Another day off! Seeing that I was sick on my previous days off or spent them in Male trying to finish the medical checkups, finally we went out for a dive to find some manta rays! We took the boat out to Lankan Manta Point, a spot often boasted to be one of the best places to see manta rays in the world. Mantas come to the reef here to be cleaned by small reef fishes such as the blue streaked (Labroides dimidiatus) and bicolour (Labroides bicolor) cleaner wrasses.
I hopped onto the boat trying not to get my hopes up too much, and was joined by two guests, Maxim and Noa. This time, it was Macy who was leading us along and we were both pranked by the boat crew who kept swapping all our equipment and tying my slippers to the zipper of my wetsuit…but all the laughter aside, I was dying of anticipation. Lanka point is a fringing reef that gently slopes down to a depth of around 20m, but it is somewhere along the middle of the slope where we wait for these giants to pass us overhead.
Here’s a rough map of what the dive site looks like courtesy of iDive Maldives.
We loiter around the slope for what feels like forever and I distract myself looking at a school of headband butterflyfish (Chaetodon collare) with their striking red tails, unusually gathered in a small school, hovering above the reef.
All of a sudden, I hear the sound of Macy’s underwater horn, it sounds like a strange beep and echoes around. I whirl around looking far into the blue but I see nothing. Turning back at Macy again, I see her pointing above me. 5 HUGE MANTA RAYS JUST SWEEPING RIGHT OVER MY HEAD. I almost forgot to breathe, and almost instinctively, I floated up to get nearer. Fumbling around with the camera, I got a badly shot video of the belly of a manta as it swooped by above me. There were so many of them I just couldn’t figure out which to focus on. Rookie’s mistake. One after another, they glided past and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I always knew they were big animals, but having them this close to me really made me understand how majestic they really were.
I looked out for their eyes, and it was probably my imagination, but somehow there was a small sparkle of curiosity I glimpsed in them. We might have spooked them a little, because two of them glided straight on to a further part of the reef. Another three lingered and circled slowly around the reef, like children playing ring a ring o’ roses. I stared captivated and dumbfounded as their shadows rotated, slightly blurred because of the poorer visibility in the water that day.
If you look carefully at the photos, you can see little specks of fish coming up to clean the rays. I’ve observed something similar with the thresher sharks in Malapascua when we volunteered with the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Program. There, they studied two species of wrasses that were commonly involved with the cleaning behavior–the blue streaked cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) and moon wrasse (Thalassoma lunare)
Left: Blue streaked cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) and Right: Moon wrasse (Thalassoma lunare)
Over here in the Maldives, it seems as though there are quite a few species of fish that were involved in the cleaning. As far as I’m aware of, there aren’t any studies done in the Maldives that look at the cleaning behaviour of reef fish on manta rays. Would be really interesting too to find out how the abundance of these cleaner fish changes as many of parts of the reef were lost to last year’s bleaching event.
We continued the rest of our dive after the rays left the cleaning station and saw more beautiful animals, but my head was still reeling from the experience of seeing wild mantas up close in the wild for the first time.
The badly shot videos I took of my overexcited encounter
Left to right: Me during a safety stop, Noa from Germany, Maxim from Russia and Macy…stretching underwater.
As we did our safety stop during the dive, one of the manta rays glided beneath our fins, a final goodbye before one of the most memorable dives in my life.