One of the biggest fascinations for those seeking scuba diving or snorkeling experiences in the Maldives, is the high likelihood of observing white sharks and manta rays. The Maldivian waters, and in particular Baa Atoll is home to one of the world’s most significant stocks of whale sharks and manta rays. While whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) and Giant Oceanic Manta rays (Manta Birostris) are classified as Near-Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, they can be spotted in local waters along with Reef resident Manta Rays (Manta Alfredi). Although approximately 5000-6000 Reef Resident Manta Rays make up the majority of the manta ray population, Giant Oceanic Manta Rays with wingspans up to 12 feet can also be observed at specific locations within the country. As such, “Hanifaru Bay”, a protected uninhabited island in Baa Atoll of the Maldives is one of the world’s hottest locations for such observations.
Manta Ray species and Whale Sharks that can be approximately the size of 40 feet shipping containers are known to visit Baa Atoll throughout the year, but they are particularly well spotted in Hanifaru Bay during the Hulhangu Moosun (South West Monsoon). Such visits in numbers coincides with an annual feeding event, in which returning whale sharks and manta rays feed on high concentrations of zooplankton such as copepods for up to 7 months in between May to November. The spectacular invasion of manta rays and whale shark populations make Hanifaru Bay one of the Earth’s rare spots in which such numbers aggregate to feed. Several Giant Oceanic Manta Rays has been spotted feeding amongst the Hanifaru manta population, while three Mobula ray species and six other species of rays have also been recorded inside the Hanifaru MPA. Up to 200 manta rays could be feeding off the Hanifaru Bay reefs at a given time, making it arguably the world’s largest Manta Ray feeding area and gaining widespread acclaim as the subject of National Geographic video and photo documentaries.
Although Whale Sharks and Manta Rays were traditionally harvested to reap profits from their oil and fins, Baa Atoll has noticeably brought an end to such practices. Although there has been anecdotal information of harmful activities from sources outside the country, such reports mainly relate to accidental killings caused by sea traffic and fishing nets. Such efforts, along with better monsoon factors in Baa Atoll can be attributed to the The Manta Trust’s Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP) recording of an increase in manta sightings by 30% last year, to reach 3,000 sightings. The MMRP report also states that a decline in manta ray population in unlikely, and also refers to encouraging evidence on near future pregnancies.
Various NGOs, stakeholders and the Maldivian government has identified and reacted to potential damages that could be caused by increasing visitor numbers. As such numerous guidelines and rules are being set up and enforced to ensure their feeding habits remain unchanged. Moreover, Hanifaru Bay along with Anga Faru were designated as Marine Protected Areas in 2009, while Baa Atoll was designated as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 2011.