THE MANTAS OF MALDIVES
There was this uncontrollable excitement within me as my trip came closer. After practicing my underwater skills in multiple swimming pools for two years I was finally going to see myself in the ocean as a free-diver. I was excited yet apprehensive. I had prepared myself well for the trip that would give me a glimpse of the Mantas. I had also done an open water course in scuba diving just in case I got cold feet at the last moment and needed to do scuba dives instead. No way was I going to miss this opportunity and moment. I had been hearing so much about the grace and beauty of the Mantas that nothing was going to deter me from the experience .The day arrives and we board our flight to Colombo, where at, we had a six-hour layover and were able to catchup with some sleep, before we boarded our flight to Male.
On approaching Male, the first view of the beautiful islands in the Indian ocean has been forever etched in my memory for years to come. Our destination is Dharavandhoo Island in Baa Atoll. We had to switch flights in Male; while we were grabbing a quick bite for breakfast, it started to rain. My fellow compatriots who are veteran divers were all quite excited! It seems it’s the perfect weather for the Mantas to visit the bay. We now board a smaller flight to go to Dharavandhoo. It’s a half an hour flight. Landing at the small airport of Dharavandhoo we could see the sun set and the sky change colour to a beautiful warm gold.
Our guest house is just next door to the airport. I was happy to see my room had all its modern facilities; clean white bedsheets and towels and most importantly the thrill of being closer to a Manta Ray. After a quick shower and a cup of tea we were all ready to explore the island. Dharavandhoo is one of the inhabited islands of Baa Atoll. It has a small population of not more than eight hundred people. The famous Hanifaru Bay is a five minutes boat ride to the East side of Dharavandhoo. We ventured out for a small walk towards the dive shops as we needed to hire a boat and scuba equipment for the next day’s dives. The dive boat leaves the jetty as early as 7.30am. After a good night’s sleep, we were ready to face the calm waters of the pristine warm Indian ocean. As we got ready for our dives our dive master could see that I was not too comfortable with the scuba equipment. I was tensed as I was a novice at this and was only four dives old. He put a few of us with a dive buddy named Hamid, a young, friendly & energetic islander; all of twenty-two years old. We went to a reef nearby to get acquainted with the sea water, with only our masks, fins and snorkel we jumped into the ocean. The ocean was calm and it felt like a swimming pool; controlled and predictable. As we tried our underwater finning drills, I realised the beauty of diving in the ocean, it was so mesmerising, as if one does not need to make any efforts to hold their breath, I was a fish for a brief time. We saw turtles, fluorescent jelly fish and a whole lot of colourful sea life that danced in waves under the ocean. Yet no sight of a single Manta whatsoever. After spending time in the reef, we were back with the other divers who had just returned from their first scuba dive. They were all full of excitement as they had seen the Manta Rays in the cleaning stations, a good twenty-five metres underwater. Hearing them converse, I caste aside my fears and decided to go for my dive with my diving buddy Hamid. Finally! And what a sight to remember eternally. I quietly watched seven Mantas circling around in the cleaning station, peered at the graceful movement of the little fishies as they cleaned their skin, gills and teeth.
Mantas in fact spend hours every day getting cleaned by small parasitic lifeforms and would even wait for their turn in line. I felt peaceful as I returned to my bed that night thinking and rethinking the natural process of the big birds of the oceans, not at all anticipating what the next day will be, completely content with my first actual experience. I could hear the heavy rain hit the small island, as I fell asleep. Everything was fresh after the rains from the previous night & the day was bright. I could hear the excited whispers of my friends as we walk towards the jetty. Rains are supposed to be good sign. Today will be a lucky day, they said! We were going to Hanifaru Bay!
Hanifaru Bay is the jewel of Baa Atoll which is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. It’s the breeding and feeding ground of Manta Rays and Whale Sharks at the islands and in fact the world. We leaped into our boats and were given our entry tickets for the bay. We were given illicit instructions of the do’s and the don’ts when in the water, snorkelling. I attentively listened with a grin on my face; not knowing even in my wildest dreams as to what I was going to experience. The boats swiftly switched off their engines once we were in the bay and silently found our spot. There was absolute quietness. Everyone was ready with their mask, snorkel and fins. Suddenly someone lets out a shout, jump! Jump!
Everyone jumps, including me. I followed the others as they finned frantically away from the boat. Face down. Breathing with the snorkel I kept finning hard to catch up with the others. That is when I suddenly saw them. I was awestruck! The Mantas came in a long train, one after the other. They seemed endless! With excitement I started counting them. I soon lost count; twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, and they just kept on coming. My first trip to Hanifaru Bay and I had witnessed about eighty or so Mantas feeding in a frenzy, never stopping. One fella even did more than thirty flips as he kept feeding on the plankton below, gulping them whole. A sight to behold. I was dumbstruck. Never have I seen anything so beautiful. I saw my sea buddies trying their free-diving skills. I too joined in, quietly patting myself on the back for all the hours of practise I had put in the pool. Swimming underwater with the Mantas came easily. I felt one with them.
A beautiful feeling of camaraderie as one realises that all living beings can co-exist peacefully without harming one another. Eventually we had to leave the bay and return to a new reality. A memory to be cherished always.
Sangeeta Baruva is a Special educator. She is a mother to three kids, and an avid trekker and freediver. She is also a SSI level one & level two certified freediving pool instructor.