Unfolding the Mysterious World of the Ancient Manta Ray

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In the turquoise waters near Raa Atoll in the Maldives, a manta ray hovers above the unique underwater habitat of a cleaning station. Her three-metre wings beat lazily, effortless on the current like a bird in flight. Darting up from a table coral below her, a flurry of blue and black fish glide in to feast on the great ray’s parasites. It’s a ritual that likely dates back long before the first hominoids walked upright.

What compels these enormous, gentle sea creatures to collude with fish of another species for their cleaning? And what draws them to human snorkellers, often displaying friendly interest in our kind, in atolls across the Maldives?

For the first time in centuries—truly, in the five million years of the manta rays’ existence—the mysteries of these ancient, otherworldly marine fish are beginning to be understood.

Dive with the manta rays in the Maldives.
Photo courtesy of InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort.

A Manta Ray Experience Like No Other

No destination is better suited to sate the curiosity of those drawn to the enigmatic manta ray than the Maldives. This island nation is home to the largest known population of reef manta rays in the world, with an estimated 5,000 of these giant creatures in residence. Peak season for manta encounters spans May to November, yet year-round they are sighted off the pristine, sandy shores of the Maldives’ many atolls.

Raa Atoll, home to the InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort, is a prime destination for manta ray experiences. Due to the resort’s proximity to the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, its lagoon creates a perfect sanctuary for manta rays, providing guests with a breathtaking opportunity to observe these magical creatures from their overwater bungalows.

There may be a biological explanation for the comfortable relationship between manta rays and humans. Andrea Marshall, the marine biologist often known by the title of her TV series, Queen of Mantas, says though there was little scientific data on the species two decades ago, researchers such as herself are now learning just how social manta rays are.

“They have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any marine fish,” Marshall explains. “And brain size is often linked to animals being social beings.” While manta rays, with their slender tails, undulating wings, wide-set eyes, and unearthly horn-like facial fins, may resemble aliens more than they do dolphins or seals, they exhibit signs of intelligence similar to marine mammals.

The centuries-old ritual of the manta ray cleaning station may be supportive evidence of this idea.

“We’ve always assumed that cleaning stations are where mantas go to be cleaned. It’s like, with humans, assuming that people go to the bar for alcohol,” says Marshall. “The main driver to the bar is social interactions with other people.”

A manta ray glides through its habitat near overwater villas.
Photo Courtesy of InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort.

A Safe Haven for Mantas

Yet, like so many rare species, manta rays are currently under threat. They often linger at depths as low as a kilometre or more, leaving them vulnerable to activities from deep water trawling to seafloor disturbances. As filter feeders, they may well be unusually susceptible to microplastics in the ocean, while warming seas affect both the coral they frequent and the plankton on which they feed.

Additionally, manta rays find foes in fishermen—not only as bycatch, but as direct targets. “What’s most sinister right now is that they’re being killed specifically for the gill rakers or the gill plates inside of their mouths,” says Marshall. In some areas of the world, these filaments are believed to cure cancer, boost fertility, eliminate toxins, and enhance blood circulation.

Mantas achieved protection under the international CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) regulations in 2014, and signs indicate the designation has been effective. Several governments have made additional efforts to protect the mantas that frequent their waters.

The Maldives is among the most protected places on Earth for manta rays: not only is fishing mantas prohibited, but certain research activities are limited, including tagging. The InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort is a part of this local effort, partnering with the esteemed global charity Manta Trust Foundation to support the Maldivian Manta Ray Project. This partnership nurtures a safe habitat for manta rays, a sanctuary within the resort’s lagoon. Education is woven into the project as well; during their stay, guests are invited to experience a marine biology night feature, enjoy an excursion to Hanifaru Bay or even adopt their own manta. It is only natural that where mantas are most beloved by locals and visitors, Maldivians are fiercely protective of them.

A close look at the otherworldly face of a manta ray.
Photo Courtesy of InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort.

Enthralling Rendezvous with the Rays

That protection does not preclude manta ray admirers from enjoying frequent and mystifying encounters with these elegant creatures. Skilled guides throughout the atolls teach visitors how to safely snorkel and dive with manta rays. The essential guidelines are simple: allow the fish a few metres of space, avoid approaching them from behind, and refrain from purposely touching them.

The bright and engaging manta rays regularly reward respectful, calm human visitors with a thrilling taste of their social tendencies. The inquisitive fish often approach snorkellers and divers on their own terms, mesmerizing them with their size and grace.

“They’re certainly very curious and very different than most other fish or other sharks or rays that I’ve worked with before. There’s something there that’s not present in other species,” says Marshall.

Once experienced, the manta rays’ surreal “something” resonates indefinitely. During each encounter, divers and snorkellers find the mystique of the manta ray undeniable, and the desire to remain in their presence unquenchable. For whether they’re at a cleaning station or idly feeding on plankton, gliding on robust currents or flocking to a sheltered bay, it’s a privilege to watch their ancient rituals—and wonder what intellect or emotion lies beneath.

Visitors to the Maldives can experience the ethereal joy of communing with manta rays by staying at the stunning, newly opened InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort. The welcoming staff can connect you with opportunities to swim with the manta rays, or you can enjoy these magnificent fish as they glide through the pristine lagoon beneath your overwater villa.

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