There are times when life, for a moment, is dream-like. Instances so beautiful and breathtaking that I have to remind myself: This is real. I am not, in fact, dreaming. Sometimes I'm moved to tears. We live in a pretty messed up world, in many respects. Greed, apathy and devastation are all around and we're fronted with them every day. Yet nature persists always, and sometimes its persistence is astounding. Behind the perpetual unrest of the human world, nature goes on. Animals go about their daily business in complex, intelligent and purposeful ways, well beyond our span of comprehension. Oftentimes their behaviours are changed in response to our messy world, but even so they're still there, doing their bit to ensure the persistence of their kind. Being witness to this, to the realness of life on earth, can be a truly humbling experience.
A recent such experience for me was the manta rays of Hanifaru Bay. Situated within the Baa Atoll of the Maldives, Hanifaru Bay is a place where wildlife persists in extraordinary abundance. The westerly winds of June through September bring huge amounts of plankton into the bay, attracting plankton-feeding mantas (and, less often, whale sharks) in a most phenomenal aggregation.
We arrived at the local island of Dharavandhoo in early June, for the final leg of our Maldivian trip. A short boat ride to Hanifaru Bay, Dharavandhoo was to be our base for five days, as we hoped for those westerlies. Arriving at the airport, we were immediately greeted with large, vibrant signage promoting the bay and its inhabitants. Our hotel on the island was the aptly named Aveyla Manta Village, whose website and brochures boasted images of innumerable mantas. Clearly, Hanifaru Bay is an important part of the region’s identity and a major drawcard for tourists.
Our arrival to Dharavandhoo, however, was bittersweet. We had flown from the capital atoll of Male', trading the comforts and company of a resort island for the conservative and slow-paced local island life. For the tourist in the Maldives, there are two options for destinations: resort islands or local islands. Resort islands, as the name suggests, are islands that only hold resorts. Other than those employed in the resorts, locals do not live on resort islands. Resort islands are tailored to tourists’ ideas of a tropical island holiday (think cocktails on sun lounges on sandy white beaches), and are therefore exempt from many of the muslim laws of the country. Local islands, on the other hand, are just that: where the locals live. Locals islands have many small hotels catered to a different market of tourists (usually surfers, from what I saw), but all muslim laws apply on the islands; that includes no alcohol, no pork, and modest dress. What’s more, tourists are essentially restricted to their hotels, as options for dining out or otherwise interacting with locals are rare - unless you’re buying souvenirs in their shops.
Being so early in the manta season, even divers were a rare sight when we arrived on Dharavandhoo. We were full of hope and excitement about exploring Hanifaru Bay, but we also knew there was a good possibility that the mantas wouldn’t show up, and much of our days would be spent hanging in a hotel. Luckily for us, the winds picked up in our favour on our first night. It's a good sign, our dive guide told us.
Conservation in Hanifaru Bay
With the development of the Maldives' dive tourism over recent decades, Hanifaru Bay has attracted countless divers to the country. Images in magazines of divers surrounded by mantas put Hanifaru Bay at the top of many divers' bucket lists, mine included. However, It wasn’t long before serious concerns were raised about the impacts divers might be having on the mantas. Recognising this, and the larger conservation significance of the bay, UNESCO in 2011 declared the entire Baa Atoll a World Biosphere Reserve.
With the declaration came substantial changes to the management of Hanifaru Bay, most notably that scuba diving was banned. Today, snorkeling is the only permitted in-water activity. In addition, operators are required to be licensed by UNESCO, and are permitted a maximum of 10 guests per visit. Snorkelers can remain in the water for up to 45 minutes. There are defined entry and exit points to the bay, to avoid motoring over sensitive areas where the animals aggregate. Photographers are not allowed to use strobes or any other lighting.
These regulations, while strict, have allowed UNESCO to put Hanifaru Bay on the map as conservation-in-action. The local people are proud of the declaration and those we met loved to talk about their experiences of the bay over the years. Needless to say, having the support and vigilance of the local people has helped with the enforcement of the regulations, a task usually enormously challenging in developing countries. The dive operators we used, Liquid Salt Divers, were very knowledgeable about the bay's management and enforcement. They knew which boats were licensed and which weren’t. They knew when a boat was entering the bay over a manta ray ‘cleaning station’. They knew when a group had spent too long in the water. Breaches were recorded and reported. Understanding that compliance is often where conservation programs fail, this left me feeling hopeful about the future of Hanifaru Bay.
We were the first boat in the bay. After a windy night, I was eager and ready, camera in hand, for some manta action. Getting in the water, I could see things were good - the water was thick with little critters and, presumably, the plankton that brings in the mantas. I spent the first few minutes in awe of the beautiful, microscopic world in front of me. A soup of invertebrates moving frantically in my presence. The lifeblood of some of the ocean’s largest creatures, plankton is a remarkable and crucial feat of nature. Apart from that, though, Hanifaru Bay seemed rather barren to the human eye; basically just sand with the occasional small rocky outcrop.
With the visibility impaired by all the plankton (a great thing, for once) I lifted my head from the water, and quickly caught sight of a dark diamond shape near the surface and the splash of a pectoral fin. I swam towards it and before long had my first manta. She cruised past me a couple of times before diving down into the deeper water, and I let her go on her way. I was elated! Soon after, another manta showed up, seemingly checking me out, and then another. And another. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, more and more mantas showed up - that, or I'd drifted into the exact spot they wanted to be. Before long I was surrounded by so many mantas, more than I'd ever seen in all my years of diving. All around me they were moving so fluidly, diving deep and re-surfacing, and synchronously back-flipping. Some would cruise right beside me on the surface, literally eye to eye. Having the largest brain of any fish, I’m sure the mantas were assessing me in ways I don’t at all understand. I held my breath and my camera so tight, trying to diminish my presence among the spectacle I was witnessing, lest I interfered.
This scene continued for a while, maybe 10 minutes, before the mantas dispersed. But over the course of that 45-minute snorkel, I found myself surrounded by them again and again. I left the water that day feeling extremely gratified and humbled. What a truly amazing world we inhabit. That scene played out many times in a similar fashion over the course of our five day stay. Hanifaru Bay proved to be more than I’d ever expected.
Until that point, I’d seen the glamour of the Maldives. I’d seen the perfectly manicured gardens of the resorts. I’d seen the expensive boutiques. I’d enjoyed many days as tourist in which all the luxuries I could want were warmly offered. Fabulous people and a breathtaking setting. But lifting the veil on the allure, I’d also seen huge amounts of pollution. Plastic waste on the beaches, in the vegetation and in the ocean. I’d seen mass dredging and coastal development. Land reclamation. Coastlines being hardened with rock and concrete. Mountains of plastic being burned on an island barely a metre above sea level. I was told stories of local people being forced to leave their homes to make way for a new resort islands' development. What they don’t show you on travel blogs is that the Maldives is, in many ways, a definite picture of the messiness of the world.
How spectacular, then, the persistence of Hanifaru Bay. The manta rays persist in abundance and grace. Somehow, despite all the troubles around them, they are still there doing their thing. Just as they have for longer than we know. And I, for a brief time, got to be a part of that. It literally brought me to tears. That is the Maldives I love.