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The Maldives: In search of the gentle giants

A Manta Trust Expedition on the Four Seasons Explorer reveals unforgettable swims, dives and snorkels with majestic manta rays — and a whole new perspective on the Maldives

The Maldives: In search of the gentle giants
The Maldives. Image: Getty

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“There!” he shouts, pointing to a spot some 50 yards away. To the untrained eye, he could be pointing anywhere in the Indian Ocean. By now, however, we’ve learned to read the signs. Guy is founder and chief executive of the Manta Trust, a charity dedicated to the conservation of manta rays and their habitat, and he’s leading a seven-day expedition here in the Maldives from the luxury catamaran, Four Seasons Explorer. Balancing barefoot on the rib’s prow, he encourages us to scan the ocean ahead, fixing on a fleeting shadow beneath the surface. It’s a manta ray.

By now, we know the drill. We act fast, pulling on fins, spitting in masks and tipping backwards into the water. We swim out towards the shape, with the boatman providing bearings from the rib. After a minute or so, the manta itself emerges from the ether — at first vague and ghostly, then gloriously visible. It’s like a sub-aquatic bird, barrel-rolling before vanishing once again.

I’d joined the Four Seasons Explorer a day or two earlier. After a night at the luxurious Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru Resort, our small batch of guests transferred to the waiting catamaran. Climbing on board, I slipped off my sandals. I wouldn’t need to wear them again for seven days.

The Explorer is a 128ft, three-deck yacht kitted out with 10 staterooms and one kick-ass Explorer Suite (with panoramic views over the prow). The ship does a range of cruises around the Maldivian islands and atolls, but for me, this was the only choice. I’ve swum, snorkelled and fixated on fish since I was a kid, so the chance to join an expedition with real research value in the Indian Ocean was a no-brainer. To do it from the comfort of a liveaboard with its own PADI dive centre, spa therapist and king-size bed was the icing on the cake.

Finding manta rays isn’t easy, of course. Every day, Guy and his team spend hours weighing up sighting reports, crunching climatic data and scouting feeding and cleaning stations before our ribs even hit the water. When we strike out from the Explorer towards a lagoon or reef, little is left to chance. But we’re still dealing with wild animals. Not to mention Mother Nature.

Time and again, however, they crack it. On a dive off Ari Atoll, we spot similar shadows ghosting about. Piling into the water, we swim with several mantas — one doubling back so close I can see the look in its eyes, the scars in its black, rubbery skin. I follow it. Guy is one step ahead, and after several minutes we end up hovering over a coral outcrop, about 40ft below the surface.

“It’s a cleaning station,” he says, spitting water from his snorkel.

Over the next half-hour or so we float on the surface, waiting for mantas to circle around and return to the site, where they pause for a few seconds to allow little cleaner wrasse to pick dirt and parasites from their mouths and gills. When they do, we breathe deeply, free-diving for as long as our lungs will allow. It’s completely silent. I hang there, staring at a manta as it glides by. It’s the longest freedive I’ve ever done — and an absolutely magical experience.

But there’s more. Just as we hop back in the boat, a pod of dolphins shows up, ducking and darting and swirling in sync. We pull the fins on again and swim with them for several minutes. Two younger dolphins are tucked up close to their mothers. Another is playing with a squid in its mouth. Ten minutes ago, I’d never swum with a dolphin. Now I reckon I’ve swum with 30.

The interior of the Four Seasons Explorer. Image: Ken Seet

The interior of the Four Seasons Explorer. Image: Ken Seet

Aquatic thrills

As we travel between dive sites on the Explorer, Guy convenes us for lectures. The Manta Trust is a registered charity in the UK, and we are its ‘honorary researchers’ for the week, receiving tips on freediving techniques, how to take ID photos (of individual markings on the mantas’ bellies), and even getting to name any newly identified mantas (I get two, one for each of my kids). Talks range from the formation of atolls by ancient volcanoes, to coral reefs — second only to tropical rainforests in the diversity and abundance of species they support — and of course, these gentle giants themselves.

Rays are ‘cartilaginous elasmobranch fish’ that have been around over 160 million years, we learn — I like Guy’s description of them as ‘basically squashed sharks’. Mantas can be of the oceanic or reef variety: oceanic mantas tend to be larger, but both are filter feeders with big cephalic fins that help funnel plankton into their gaping mouths. They can reach several metres in wingspan, and are sadly listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — due to fishing, net and other threats. August and September are peak sighting periods in the Maldives, due to southwest currents moving large scoops of plankton through the Baa and Ari atolls.

The Four Seasons Explorer allows us to move quickly — it’s the archipelago’s fastest liveaboard — responding to Guy’s directions. Over the course of the week, I clock up three or four dives and snorkels a day, racking up the underwater hours in a sustained bout of beauty. I’ve never had such a continuous series of thrills — moray eel eyeing me from rock holes, Maldivian clownfish bobbing above their anemones, hawksbill turtles floating as if in space.

Maldivian reefs are not as colourful as they once were, due in part to El Nino and coral bleaching, but the fish life is staggering. A spotted eagle ray flies by. There’s a beast of a barracuda bossing one particular reef. I swim with sleek white and black-tip reef shark. Smaller fish are psychedelic in variety — batfish, fusiliers, pink-eye gobies, spotted unicorn fish, scribbled leatherjackets, oriental sweetlips… they could have been named by children.

I even dive and snorkel by night. Kitted out with torches, we lower ourselves into the water off Maaya Thila in North Ari Atoll. It’s like an underwater supermarket, bustling with reef sharks, moray eels, turtles and stingray. When we turn off our torches, phosphorescence sparkles like stars in the sky. Heading back on the rib, it seems all we’re missing is some theme music… or perhaps red beanie hats, à la The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

On another night, lights are pointed at each other from the back of a dive boat and the lagoon floor. They attract a swarm of plankton, which in turn attracts a pair of manta rays. I watch the animals’ flips and swivels from the back of the boat before hopping into the water to join them. I’m half expecting to hear the voice of David Attenborough. In this eerie green glow, I dive down towards the bottom, turn, and spend about 30 seconds floating to the surface. The mantas pirouette around me, twisting and turning like a pair of paper-trailing gymnasts. It’s extraordinarily graceful to watch. I stay until I’m exhausted.

Back on the Explorer, every need is met. There are smoothies to take the taste of saltwater from our mouths. Deckchairs lounge invitingly on the sundeck. A different style of cuisine is offered for dinner every evening (was it lobster linguine tonight or salmon sashimi?). Evenings end with videos featuring the day’s diving and snorkelling highlights — filmed and edited by one of the crew. My laundry is returned with Four Seasons ribbons. Outside, sand-fringed Maldivian islands drift by. Jacques Cousteau, eat your heart out!

Whale shark in the Maldives. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile

Whale shark in the Maldives. Image: Pól Ó Conghaile

Swimming with sharks

Of course, there is one other creature I’m gunning to see. As well as manta rays, those great pools of plankton attract whale shark. These are the largest fish that have ever lived, stretching up to 40ft in length, and though they’re not as intelligent as our manta ray pals, they’re pretty mind-blowing nonetheless. Despite their size, we know relatively little about where they breed, reproduce, or when they reach sexual maturity.

But the Maldives is a safe haven for them, too. Realising that there’s a greater value to be had in keeping these majestic animals than killing them, the country has banned the fishing and export of all sharks and ray species in its waters. Not that tourism is a magic wand, of course. It’s not exactly edifying to see throngs of snorkellers flailing about next to a whale shark, disgorged by boats with dangerous propellers just metres away.

I realise it’s rather sanctimonious to point this out from the deck of a $1,000-a-night liveaboard — but the middle ground has to lie in management. However we see these animals, boats must keep a respectful distance and swimmers mustn’t touch, harass or ride the animals (apparently, this actually needs to be said). An economic incentive is necessary to protect them, but we don’t want to scare the animals away.

Some 250 whale sharks have been ID’d in the Maldives, and the hotspot we’re heading for is a feeding ground off the South Ari Atoll. Here, we anchor the catamaran and transfer to a dive boat for the short trip around the shoreline, taking up posts on the roof to watch out for distinctive, shark-like shadows in the water.

“Whale shark! Whale shark! Whale shark!”

The shout rings loud and clear. I scramble, swimming 80ft or so to a pristine shark floating in clear water. It’s a male, about 16ft in length, with tiny eyes and an enormous tail. Every now and then, his mouth opens to hoover up whatever plankton is available. He seems gigantic — “as long as the kitchen,” I tell my kids on Skype later that evening — and yet he moves with such ease, grace and placidity it seems to defy physics. I follow this awesome fish for about half a mile, swimming hard for 45 minutes, with no other boats about, and the shark making no effort to escape or shake his company.

“That’s about as good as a whale shark encounter gets,” Guy says. “Nobody else around, the shark was perfectly chilled out and it was moving slowly. It doesn’t get much better than that.” I’m high on the experience.

Later that evening, we meet up to look at photos and video. The Manta Trust team are able to ID the shark from some old propeller wounds on his side, and we also get to suggest names for several new manta rays that have been ID’d and entered into its Maldivian database of over 3,500 individuals. That night, I’m able to tell my kids that two newly-christened mantas are swimming somewhere around the Indian Ocean. Their names are Rosa and Sam Victor.

Guy’s love for these animals goes way back, he tells me, to a childhood growing up on a farm in Dorset, a tropical fish tank he received at the age of 11, a degree in Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology from Plymouth University later.

“When I first came to the Maldives, I discovered that nobody was researching manta rays, so I decided to do it,” he says. “Of all the animals I’ve been lucky enough to see and spend time with, they remain the most fascinating. Manta rays are never boring. They’re engaging, beautiful animals.

“When I look into the eye of a manta ray, I get the sense that it’s wondering about me as much as I am about it. It’s consciously pondering what I am, and that’s not a connection you get with any other animals. Whether that’s just me being fuzzy and anthropomorphising, I don’t know, but the kind of thing we’re doing with mantas is the kind of thing people used to do with elephants — we’re building databases. It’s a lifetime’s work, and it’s starting to pay off.”

My final snorkel comes at Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll, a key manta feeding site (from June to October, it’s basically a bowl of plankton) and now a Marine Protected Area (MPA). As I swim, rangers keep a close eye on me. It’s another gloriously close encounter — at one point, I film a manta brushing beneath me, barely six inches from my belly. Guy has witnessed a phenomenon known as ‘cyclone-feeding’ here, he tells us, with dozens of manta rays gorging in a spiral formation.

“In another 20 years, we’ll have learned a massive amount — where they live, where they go, what the threats are,” he says. “Those are questions we can only answer by getting a detailed overview of the whole population.”

By the time I step off Four Seasons Explorer, hopping onto a tender as the crew beats drums, I have to be reminded to take my sandals. It’s been seven days of adventure, exhilaration and spoilt-rotten luxury. At times, I felt like royalty; at others, like a schoolboy on a Boy’s Own adventure — and I’ve returned home with a greater love and respect for the ocean than ever.

Essentials

Getting there
British Airways flies direct to Malé from Gatwick. Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines all fly via their respective hubs.
Average flight time: 11h30m.

 

Getting around
The Maldives encompasses almost 1,200 islands, so don’t bother with your driver’s license. Airport transfers are by speedboat or seaplane, depending on the distance from Malé (the capital) to your resort. 

 

When to go
Temperatures may remain constant at around 30C year-round, but there are two distinct seasons. December to April is high season for European visitors, and is the driest period. May to November brings a higher chance of rain, but August and September are best for manta rays.

 

Need to know
Visas: No visas are necessary, with a 30-day stamp issued on arrival. You do, however, need a passport with more than one month’s validity to enter. Note that you will also need to show the name of your hotel and a return ticket.
Currency: Rufiyaa (MVR). £1 = MVR24.25. US dollars are widely used.
Health: Yellow fever vaccinations are officially required. Malaria isn’t an issue, but mosquitoes can be — so bring insect repellent. Remember to leave 24 hours after your final dive before flying.
International dial code: 00 960.
Time difference: Malé is five hours ahead of GMT. However, to maximise daylight hours, most resorts operate an extra hour ahead (GMT+6). Keep this in mind, as it can be confusing when calling home or planning airport transfers, etc.

 

More info
mantatrust.org
visitmaldives.com
maldiveshighcommission.org
maldiveswhalesharkresearch.org

 

How to do it
The Four Seasons Explorer provides cruises of three, four and seven nights’ duration. Manta Trust Expeditions depart on 27 August and 10 September in 2015, with prices for seven nights, including transfers, full-board and three dives/snorkels from £3,580 per person per day, excluding 10% service charge and GST. Guests can bookend the cruise with a stay at the Four Seasons Resort at Landaa Giraavaru, from £845 based on two sharing.

Kuoni offers seven nights B&B at Four Seasons Resort at Landaa Giraavaru in a beach  bungalow with pool, return flights with Turkish Airlines from Gatwick and seaplane transfers in resort, from £3,580 per person, based on two sharing. A Four Seasons Explorer cruise can also be booked with Kuoni who will create a package based on individual requests.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)