It’s gone 10pm. And while the Maldivian sky is inky and twinkly, the Indian Ocean is just plain inky. Gone is the dazzling blue of the daytime, replaced by dark water, and lots of it. As I stand in full dive gear, about to leap in, hoping to fulfil a lifetime’s dream of swimming amongst manta rays, I’d be telling a fat porky if I said I wasn’t feeling a bit scared.
I’ve never had much luck with mantas. As a teenager, I fell in love with them from afar after reading the novel The Girl of the Sea of Cortez. Since then, despite my many attempts to see them in the wild, they’ve always steered clear of me. Literally, I’ll be the only one on a dive who won’t see a manta. But time could be running out for manta encounters. We’re currently in what some scientists call the Sixth Age of Extinction, which, unlike previous climactic or geographical extinctions, is a man-made era of obliteration. “Humans are really the single most impactful species this planet has ever seen,” says Dr Kirk Johnson, Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in the new Louie Psihoyos-directed documentary Racing Extinction. Conservation ecologist Dr Stuart Pimm at Duke University adds, “Each year, about one in a million species should expire naturally. In the next few decades we’ll be driving species to extinction a thousand times faster than we should be.”
The estimated billion-dollar shark-fin industry, supported by Chinese appetite for the fins, is thought to have wiped out 90 per cent of the apex predator shark population in one generation. Up to 73 million sharks are killed each year to make soup. And the effect it’s having on the ocean is like a house of cards. The manta racket isn’t nearly as lucrative, but canny middlemen traders are preying on Chinese customs and beliefs to offload mantas caught up in fishermen’s nets. The mantas are bycatch—their meat isn’t considered tasty. But all it takes is a couple of smart-arse businessmen to ignite a market. So they focus on the gill plates—the filamented cheeks of the fish, through which anything superfluous to their nutritional needs is expelled. In traditional Chinese medicine, these manta gills are considered to be detoxifying. However, there’s a basic flaw to this theory: manta gill plates are made of cartilage, which has no proven medicinal value. It’s like eating the gristle in your own ear. But unfortunately the middlemen traders are doing a good job and in the last 10 years, the Asian demand for dried manta ray gill plates has dramatically increased. And considering a female manta will only give birth to about five pups in her 50-year life, the stats don’t look good. Manta rays could be extinct in 10 years’ time. Oh, and there’s no point me heading to the Sea of Cortez to fulfil my manta dreams: they’re already extinct there.
Thankfully, manta rays the world over now have their own fairy godfather: Guy Stevens, 38, an outdoorsy lad from Dorset. “I nicked my sister’s fish tank when I was 12,” he says. Then, with the help of The Complete Guide to Aquarium Fishkeeping, he soon turned one tank into five. He studied Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology at Plymouth University, before taking a job as marine biologist at the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru. It was here that Guy became fascinated by manta rays. “Not much is known about them,” explains Stevens, “and yet manta rays have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any fish. They appear to be as interested in you as you are in them.” In 2005 he co-founded the Manta Trust along with National Geographic photographer Thomas P. Peschak. In 2014, Stevens and the Manta Trust managed to have manta rays listed as protected on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) list. While in the Maldives, Stevens lobbied the government to create an MPA-Marine Protected Area—at Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll, where up to 250 mantas come to feed at any one time during the June-September monsoon, when the sea is churned and full of nutrients. And just to cement his importance on the global stage, Stevens was the inspiration for Manta Man in the children’s series Octonauts. (I know, me neither… but just ask any kid under 10.)
Guy is also spearheading a new travel trend, combining conservation and tourism. Traditionally the two were kept apart; conservationists and scientists wanting to get on with their work undisturbed, and tourists wanting to crack on working their tan. But combining the two worlds has multiple benefits, namely much-needed cash for research and preservation projects, education, awareness and communication. In this area, Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, in partnership with Guy Stevens and the Manta Trust, are leading the charge, with their version of preservation travel: twice-yearly Manta Trust Expeditions aboard the Four Seasons Explorer boat.
The minute I arrive at the immaculately raked beaches of Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru after a half-hour seaplane hop from the country’s capital, Malé, I’m handed a mobile phone in a waterproof case. It’s one of those amazing old Nokias—remember them? The ones that had a battery that lasted weeks. But this phone is purely an ocean hotline, set up for a “Manta on Call” service. The idea is that the minute there’s a manta sighting, the phone rings, I hop on my bicycle and pedal like billy-o to the dive centre, from where I’ll be full-throttled to wherever the rays are feeding, being nibbled at by cleaner fish or—if I’m lucky—having a bit of sex.
Obviously I have no such luck. Lying on the beach, I stare at the phone like a lovesick teen, longing for it to ring. Nothing. And my wretched manta misfortune continues. The next day, I board the Four Seasons Explorer. It’s the swankiest liveaboard in the Maldives. If you’re used to Abramovich-style St Tropez superyachts with cashmere on the floor and suede on the walls, then this might not be for you; however, for plush diving, it’s heaven: a 10-cabin, 39m, twin-hull yacht. A floating dive centre with comfy beds, delicious food and an absurdly pretty sunrise guaranteed every morning. Ideally you’d take the boat with a bunch of friends and family, unless you really want to make new friends. Otherwise it can get a bit Big Brother. Besides your cabin, there’s nowhere to escape on a boat, though thankfully everyone has a love of the ocean as a common denominator.
On the first dive of the Manta Trust Dive Expedition, I break my duck. I’m focused on a slinky reef shark, when out the corner of my eye I see something otherworldly cruise by. My heart races as she sails past: a manta ray, four metres wide, staring at me with big, curious eyes, then gracefully cornering with just a bend of her wing and… vanishing into the blue. The whole encounter was probably just a few seconds, but I’m hooked. Back on board, we hang about hoping for news from Hanifaru Bay, where the day before 70 mantas had been sighted. But of course, now I’m here… they’ve vanished. So the next day, we cruise south towards the Ari Atoll. Guy announces there are mantas at a cleaning station, and everyone springs into action. I leap in—just snorkel and mask this time—and in the distance I spy a manta. I swim as fast as my little flippers will go, but the manta’s gone. Tantalizing, but not enough.
A couple more days of fabulous sightings follow, including 10 grey reef sharks circling a female in season, a cloud of eagle rays hovering above like something out of Batman, the tiniest baby octopus in the world, the size of a fingernail, and a blue whale—the heaviest animal known to have lived on the planet, with a tongue that can weigh the same as an elephant. But no more mantas. Only graceful screen footage, shown by Guy during his fascinating daily lectures.
It’s not until the last evening of the expedition that my underwater stars finally collide. I leap into the pitch-black sea, torch clutched in my mitt, pushing “It’s behind you” fears to one side and placing my trust in Guy, the pro. We hit the bottom, not too deep at 12 metres, and along with my new dive pals, kneel in a circle on a sandy spot, torches held in front of us. It looks like some kind of underwater séance. And then it happens. Plankton gathers around the torchlight, and from somewhere in the darkness a manta ray emerges and heads straight towards me, cavernous mouth wide, inhaling the cloud of minuscule animal grub as it flies over my head, just skimming my hair. I get the giggles, but have to control myself—laughing makes my mask leak. Serious face back on, and two more mantas swoop past, swimming so close I can count the defining spots on their smooth white bellies.
In total there are five mantas, up to 5m wide, swooping, circling and guzzling plankton, while I watch in awe for 40 whole minutes, at one of the most spectacular and moving moments of my life, made more amazing by being beside one of the world’s leading marine experts and a superhero in the manta world. As part of this new conservation tourism is about communication, I’m fulfilling my part of the expedition by spreading the word. Because this is a time for action. Time to make travel matter. For as Racing Extinction photographer Shawn Heinrichs says, “Human connection is essential to conservation. There is no planet B.” Now it’s your turn to pass it on.
Source : Google news Maldives