Between the months of June and November, the sun and moon conspire with the Indian Ocean tides and the southwest monsoon to create a magical manta ray experience at Hanifaru Island in the Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve of the Maldives. This elongated inlet, known to Maldivians as Vandhumaafaru Adi and to tourists as Hanifaru Bay, receives huge quantities of plankton into the bay at this time of year. And hot on the heels of the plankton are hundreds of hungry manta rays and a few peckish whale sharks. While diving in the bay has been prohibited to protect the environment and the big feeding fish, day trips to Hanifaru Bay still return full of smiling faces after a few hours snorkelling in the company of some of the ocean's biggest and friendliest giants. Read on to learn more…
Where Is Hanifaru Bay?
The uninhabited Hanifaru Island lies at the south-east corner of Baa Atoll, one of the most popular northern atolls in the Maldives, a little over 60 miles north of Velana International Airport in Malé. And while you can't stay on the island itself, the numerous coral islands in the Baa Atoll - replete with luxurious hotels boasting over-water bungalows and underwater restaurants - provide the perfect jumping-off point to get up close and personal with the mantas and whale sharks of Hanifaru Bay. With several islands to choose from, getting to Hanifaru Bay is pretty straightforward. You can even cruise the Baa Atoll and its neighbouring atolls by liveaboard for ultimate access.
Are There Dive Trips To Hanifaru Bay?
Day trips to Hanifaru Bay are regulated by the Maldivian Environment Protection Agency (EPA), and trips must be booked through licensed operators and accompanied by licensed guides. When the bay's manta aggregations were first noticed and began to gain worldwide attention, the bay was often packed with 200 manta rays and almost as many boats, filled with both divers and snorkellers. However, since the area was designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2011, the authorities have brought in numerous measures to ensure the environment and the sharks and rays remain as undisturbed as possible. Scuba diving is no longer permitted, but snorkelling under the supervision of guides and the watchful eye of the EPA rangers is still allowed.
Best Time of Year for Day Trips to Hanifaru Bay
The second half of the year, between June and November, is generally seen as the best time of year for day trips to Hanifaru Bay. At this time of the year, the southwest monsoon winds and the oceanic currents work in tandem to drive the plankton into the bay, which in turn attracts myriad manta rays to the all-you-can-eat buffet. The acrobatic eaters can be seen barrel-rolling through the planktonic soup with mouths agape and the grace of a prima ballerina. The sheer number of reef manta rays in the bay (up to 200 at a time) grabs the lion's share of attention, but the seasonal plankton also attracts whale sharks and there's always a good chance of seeing these spotty giants.
Code of Conduct on Day Trips to Hanifaru Bay
When joining day trips to Hanifaru Bay, you'll be given a briefing on the etiquette of snorkelling with both manta rays and whale sharks and how to avoid pestering them. It's important to maintain a respectful distance from both the manta rays and whale sharks - at least three metres from the front of the fish and an extra metre from the swishing whale shark tails - and to also keep the following in mind:
Avoid approaching mantas from the front, and do not block their paths or furiously swim alongside them trying to keep up.
Photographers need to take pictures without using the flash, which can distress the animals.
Strictly no touching, stroking or trying to stay too close.
Follow the instructions of your guides and the EPA rangers regarding the safety rules while in the bay.
And remember to pop some reef-friendly sunscreen on your neck and the backs of your legs, as you may be in the water for a couple of hours.