursed 167 turtles back to health. A significant number of them are the Olive Ridley species, many of whom have tragically lost their flippers to ghost nets. Notably, Frisbee, a resident since 2018, has become a symbol of resilience. With his front flippers missing, this Olive Ridley turtle is a vivid reminder of the impact humans can have on marine life, both detrimental and restorative.
Despite my missed rendezvous with the manta rays, the resort provided myriad opportunities to connect with marine nature. From bespoke manta-spotting cruises with marine biologists to the innovative Trainee Manta Biologist programme for teenagers, the offerings are manifold. This course unravels the mysteries of marine science, allowing the younger generation to engage in activities ranging from photo identification to monitoring manta ray behavior.
The dance of the manta rays may be the crowning jewel of the Baa Atoll, but the encompassing marine adventures ensure every guest leaves with memories etched in blue.