Out of the Blue
05 June 2014
I held my breath as a large manta ray glided through the water. Strange and alien-like, its mouth was open wide as it headed straight towards me. In one smooth movement, it curved to the right, its fin narrowly missing my head. It then executed two perfect somersaults underwater, before moving to join the rest of the group. I adjusted my mask and took a deep breath through my scuba regulator as I surveyed the scene around me. Dozens of manta rays were performing some kind of an underwater ballet, as they fed on microscopic plankton in the sea. Dark grey on the top and white below, they looked like fighter jets, flying in formation with their long fins resembling wings.
A dim clanging sound made me turn to witness an even more incredible sight. The dive instructor was signaling for us to look around. Out of the blue, a large dark shape floated towards us. A whale shark! It was also feeding, its wide, flat mouth open wide as it slowly swam towards the centre of the action. I stared at in disbelief, as I realized it was bigger than the boat we had arrived in! Other divers converged towards it, clicking photos with their underwater cameras, and trying unsuccessfully to capture its entire body in the frame.
‘But aren’t these creatures dangerous?’ one might ask. Not at all. Despite their size, both Manta rays and Whale sharks are non-aggressive, and in fact quite friendly towards snorkelers and divers. There has never been a recorded incident of these species harming humans. It’s true, they have really enormous mouths, but only eat the tiniest plant and animal organisms called plankton, the favourite food of these gentle giants.
Manta rays are a distant cousin of the shark, minus the bad reputation. Shaped like giant bats, their wingspan can reach 7 metres or 20 feet wide. They are entertaining and acrobatic swimmers, and sometimes perform loops, even leaping out of the surface of the water. They have long tails, similar to stingrays but without the menacing sting.
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world, and can grow upto lengths of 12 metres or 40 feet! They can be recognized by distinct pattern of white spots and ridges across their blue-grey backs. Unfortunately, whale sharks are on the verge of extinction these days. To catch a glimpse of one of these amazing creatures in its natural habitat is an unforgettable experience.
So where is this place, where you can experience this storm in a fishbowl?
This is Hanifaru Bay. Every year between May and October, this amazing phenomenon takes place in the Maldives, in the middle of the Indian ocean. Hanifaru Bay - a small, shallow atoll, turns into a giant aquarium where you can swim with manta rays and whale sharks. The combination of monsoon high tides and ocean currents bring a lot of plankton into the bay. This all-you-can-eat buffet attracts upto 200 manta rays and 3 or 4 whale sharks at a time.
Because of these encounters, Hanifaru Bay has turned into one of the most popular dive spots in the world. For people who don’t scuba dive, there is also the option of snorkeling on the surface, to swim with the mantas. Dozens of scientists, photographers and tourists visit this small atoll every year, to witness this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
This natural phenomenon has been termed as ‘The feeding frenzy’ and has been featured by National Geographic and Discovery channel, among others. Due to the smorgasbord of plankton, the manta rays sometimes exhibit strange behaviour known as cyclone feeding, where groups of mantas swim in spiral formation, making it look like a beautifully choreographed dance underwater.
I hung weightless in the vast blue waters as the mantas swooped and twirled around me, performing their graceful dance. Watching these mystical, giant creatures in this ethereal aquatic setting filled me with a sense of calm. For a while, it was like visiting another world, or someone else’s dream.