Snorkelling in the middle of the Indian Ocean is a humbling experience, much like standing in the midst of the Alps, in awe of the magnitude of nature. I stare down through my mask into an abyss of turquoise blue water, floating on the border between worlds, waiting and looking. My mind jumps back to a conversation I once had with a diver who told me that you would feel a shark before you ever saw it. My breathing quickens and I decide to wiggle my fins in the direction of the others in our group.
It isn’t sharks that we are looking for on this sunny day in Hanifaru Bay in the Baa Atoll of the northern Maldives, but manta rays, who are here to feast on the mass of plankton that washes through this tropical atoll and concentrates around the reefs at this time of year.
Hovering above one of these reefs, nothing can prepare you for the moment you first clap eyes on a manta ray. Its beauty, gracefulness and incredible size (12 feet across) quite literally take your breath away.
We are here with the Manta Trust, a British- and US-registered charity that has a permanent team in the Maldives observing these incredible creatures. “There is something particularly engaging about manta rays; they are one of the few animals which will choose to engage with you,” explains the Manta Trust’s CEO and marine biologist Guy Stevens. “Sharks will very rarely want to come and investigate you, socialise with you, approach you. Mantas, however, will actively seek you out. You get a sense that when you are looking at them wondering what is going on behind those eyes, they are thinking the same thing about you.”
As I float and watch the show of manta rays dance and somersault around me in an effort to collect as much plankton as possible, the team from the Manta Trust free dives yards below us to photograph and identify them. Each manta ray has its very own set of markings, like our fingerprints, making it easier for scientists to identify individuals and monitor their feeding and migratory behavior.
Until a decade ago, no one had done any research on manta rays, through lack of funds and/or interest, but these majestic fish caught the eye of Stevens who has made it his mission to better understand and protect the manta ray. Fished for their gills, which are used in traditional Chinese medicines, caught as incidental bycatch and struggling with an increasingly unstable marine environment, the survival of the manta ray has become increasingly worrying.
“It is much harder to convince people to stop fishing for the sake of protecting a species in the ocean because the true extent of the impact is difficult for people on land to understand. When you can count the number of tigers, elephants or rhinos that are left, you can truly say those animals are close to extinction, and yet in the ocean, it is much harder to do that. I think in the blink of an eye manta rays could be gone and we might not be aware of it until it has already happened,” notes Stevens.
Research and Conservation
Each August, the manta rays arrive in huge numbers to feed on plankton swept in by seasonal tides. During this time, the Baa Atoll is the world’s top hotspot for manta-ray sightings.
There can be over 200 mantas swimming in Hanifaru Bay at this time of year. I only see seven or eight, but that’s more than enough to observe and appreciate these amazing creatures. They glide past, circle round and come back, loop-the-loop right in front of me, or surprise me by coming from behind, almost touching me as they pass under my stomach. I am told that these moves are feeding strategies, but I can’t help but feel like they are inviting me to play with them.
With the highest brain-to-body ratio of all fish, mantas are highly-intelligent animals. “Probably one of the most interesting interactions I have had with a manta ray was when I encountered one caught up in fishing lines,” recalls Stevens. “It was severely injured with thick fishing lines caught all around its body and a fishing hook lodged in the front of its mouth. The line had cut through its mouth like a cheese wire. It was late afternoon and it was only me and my colleague left in the bay. I didn’t have a knife on me and I had run out of air, so I swam back to the boat. I picked up the last tank, but while I was swimming back out to the manta, the valve started leaking so I had to go back to the boat again to fix it. By this time, 20 minutes must have passed and I didn’t know if I would find the manta, but the moment I entered the water she came directly towards me. It is strange, there are very few animals that will seek an interaction with you and here was a wild animal that was obviously vulnerable and yet it was seeking me out.
“It was a long time ago and since then I have had many incidents like this so I know it isn’t me anthropomorphising, it was genuinely seeking out my help. I had to literally grab a hold of it, sit on it and cut away at the lines and it just let me do it. About a week later I was diving with a film crew when one manta ray split off from the others and swam over to me and it was the same one. There is no doubt that she was engaging with me and that tells you something about how intelligent these animals are,” says Stevens.
The Manta Trust
The mission of the Manta Trust is to promote a world where manta rays can thrive by tackling the increasing threats that face them and their marine world. By bringing together manta-ray scientists and experts in fields such as education, advocacy and media, the Manta Trust is committed to promoting a globally healthy marine ecosystem for these beautiful creatures.
To date the trust has identified 4,300 manta rays and has helped put in place guidelines for ecotourism, together with the Maldivian government and UNESCO, who declared the Baa Atoll a UNESCO Bisophere Reserve in 2011.
The beauty of the water alone is breathtaking, with the different shades of blue that change with the varying depths of the ocean. Swimming here is as close to paradise as you can get. The fact that the manta rays have chosen this place as their home surely confirms their higher intelligence?
Ecotourism and the Four Seasons Resort Maldives Landaa Giraavaru
Ecotourism is not only of interest to the scientists, the Four Seasons Resort Maldives Landaa Giraavaru has been a partner of the Manta Trust for a number of years, allowing the Manta Trust team to use the resort as a base for its operations. There is a marine centre on the island that guests can visit to learn more about the Maldives, the coral reefs and the manta rays, as well as a turtle rehabilitation centre for those unfortunate animals who get caught up in fishing nets, and a fish reproduction unit.
The Carl F. Bucherer Connection
Carl F. Bucherer has also been working with the Manta Trust for a number of years now and this summer the Swiss watch manufacturer has gone one step further by making a limited-edition timepiece as part of its ongoing partnership with the charity. This series of 188 Patravai ScubaTec divers’ watches is dedicated to the protection of the manta rays with a portion of the proceeds going to help finance a new research expedition.
“We are proud to be a partner of the Manta Trust. With the new Patravi ScubaTec Manta Trust edition, we are paying tribute to the admirable work of Guy Stevens and his team,” says Sascha Moeri, CEO of Carl F. Bucherer. “By purchasing this model, watch connoisseurs not only become the proud owner of a truly unique timepiece; they also contribute to the conservation of manta rays.”
This limited edition is unique in that it features two manta rays swimming across the ridged dial, appearing as if they have just surfaced from beneath the ocean waves. In addition to the mantas on the dial, each timepiece has a unique caseback that has been engraved with a specific manta ray, showing the unique markings that have been captured on camera by Stevens and his team. Each caseback also features an identification number that serves as an access code to a website where the watch’s owner can get information about his or her manta ray and even name it.
Like the other models in the Carl F. Bucherer Patravi ScubaTec Collection, the ScubaTec Manta Trust features an automatic helium release valve, making it a true diver’s watch with water-resistance up to 500 metres. Luminescent indices and hands provide excellent readability at depth, as well as adding to the sporty look of the watch.
Snorkelling with the watch on my wrist, I am surprised by how legible it is under the water. The UNESCO guidelines only allow us 45 minutes in the water, so it is important to keep track of time. I smile at how well the colouring of the watch matches that of the mantas as they continue their dance around me.
First Research Expedition of its kind
Thanks to the proceeds gathered from the sale of these timepieces, Carl F. Bucherer is financing an entirely new kind of scientific exhibition that we were able to witness directly during our stay in the Maldives. This two-week expedition will allow scientists to monitor the manta-ray population in the region, analysing the habitat and feeding habits, as well as the planktonic prey on which the mantas feed.
The recorded data which is being gathered will contribute significantly to what we know about how manta rays live, feed and reproduce. It will also help the expansion of the Manta Trust’s database.
“It is so typical of humans that we are oblivious to the devastation that we are inflicting on the planet around us. For me, the mantas can become the emblem of what is as stake if we choose not to better protect our oceans. People can engage with manta rays, they can feel for them, they can connect to them and they can care about them. If I could do one thing, it would be to bring greater awareness and greater empathy, and if I can affect enough people that it changes something and makes a positive difference, then that is worthwhile,” concludes Stevens.
With the Carl F. Bucherer Patravai ScubaTec Manta Trust, that awareness takes a small step in the right direction towards protecting these magical creatures that have totally captured my heart.
I have never experienced anything quite like swimming with the manta rays and I could have easily stayed in the water far longer than the allotted 45 minutes, but it is time for the manta rays to leave for another feeding station and for me to return to the boat, with a heavy heart but with a newfound affection for the ocean and these magnificent animals that deserve our love, attention and respect.