Manta Rays in Maldives (Swimming, Species, Feeding, Watching & Best spots)

Manta Rays in Maldives (Swimming, Species, Feeding, Watching & Best spots)

Vacationing in The Maldives? Do not miss the unique experience of interacting with this archipelago’s indigenous aquatic creatures. Whether it is dolphins, manta rays or whales, there are interesting tours to help you make the most of your time in this tropical paradise. If it is manta rays in Maldives that you are after, we’ve got you all the deets.

Unlike most other types of fish, manta rays are not found everywhere. This is one of the reasons why you should not miss the opportunity of playing with them if you happen to travel here on one of the Maldives vacation packages. Get to know these pelagic organisms better before you get on that flight to Velana International Airport.

What are Manta Rays?

Manta rays are basically fishes which are made up of cartilage. Cartilage is a flexible part that makes up most of the internal structure of any cartilaginous fish such as manta rays. Unlike bony fishes, manta rays do not have scales. Instead, they are more like underwater birds that are able to glide through the water currents by using their pectoral fins.

When it comes to rays, manta rays are among the larger variety that can be as much as 7 metres wide. Apart from their triangular pectoral fins, manta rays have cephalic fins which are curved to look like a pair of horns. Located at the head and below each eye, these are used for collection of food and directing the foraged meal towards the mouth.

At the centre of the cephalic fins, the forward-facing mouth of the manta ray is a large one. These marine fish mostly eat krill, shrimp and planktonic crabs which do not move with currents, giving the manta ray an edge over these zooplanktons when they are out and about, foraging on the water surface.

Their diet changes when they are in deep waters where they gorge on other fish that are small to medium in size. Manta rays are macro predators but they eat through filter feeding, a process that helps them skim their prey in the open waters by flushing the water out while the catch remains stuck in their gill rakers – the tissue between their gill arches.

What are Manta Rays?
What are Manta Rays?

It is important to note that mantas breathe exclusively through their gills, as they are primarily a type of fish. Their gill slits are located on their ventral side. Manta rays have a flat shape, with their width more than twice the size of their length. They also have a small tail that they use for navigation and controlling the direction of their swim. On either side of this tail, a pair of small dorsal fins is present.

While the buoyancy of the water and the body structure of the manta ray make it easy for them to swim rapidly and even float on the surface of the ocean, these aquatic creatures are quite heavy. They can weigh up to 1,350 kg!

Manta rays can be identified individually by the unique patterns and markings on their dorsal side which is generally a dark colour. The underside is mostly light. The dark marks on the ventral area of the manta ray are often a consequence of being bitten by cookiecutter sharks.

Manta rays are excellent swimmers that can also display some acrobatic moves. During the mating season, it is common to find males leaping out of the water surface to perform somersaults, or simply re-enter from either their head side or tail side to attract females.

Manta rays can either be solitary or found in groups that may contain up to 50 members. When it comes to their gatherings at cleaning stations, though, one can find hundreds of manta rays lined up together.

Cleaning stations are regions on coral reefs that are abundant in cleaning wrasses and other small sized fish that eat up the parasites such as copepods and other crustaceans that cling to the manta rays.

Mostly during the high tide, manta rays line up a cleaning station deep in the ocean and remain still as the cleaning organisms feed on the parasites that are attached to their body, gill slits, mouths and even bite wounds.

Manta Ray Species Found in The Maldives

Manta Ray Species Found in The Maldives
Eagle Manta Ray – Species Found in The Maldives

The islands in The Maldives offer abundant opportunities to sight manta rays. If you happen to stay in any of the luxury resorts in Maldives, check with the dive school internally if they offer manta ray watching cruises or trips to swim, dive or snorkel with them. There are only two types of manta rays in the world, and both are found in this tropical archipelago:

Resident Reef Manta Rays in Maldives

Scientifically known as Mobula Alfredi or M. alfredi, resident reef manta rays are the second largest ray species in the world but vulnerable. Their disc width varies from 3 metres to 3.5 metres in general while some very large ones can reach up to 5.5 metres in width. In the Maldives, reef manta rays are usually found in the shallower parts of the Indian Ocean and near the coastal areas. They have 5 gill slits on their dorsal side which is dark in colour. The ventral surface has a couple of lighter streaks near the head of the reef manta ray.

Giant Oceanic Manta Rays in Maldives

The only other manta species, the giant oceanic mantas are endangered. This ray is the largest type of ray on earth with its disc size measuring up to 7 metres. To identify this type of manta ray, one can look for a light coloured ventral side with a cluster of spots around the abdomen. The gill slits of the giant oceanic manta ray is generally black in colour, just like its mouth and cephalic fins.

Manta Ray Watching in Maldives

Manta ray watching should definitely figure on your list when you decide to book activities in Maldives. Some well placed Maldives water villas in resorts such as Hideaway Beach Resort are lucky enough to have manta rays swim up their shores!

The Best Spots for Manta Ray Watching Maldives

The Best Spots for Manta Ray Watching Maldives
The Best Spots for Manta Ray Watching Maldives

If the main purpose of your holiday is to watch manta rays, book your hotels in The Maldives close to the manta sights. Manta ray trips are often combined with sightings of whale sharks, so you can look forward to that experience as well.

Some of the best atolls for manta ray watching in The Maldives include Baa Atoll, Addu Atoll, South Ari Atoll and Lhaviyani Atoll.

Manta rays visit different atolls from time to time, depending on ocean currents, the movement of planktons (which mantas often feed on) and also the presence of cleaning stations (where mantas make routine stops to have their bodies, gill slits, mouths and wounds cleaned by wrasses and small fishes.

When it comes to Baa Atoll, most divers know it for Hanifaru Bay where one can witness the mindblowing sight of hundreds of manta rays and even a few whale sharks gathered together to feed on zooplankton. Although scuba diving is not allowed here, one can snorkel at a distance and gape at the sight of these large mantas aggregating together.

Book Maldives day tours here to watch phenomena like cyclone feeding which is how these manta rays eat in a large group as planktons and krill are pulled into a pit underwater, almost the size of a football field. This happens due to the suction created by the currents as a result of the lunar and tidal effects.

Manta ray feeding in Maldives is an activity that must not be missed. For about 2 to 4 hours, as many as 400 manta rays can be seen filter feeding as their prey of choice is almost served in a bowl for them to savour.

Note that each tourist gets a fixed amount of time to be underwater as the huge crowd of watchers must be given a fair chance in there, while also ensuring humans don’t interfere with the natural cyclone feeding of the manta rays.

Apart from Hanifaru Bay, there are a number of other locations in Baa Atoll where you can watch manta rays and even dive with them as there are no restrictions due to the lack of crowds. The whole of Baa Atoll is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and opportunities to sight megafauna are aplenty.

Dhonfanu Thila is a relatively lesser known underwater pinnacle beginning at 8 metres under the sea level. A manta ray diving trip in this part of The Maldives will not only allow you to watch mantas but also other fish such as starry rabbitfish, redtoothed triggers, angelfish, black pyramid butterflyfish and parrotfish. Admire the black coral that lines the narrow swim-through and descend to a maximum depth of 25 metres in this region of the Baa Atoll.

Not far from Hanifaru Bay, Dharavandhoo Corner is another famous cleaning station often frequented by manta rays. Plenty of Maldives diving tours let you dive at this spot after a snorkelling trip in Hanifaru Bay on the same day.

Another attractive dive site in Baa Atoll is Nelivaru Haa. The manta season sees the entire reed transform into a cleaning station. However, if you happen to visit at any other time, you will still be enthralled by the oriental sweetlips, stingrays, batfish and big groupers. Besides, the topography is an interesting one, with coral-laced overhangs and canyons in the shape of stars.

Submerged at a depth of 12 to 16 metres below the ocean is Horubadhoo Thila – an island carpeted in both soft and hard corals. This underwater isle in Baa Atoll is full of manta rays in the months of May to November when the area turns into a cleaning station.

Our Maldives honeymoon packages to Lhaviyani Atoll offer a great chance to mix romance with manta sighting. October to March is the main manta ray season in this atoll. Fushifaru Thila is home to hundreds of mantas which arrive here with the beginning of the northeast monsoon.

While the cleaning stations are full right from October, the manta ray feeding starts only in November and lasts until December. Head to Felivaru, Veligadu Falhu or Dhanifaru  from October to April to watch the manta rays being cleaned as they remain still. Thereafter, the manta rays usually move to other atolls that have more zooplanktons.

A 25-minute flight from Malé – the world’s smallest capital, South Ari Atoll is another destination for manta ray watching in Maldives. Boasting of round-the year sightings, this atoll offers several sites to visitors for a wholesome scuba diving experience.

Manta season strikes in the western side of the Ari Atoll in the month of January and lasts until March, making this part a hotbed of zooplanktons. Head to Hukuru Elhi Faru which is a cleaning station, offering a chance to watch manta ray feeding close by.

Madi Faru, which literally translates to “Manta Ray Reef” in Dhivehi – local language of The Maldives, is one of the best spots to watch mantas in the east of Ari Atoll. When the southwest monsoon hits this region in May and lasts until November, planktons accumulate here. Along with feeding, manta rays also indulge in some cleaning at the cleaning station in Madi Faru.

If you wish to snorkel with manta rays instead of diving, Dhigurah Etere will suit well as the centre of this lagoon id flush with these rays, even close to the water surface. Reef edges are known to be areas where water currents create channels, making them a movement path for planktons. There also, manta rays can be easily spotted. One needs to be a strong swimmer though.

The Best Seasons for Manta Ray Watching in Maldives

The best time for manta ray watching in Maldives is round the year. Maldives’ weather does not affect the appearance of mantas too much. However, the presence of planktons play a huge role, and mantas are seen to mimic the bi-annual plankton movement in the region.

Depending on where you wish to look for these pelagic fish, the best months for sighting manta rays in The Maldives will change. The world famous Hanifaru Bay sees a lot of manta ray activity from June to the start of October.

On the other hand, in the Lhaviyani atoll, the high season for manta ray watching is October to March. If you have booked any Maldives tour packages in the South Ari Atoll between May and November, you will be able to go manta watching there as well.

Swimming & Snorkelling with Manta Rays in The Maldives

Manta Ray Watching Maldives
Manta Ray Watching Maldives (courtesy: deterstoibl)

Swimming or snorkelling with manta rays is possible even if you are not a swimmer. One of the unmissable activities to do in Maldives is to swim with manta rays. In manta spots such as Hanifaru Bay, diving is prohibited but snorkelling is possible. Non-swimmers should stay close to their guide and follow the instructions.

Most other manta ray cleaning stations and feeding areas allow tourists to scuba dive, offering them a longer duration to enjoy the feeding frenzy. One must keep some distance so as to avoid touching any manta ray. This is for the protection of these pelagic fish as there is a risk that the coating on their body may rub off, leaving them exposed to infections and ultimately, death.

Some liveaboards in Maldives offer manta ray watching as part of their itinerary. This is one of the best ways to go diving as you can go deeper into the high seas and away from the islands, increasing your chances of ray sightings.

If you can’t manage a liveaboard tour, most Maldives water bungalows will still be able to let you dive, swim or snorkel with manta rays. Look for a manta ray cruise offered by your resort. The cruise will be conducted in a small group of less than 20 participants, either on a speedboat or in dhonis – traditional Maldivian wooden boats.

Tips for Sighting Manta Rays in The Maldives

Just as you step out of the Maldives Velana International airport in Malé, you will feel the excitement of spotting mantas, corals, dolphins, whales and other marine creatures. But before you venture into the waters, keep these pointers in mind:

  1. Do not try to feed the manta rays.
  2. When watching manta ray feeding in action, avoid going near the fully grown adults or pups.
  3. When the mantas line up at a cleaning station and appear to be still, do not swim near them. Stand and watch from a distance, just as you are directed by your guide.
  4. Even though manta rays are not poisonous (unlike sting rays which have a venomous tail), never touch this type of fish. The delicate coating on their body can come off, causing permanent harm to them.

One can find it a confusing and daunting task when looking for reliable tour providers, especially when it comes to interactions with manta rays in Maldives. Leave the hassle of planning to Samudra Maldives while you focus on enjoying your Maldivian holiday.