Nestled in the heart of the Maldives lies the Baa Atoll Unesco Biosphere Reserve, a haven for marine enthusiasts and luxury travelers alike. Every year, this aquatic paradise witnesses a spectacle unparalleled in nature: the gathering of the world’s largest known population of manta rays. These ethereal creatures, akin to underwater ballet dancers, trace the currents rich in plankton, a primary source of their diet, which are steered by both tides and the southwest monsoon.
The spectacle of 2021 was particularly notable. The reserve reported an astounding 7,248 manta ray sightings between May and November. Of these, 207 were new individuals, broadening the extensive database curated by diligent researchers. This data collection is largely credited to the Maldives Manta Conservation Programme (MMCP). Initially recognized as the Maldivian Manta Ray Project, MMCP was established in 2005 by the world-renowned Manta Trust charity at the luxurious Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru.
Over the last two decades, MMCP’s relentless efforts in data collection have yielded fascinating insights. The gathered information has spotlighted patterns in manta ray behavior, most notably pinpointing “hot dates” or periods when large groups of mantas are most likely to gather. This invaluable information allows resorts, such as the Four Seasons, to enhance the chances for their guests to witness and even swim alongside these majestic creatures.
Hanifaru Bay, a gem within the Maldives, is distinguished as the largest known aggregation site for manta rays. On any given day, as many as 200 manta rays can be observed feeding on the plankton that converge within its unique funnel-like reef system. This bay’s ecological significance didn’t go unnoticed; in 2009, it was designated as a Marine Protected Area. The decision was significantly influenced by the comprehensive data collected by MMCP. Being a mere half-hour speedboat journey from the Four Seasons resort, Hanifaru Bay has become a bucket-list destination for many.
Guests at the resort, eager to dive into this magical experience, are provided with a special 2G Nokia “manta phone” housed within a waterproof pouch. This unique service, known as the Manta-on-Call programme, ensures guests are promptly informed if a manta sighting occurs. Upon receiving a notification, guests have a 30-minute window to prepare for a boat transfer to the magical Hanifaru Bay. Eager anticipation fills the resort, with guests constantly checking their manta phones, ensuring batteries are charged and notifications loud, hopeful for that much-awaited message.
Beyond the allure of the mantas, the resort offers a treasure trove of marine-based activities. The Marine Discovery Centre stands as a testament to the resort’s commitment to marine conservation and education. Guests are introduced to the Reefscapers project, an initiative focused on coral conservation. Following a massive coral bleaching event in 2016, the project has successfully “planted” over 5,200 coral frames in an effort to rejuvenate the surrounding reefs.
Moreover, the resort houses a Turtle Rescue Centre, emphasizing its dedication to marine life. Since its inception in 2009, the center has cared for 167 turtles, most of whom are Olive Ridley turtles. Sadly, many of these creatures arrive with injuries caused by discarded fishing nets. Yet, the center provides a beacon of hope, having released 107 rehabilitated turtles back into the wild.
For guests whose stars do not align with the manta rays during their stay, the resort ensures a myriad of other marine experiences. The luxury of private manta-spotting cruises, the informative Trainee Manta Biologist programme for teenagers, and a plethora of other marine activities ensure that every guest leaves with memories to cherish for a lifetime.