The republic of The Maldives is an ocean nation. Their country consists of over one thousand coral islands scattered over a two thousand kilometer stretch. The ocean is their garden, their view and their survival. Far south of India the islands of the Maldives are strung out in groups comprising twenty six atolls, bright round bowls of blue and white- the pearls of the Indian Ocean.
Fishing and tourism are the backbone of the Islands’ economy. White sandy beaches, coconut palms, flowering trees and 5-star resorts built on stilts. But we are not here for the islands. Our home for the next ten days is a comfortable motor yacht called the Atoll Challenger. Her all white decks and hull reflect the bright blue turquoise she gently bobs on.
Travelling with Belgian underwater photographer Jean Marie Ghislain, I am here to make new friends. For over ten years I have freedived competitively and extensively with sharks, dolphins, whales, seals and other marine life. But I have not yet met a manta ray. The largest of all the rays, Mantas have been recorded to grow to seven meters from wing tip to wing tip, and they have the largest brain to body ratio of all fish and rays. One of the many marine attractions of the Maldives is their manta rays.
Atoll Challenger ups anchor outside the airport and we travel north. We are headed for a famous bay called Hanifaru. Hanifaru is a marine protected area in the Baa Atoll where from August to November the largest congregation of Manta Rays in the world takes place. The impressive filter feeders meet here to feed on vast clouds of plankton that accumulate in the bay at this time due to a unique interplay between the South West monsoon and tides. The wind and the tides push and herd, wash and drive the plankton into the shallow lagoon, a table perfectly laid for a feast.
We travel slowly north, diving spectacular Thilas, (coral reef structures ascending from depth to just below the surface. Bright coral gardens, big shoals of fish large and small, turtles, small rays and sharks can be seen. The water temperature is around 27°C and the visibility is spectacular, but I am restless to get to Hanifaru. I pester the guides about the Manta aggregations- ‘have there been many this year so far?’ ‘will we see many at once’ ‘will there be lots of other divers in the water?’ Marie patiently explains the delicate balance of wind, current, tide and plankton that will affect our plans.
On our sixth day cruising the blue wilderness, we arrive at Hanifaru Bay. It’s late afternoon and I am itching to get in the water. I pull on my monofin and mask, slip into the warm blue water, feeling a slight sting on my skin I smile, plankton. If the plankton’s here… surely… I peer down into the milky blue-green water. One, two three deep breaths and I kick down, down looking around, hoping for a meeting. Then I see her. Like a ghost out from another time the manta glides into my vision. She must be over three meters, silently gliding, her mouth wide open I can see into her. She seems to not notice me, swimming straight at me I kick down to let her pass over me and my heart skips a beat. The pearly white of her belly is painted with small black spots and blotches, her unique markings. Her fingerprint. And then they’re all around me. More than ten mantas with mouths wide open swim toward me, above me, below me around me. I am small in their midst, they ignore me, intent on their invisible feast. With no bubbles and a smoothness of movement my freediving allows me to swim with the group, not disturbing, but not wholly invited. Swimming alongside one I look into her eye, big, round, black with small wrinkles in the corner, like laugh lines. I wish I knew whether I was tolerated or welcomed. The mantas show no fear of me, they swim around me gently if I happen to be in their way, sometimes lifting a wing tip to avoid a clumsy snorkeler. I have never seen a creature this graceful, this elegant.
Several other boats have entered the bay and there are scuba divers below and snorkelers above. In painfully beautiful arcs and loops the mantas feed around us, apparently undisturbed. But I can’t help wondering of the pressure put on such a delicate moment, this limited feeding time, the already large number of mantas, now us curious albeit awestruck spectators. In 28 June 2011 the whole of the Baa Atoll was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO and extensive plans are under way to protect the peace of Hanifaru Manta Rays. As of January 2012 no boats will be allowed to enter the Bay, only snorkelling or freediving will be permitted and one will enter the Bay swimming. The amount of boats dropping guests will be limited to five at a time with a maximum of 45 minutes per boat, tokens will be required for each visitor to the Bay and more. It’s a daring plan from a nation that relies completely on tourism for their survival. Hanifaru is one of their best-known dive sites and has until now attracted thousands of unrestricted divers a year. It’s also a necessary and wise plan. As much as I am the greatest lover of interaction with marine megafauna, it has to work not only for the humans, but for the animals. The ocean is our last wilderness and I believe that we have to do whatever we can to ensure that she remains wild.
The sun is setting over the western rim of the lagoon and there is hardly enough light left for Jean Marie’s strobeless images. But we don’t want to leave the water. I can’t pull myself away from this dance. One more dive, one more interaction, one more loop shared with a gentle giant watching me from a laughing eye. I look up at the white bellies silhouetted against the dusky sky, if you were to ask me know- I would say yes, I believe in angels.
Hanli is the South African Freediving Champion, Filmmaker and Ocean Adventurer.
She has a background in acting, documentary filmmaking as well as thirteen years of competitive freediving experience. Her filmmaking work has taken her into the front-lines of social political conflict all over Africa, from Burundi to Uganda, South Africa, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and more. Hanli is a strong believer in the greatness of the human spirit under the toughest of circumstances, having seen beauty and hope flourish where least expected. This has inspired her to leave the camera behind and focus all her energy on Ocean conservation through human experience, founding the I AM WATER Ocean Conservation Trust. Using Freediving as a tool, Hanli has trained an array of top athletes from rugby players to swimmers and surfers- working with mental toughness, mind over body control and consciousness. Freediving with the ocean’s greatest creatures, Hanli tries to bring the majesty and beauty of the marine world to the public. Believing in the power of storytelling and inpiration, Hanli shares her experiences through motivational speaking, exquisite photographs and articles and films.
THANK YOU AGAIN TO OKMALDIVES FOR THIS FANTASTIC OPPORTUNITY
TO CONTACT OKMALDIVES : email@example.com