I was surveying the impossibly white sand and Technicolor-turquoise Indian Ocean outside my beach villa at the Four Seasons Resorts Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru—a dazzling, 44-acre island resort in the country’s remote northern Baa Atoll—when the ring of the mobile phone I’d received at check-in only 20 minutes before shattered my paradisiacal revelry.
“The team just spotted them,” said a friendly voice from reception. “Please head to the pier as soon as possible if you’d like to join.”
I pulled on my swimsuit and hopped on my monogrammed cruiser bike, peddling to the dock along the sprawling resort’s sandy lanes in the shadow of towering coconut palms and emerald jungle foliage. Soon a small group of guests and I were aboard a speedboat, snorkel gear in hand, as we whizzed toward Hanifaru Bay, one of the world’s most important feeding sites for reef manta rays.
We jumped into the cool, crystalline water, following our guide with eyes trained below the surface. Suddenly, a dozen reef mantas emerged from the sun-streaked blue depths as if from another universe, drifting toward us slowly through the shifting currents. Known collectively (along with oceanic manta rays and devil rays) as mobulids, reef mantas are some of the world’s most enigmatic creatures, with a decidedly imposing anatomy—their wingspan can reach over 13 feet—that contrasts starkly with their consummately gentle nature. As they must keep water flowing over their gills in order to breathe, manta rays are born into an existence of perpetual motion; in an average 50-year lifetime, they travel tens of thousands of miles feeding on zooplankton, some of the smallest animals in the sea.
The intellect and inquisitiveness of manta rays, which have the largest brain of all fish, makes for truly mesmerizing encounters with these benevolent behemoths. Floating facedown a few feet below the ocean’s surface, I tried to stay stock-still as one swam directly toward me as if playing a game of chicken, its colossal, winglike pectoral fins flapping hypnotically. When some six feet away, my curious new friend subtly changed course, dipping a few feet below me as I stared down at its back in sheer awe. To observe reef mantas in this pristine habitat is to watch an underwater ballet choreographed by nature, these achingly graceful “birds of the sea” gliding and somersaulting through the cerulean depths to a soundtrack of silence.
At about 5,000 rays and counting, the Maldivian reef manta population is the largest-known on earth by a measurable margin. The fact that a wealth of scientific data about them exists at all owes almost entirely to the Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP), the flagship research mission of the Manta Trust, a U.K.-based charity dedicated to the global conservation of these charismatic creatures.
Founded in 2005 and headquartered in the Marine Discovery Centre at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, the MMRP collects data about the country’s manta population, their movements, and how the environment, tourism, and human interactions affect them. It’s the brainchild of Manta Trust CEO and founder Guy Stevens, who is working diligently with his team to protect these singular animals as the tourist influx to this idyllic island nation continues to grow.
Stevens first encountered the Maldivian reef mantas when he was hired as a marine biologist and dive guide on the Four Seasons Explorer, the brand’s Maldivian luxury liveaboard yacht, in 2003.
“I was captivated,” says Stevens, a British marine biologist and now one of the world’s foremost experts on the species. Eager to learn more, he searched online for basic information about mantas—such as their life-span and how often they reproduce—to virtually no avail. “I remember thinking, ‘Maybe I can start a research project on them,’” he recalls.
In 2005, Stevens approached Armando Kraenzlin, currently regional vice president of Four Seasons Maldives who was then general manager of Four Seasons Maldives at Kuda Huraa, to gauge Kraenzlin’s interest in supporting a prospective project. Kraenzlin told him that Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, then under construction, would have an on-site marine research center that could serve as command central for Stevens’s research. Shortly thereafter, the Maldivian Manta Ray Project was born.
“Four Seasons Maldives has been our biggest supporter since the beginning,” Stevens says. “Without them, we would never have been able to launch the project.”
A shifting landscape amid new challenges
Since its inception, the MMRP has identified some 4,700 reef manta rays (via the unique spot patterns on their undersides) from 60,000 photo-identification sightings. Besides creating a research-backed code of conduct and multimedia toolkit to educate tourists and operators about how to swim with manta rays, the MMRP’s notable list of achievements, including the designation of the Baa Atoll as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 2011—the only one in the 1,200-island nation—and the inclusion of all manta and devil rays in the Appendices of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (the Bonn Convention) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The MMRP’s efforts have also led to the designation of Hanifaru Bay and Anga Faru as two of 42 marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Maldives. Hanifaru Bay—whose unique shape concentrates planktonic food, thus attracting large numbers of manta rays and whale sharks—has become something of a model for sustainable manta tourism in the country. Once overrun by boats full of snorkelers and divers—“it was an absolute zoo,” says Stevens—the bay is now strictly monitored by rangers, funded through a fee visitors pay to access the MPA, which is often handled directly by the resorts. Hanifaru’s management policy has banned diving entirely and limits the number of tourist boats on-site to five at a time, with a maximum of 80 tourists in the water simultaneously.
With tourism momentum in the Maldives showing no signs of abating—1.5 million visitors are expected this year, compared with 1 million in 2013—the MMRP’s next lofty goal is to work with the Maldivian government to implement government-sanctioned legislation, similar to the plan in place at Hanifaru, that would apply to all 300-plus manta aggregation sites across the country’s 26 atolls. Presently, the majority of these sites—which include 73 “cleaning stations,” prominent spots along the reef where mantas gather to have parasites removed from their bodies by small fish called cleaner wrasses—remain completely unregulated. As a result, divers congregate at these viewing hotspots to observe the action and take photos, often scaring off the mantas and damaging coral reefs in the process.
“These places are where tourism pressures are at their greatest,” Stevens says. “We need to take a carrot-and-stick approach that rewards conscientious operators with certifications and other ways to promote themselves and penalizes those that behave badly.”
Given that manta tourism already generates over $8.1 million in direct revenue for the Maldivian economy—which is 80% dependent on tourism—the country’s vested interest in protecting this population seems clear. But considering the litany of other challenges facing the developing nation, including climate change (as the world’s lowest-lying country, a majority of the Maldives’ 1,200 islands may be underwater within decades) and coral reef bleaching (which has severely damaged the majority of its reefs since 2014), Stevens acknowledges that it’s likely to be a slow process.
“We have a good relationship with the Ministry of Environment, and I’m hopeful that something will happen in the next few years,” Stevens says. “But I don’t expect miracles either.”
In the meantime, guests at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru can interact with these gentle giants during manta season, which spans from June through early November, via a range of singular activities including Manta Ray Scientist for a Day and its Manta on Call service. For the latter, you’ll receive a dedicated “manta phone” (as I did), get a call whenever the MMRP team alerts resort staff to a sighting nearby, and then have 30 minutes to head to the dock and be whisked off to swim among them.
In September, Four Seasons will also launch Manta Trust Expeditions aboard the Four Seasons Explorer, its three-deck, 22-person catamaran, which is the Maldives’ fastest and most luxurious floating resort. Accompanied by Stevens and other MMRP team members, you’ll partake in every aspect of the manta research experience, including taking ID photos and recording vital environmental information.
The MMRP staff now number 15 in the Maldives and have expanded into other atolls through their work with a handful of other high-end resorts, including Six Senses Laamu in Laamu Atoll. “We only want to work with operators that are genuinely invested in helping the environment,” Stevens says. In addition, the Manta Trust is currently collaborating on 25 affiliate projects in countries including Mexico, Brazil, and New Zealand.
Meanwhile, the wealth of unprecedented data the MMRP has collected informs the mantas’ ongoing protection, both in the Maldives and other far-flung corners of the world.
“If you don’t know how many individuals comprise a population, or how often they’re able to reproduce, you can’t determine the impact of the threats they face,” Stevens explains. “This data allows us to answer key life history questions that are vital to the management and conservation of the entire species.”
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