Manta Rays in the Maldives, Ari Atoll
The diver’s dream is to encounter these majestic animals. Everybody who was lucky enough to meet them in the water will agree, that this is a very unique experience. Most of the people who also want to encounter them go to the small Republic of Maldives in the Indian Ocean.
What most people forget though is that the sea is not a zoo and if you want to see something a little bit of research needs to be done by yourself. There are several internet sites who will provide you with where and when to see things!
Another way, much easier and better, is to contact the people with whom you will spend the holiday, hotels and tour operators. When I worked in the Maldives a lot of people came to our island and were really surprised to find out that it is not possible to encounter them all year round.
The most famous Manta Point of the Maldives is Lancan Manta Point in the area of Male Atoll, and nearly all of the diving Centers will offer trips there, if the Sea is not too rough. At Lancan Finolhu you can get lucky with Mantas nearly all year around, but you have to be close to Male. If you are spending your holiday in the Northern islands of North Male Atoll or on the other hand in some southern island of the South Male Atoll, the trips are seasonal.
But Lancan is not the only Manta Point in the Maldives, and by far not the best. Not too long ago scientists decided that there are actually two different types of Manta Bisostris (that’s the actual name of our desired animal :-)). There is the one who lives close to the reefs (maximum width up to 5 meters) and there is the oceanic one (up to 7 meters in width). What little people know, is that you can see both types in the Maldives, but not in Lancan.
But before you go off and start booking your next diving trip to my suggested areas, please have a look at the time of year, this is where the zoo comes in:
If you plan your holiday, make sure that it is the right time of the year, and the monzon is coming out of the right direction. For all of the dive sites described here it has to be south west monzon!
So where to go? Go to Ari! If you wish to see oceanic Mantas you need to reach North Ari Atoll!
Starting from the South of Ari Aatoll, the dive site Rangali Madivaru is located on the West side of the Atoll hence to the name next to the island of Rangali. It creates a channel and there is an edge at about 12 meters and nearly all of the edge is a cleaning station. The dive surprised us with the most Mantas ever, so I stopped counting at a number of 15, after half an hour and more Mantas kept appearing!
Next to it is a lagoon where Mantas go for feeding, but they will only stay with people if they are snorklers, they will not show up if there are divers, and believe me I tried …
30 minutes away with the Dhoni (normal Maldivian dive boat) north of Rangali is Panettone (an Italian Cake is the name giver, because of the shape). The dive itself is not for beginners, because it is a Thila (underwater mountain, which does not reach the surface) and it is quite exposed to the current. But everybody knows the saying: “The more current there is, the more food it brings. The more food there is, the more Fish there will be, and finally the more fish there is, then the more big fish will be there.”
And on Pannettone this is the case. With the south west monzon there will be not only sharks, who are all year round there, but also Mantas. And hanging on a cleaning station watching Mantas circle and grey reef sharks patroling out in the blue is a view that everybody wants. Again this does not happen everyday, but sometimes you can get lucky!
Before we go further north I want to do a jump to the west side of the Atoll, because there are two Manta points and one is quite new (the dive center I worked with discovered it 2009), it is called Coral Hills. When diving it you will jump on a chain of Giris (underwater mountain which reaches the surface) and drift along corals in an average depth of 10 meters. It is already possible to see the first Mantas passing by, but they will not stay, because they are already cleaned. Normaly we jumped so that it took us a maximum of 10 minutes to reach the cleaning station. The first time I saw it, I fell in love with it, because it looks like a theater with a stage. The cleaning staion itself is a coral block starting at 18 meters and going up to 15 meters. The coral is full of glas fish, a lot of cleaning fish and other critter stuff, so also if Mantas do not show up you can still enjoy it, the soft corals are giving an extra touch to it . There is a sandy area on the north. The north side of the Giri next to the cleaning stationis aranged like an arena, with a lots of destroyed coral (again we were the first down there and it was already like this) so the divers can easily put the reef hooks in the dead coral. Over there I also witnessed once Mantas playing with each other pushing each other off the cleaning station, which looked more like a strategical game given there anatomie.. ;-).
When the Giris meet with the reef it creates a lagoon which is a feeding ground for Mantas. Perfect for a surface interval and a little bit of Manta snorkeling. This place was for me the first time where I was allowed to watch Manta rays during a feeding session, a highly recommended experience, to see them from the surface when they go into flying formation (swiming in a chain) but if 15 Mantas pass over your head with mouth full open… hope everybody gets the picture …
On the North side of the reef there is another lagoon with another dive site called Camel Rock (yes, nearly all of us had worked at one point in egypt and do have special memories with these animals :-)) This is more a feeding ground than a cleaning station, and I was not so often lucky over there. On the very north of this lagoon there are three giris, but two of them are visible from far, which is also the reason for the name. Inside the lagoon there is a big pool and a smaller closer to the main reef. You can usually see them there, although I saw one standing between the two big giris and feed with mouth wide open.
Both dive sites are a little bit north of Lilly Beach and Vilamendhoo.
Further North on the West side of the North Ari Atoll is located Donkalu Thila, this is the deepest cleaning station I know. The top of the coral block where the cleaning station is located is at about 16 meters depth, but the place where you can get a grip in the sand is minimum 18 meters, and there will be current too. Also in this area is a lagoon next to it, where they go for feeding.
Another favorite of mine is Dhinolhu Gadhu Thila (horrible name to remember, I don’t remember how long it took me, but I always reffered to it as DGT). The Thila (underwater mountain which does not reach the surface) is next (gadhu) to a sandy reef (dinolhu) on the west side of the Atoll, with a lagoon which is also a feeding ground. Divehi, the language of the Maldives, used for dive site names are always very logic and easy once you get some basic words. The main cleaning station is on the top reef and is in about 8 meters deep and surrounded by sand. I recommend you to take a reef stick, because there will be current. Normaly when you jump in the water, the Mantas will disappear. After 5-10 minutes they will come back and they will stay! A lot of fish is there, and there is normally no reason not to spend the whole dive over there, but what I preferred was to go to the very outside of the Atoll and drift along the edge, because the whole edge was one big cleaning station with small overhangs full of soft corals, nudibranches, napoleaons, sharks, turtle, eagle rays, well everything you want. On one dive I even had troubles deploying my surface marker balloon due to Manta rays circling around. This dive site is everything but an easy dive. First of all there is current and second of all, ther is always a bit of surge going on. Coming into the water and out of it is not the easiest thing, but well worth it!
The dive site is next to Nika and the first of 5 beautiful Thilas in the channel. If you follow this channel to the middle of the Atoll, just opposit the island of Velidhu, there is a huge reef called Gemburuga with a lagoon in the middle. When I was working there, the island offered 365 days succesful Manta snorkeling to this lagoon. On all of these cleaning stations you can see Manta Rays, but just the ‘small’ one, at the end I did see them more often.
There is also one Manta cleaning station on the left, the one located in the most north area. It is called Maavaru outside, and the only thing intersting there is the two coral blocks which are the dive site -over there I saw the big ones together with the big eagle rays and some white tips were also around, but the Rays over there were breathtakingly beautiful. Again there is current to be expected. Located on the North West it has to be North East Monsoon and the amount of time the Mantas are there is the shortest. Next to it is the lagoon of Maavaru which is a feeding ground. If it is the right time of year there are also Whale Sharks in the lagoon.
As you can see, there are a lot of possibilities to see these majestic animals, but you have to be lucky and be there on the right time. If you choose to stay at a resort it is important that it is the right time of the year. With a liveaboard it is something different, if the Mantas are known to be at another place, you can move your bed over there in a maximum of an overnight ride
Story by Jörg Delacher.