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Holy Bat Phone! How to Be on Call to Swim with Manta Rays

Jo Piazza
Managing Editor
June 11, 2014

(Photo by Niv Froman)

I was in the shower when I got the call.

I was so excited by the lyrical humming of the old school Nokia ringtone, that I nearly slipped on the polished concrete trying to answer it.

“30 mantas have been spotted. Please report to the jetty,” a softly accented Maldivian voice told me.

In 60 seconds I was in a bathing suit, wet hair dripping down my back as I sped on my beach cruiser to the jetty in the hopes of seeing some manta rays.

The islands of the Maldives, an archipelago just off the coast of Central Africa, are known for all of their marine life, but particularly for their turtles, whale sharks, and their manta rays, better known as En Madi in these parts.

“Manta on Call” is something I was trying out at the Four Seasons on Landaa Giraavaru island. While quite plentiful in the Hanifaru Bay of the Baa Atoll (a UNESCO World Heritage site), manta rays can still be elusive creatures. The resort’s new program is intended to maximize the efficiency of your holiday. Rather than spend hours fruitlessly searching the atoll for mantas on a boat, this program gives you an old school Nokia phone attached to a waterproof baggie on a string (you put it around your neck) and then pings you when the manta scientists spot the fish. Then you run, not walk, to the jetty, hop on a boat, and take a 25-minute ride out to the manta feeding ground.

I boarded a small scuba boat with Niv Froman, a marine biologist and manta researcher originally from Milan.

“They are wild creatures. They could be gone by the time we get there,” he said.

“Are you just lowering my expectations?” I asked. He nodded with a smirk.

(Photo by Niv Froman)

The Maldives are the best place in the world to see and swim with manta rays in the wild, especially during the monsoon season (which just started last week). In the Baa Atoll, more than 3,000 individual mantas have been spotted in the past three years. In 2010, manta scientists had one sighting of 251 mantas all gathered in a group.

Manta scientists identify individuals by the black spots on their otherwise white bellies. Frequently seen manta have names—Babaganoush, Squirt, Dipstick. Niv ticks his manta friends off on his fingers.

“My personal favorite is Pancake. He is extremely friendly,” Niv informed me.

(Read More: Amazing Pictures of the Maldives From the Air)

From the surface, the mantas look the same as sharks. All that is visible above the water is one end of their vast wings. After being on the boat for about 30 minutes, we spotted a scrum of black fins poking over the surface. From above water, they seem entirely unremarkable. Still, I was so excited that I hardly got both my fins on before I was in the water.

“Don’t chase them. There is no need to chase them,” Niv called out over the sea. But I was already gone.

(Photo by Niv Froman)

It’s hard to explain your first sighting of a manta ray under water. They’re beautifully prehistoric looking with their 16-foot wing span and their giant mouths. With the largest brain of any species of fish, they’re naturally curious and they eagerly approach the awkward human flapping her arms like wings beside them, coming only a few centimeters from my face. About seven of them circled me, flapping their fins and staring at me with their wide-set eyes, before deciding I was patently uninteresting, but almost beckoning with their fins to say, you can shimmy with us for a little while.   

(Photo by Niv Froman)

One swam directly up to my face and opened its jaws up to two times the size of my head. Did he want me in his belly? Mantas only feed on zooplankton and are exceedingly gentle. I think he just wanted to show me his very tiny teeth. 

(Read More: What’s it Like to Swim With a Manatee?)

We gamboled about in the water for about 20 minutes before the mantas chose to move on without me. I had to make a decision between the dive boat and swimming off into a deeper part of the bay. With a storm approaching, in the midst of monsoon season, I sadly chose boat.

(Photo by Niv Froman)

The Maldivian Manta Ray Project at the Four Seasons is one of the longest-running manta ray research and conservation initiatives in the world. You can learn more about them at their website here.

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Editor Jo Piazza is currently on a press trip in the Maldives that is sponsored by the Four Seasons. For information on Yahoo’s travel policy, click here