My manta phone is in good working order, but it refuses to ring.
The Baa Atoll Unesco Biosphere Reserve, in the central western part of the Maldives, attracts the world’s largest known population of manta rays every year.
Like whale sharks and other fish, they follow the plankton-rich currents that are driven by the tides and the southwest monsoon.
Mantas often turn up in their hundreds to feed in the reserve: 2021 was a record year, with an estimated 7,248 sightings between May and November, and 207 individuals spotted for the first time were added to a database.
Observing the visiting rays are researchers from the Maldives Manta Conservation Programme (MMCP; previously known as the Maldivian Manta Ray Project), which was set up in 2005 at the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru by Manta Trust, the world’s largest charity dedicated to the study of rays.
Collection of data – mostly in the Baa Atoll reserve – by the MMCP over the past two decades has allowed researchers to identify key patterns in the manta population, including “hot dates” – times when mass aggregations are most likely – which helps the resort maximise the chances for its guests to swim with these graceful creatures.
The largest known aggregation site in the Maldives is Hanifaru Bay, where up to 200 animals at any one time feed on plankton swept into its funnel-like reef system.
Hanifaru Bay, which obtained Marine Protected Area status in 2009 largely thanks to data collection by the MMCP, is a half-hour speedboat ride from the Four Seasons resort, so I’m hopeful of swimming with rays during my stay there.
I repeatedly check my 2G Nokia manta phone, which has been given to me in a waterproof pouch as part of the Manta-on-Call programme. I make sure its battery is not flat and the sound alerts are loud enough.
If mantas are spotted by the resort’s researchers I’ll receive a text, and within 30 minutes, I have to be ready at the marine centre for a boat transfer to Hanifaru Bay. I have a wet bag packed and my snorkelling mask and fins lying ready in my villa.
I attend a consultation at the AyurMa Ayurvedic medical centre clutching the phone. I have it within reach during my massage at the spa and while eating.
While waiting for the call, I spend a lot of time at the resort’s Marine Discovery Centre, a treasure trove of information for the marine enthusiast.
A popular guest activity is coral frame planting. Participants in the Reefscapers project attach healthy coral fragments to frames that will then be “planted” at depths of between three metres (9.8ft) and 15 metres by the resident marine biologist in the hope they’ll help foster the regrowth of coral around the resort.
So far, the reefscapers have planted more than 5,200 frames on the surrounding reefs, which suffered from devastating bleaching in 2016.
Turtles are also cared for at the resort. The Turtle Rescue Centre has taken in 167 patients since it opened in 2009. Seventy-five per cent have been Olive Ridley turtles, the remainder green and hawksbill turtles.
Most have to have their flippers amputated after getting them caught and damaged in ghost nets – abandoned fishing nets. To date, 107 turtles have been released from the resort back into the wild.
Frisbee is the centre’s longest resident. Having been admitted in 2018 with both front flippers missing and suffering from buoyancy syndrome – meaning he cannot dive for food – Frisbee cannot be released into the ocean. Olive Ridley turtles like him can live up to 80 years in captivity.
As I watch Frisbee bob around on the surface of his tank with a few toys, including a bright red ball, his large eyes clouded with what might be sadness and defeat, I am reminded of how humans can affect the lives of these innocent creatures, negatively or positively.
I am also aware my manta phone has not rung for three days.
My last day at the resort rolls around and the stars have not aligned for me and the mantas to meet at Hanifaru Bay. It’s just bad luck; I will later learn that the resort ran at least 87 Manta-on-Call trips during 2022 and on one occasion in June, more than 60 rays engaged in cyclone feeding – a rotating, feeding circle – a stone’s throw from the resort’s arrival jetty, giving guests and researchers an unexpected treat.
I console myself with the thought that, even though only five boats, carrying a maximum of 80 snorkellers (scuba diving is not permitted), are allowed into Hanifaru Bay during each 45-minute viewing session, the water might still have been too crowded to fully enjoy the experience.
Four Seasons guests with the means and time might have better luck on private manta-spotting cruises, accompanied by a marine or manta biologist.
There is also the resort’s new Trainee Manta Biologist programme, a one-on-one course for teenagers that explores what it takes to be a marine scientist, from photo identification to helping monitor growth, behaviour and pregnancy.
The mantas are the main draw, but should the call never come while you’re holidaying at the Four Seasons resort, there are plenty of other activities on offer to take you closer to marine nature.
The writer was hosted for free at the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru.