Hanifaru Bay: Famous for huge manta feeding aggregations
There probably isn’t a better place in the world to witness aggregating manta rays than in the Maldives' Hanifaru Bay. With the largest known population of reef manta rays (Mobula alfredi), the Maldives is a global manta hotspot on its own. The chain of atolls acts as barrier to the monsoonal currents and creates an upwelling of nutrient-rich cold water.
The Maldivian marine food chain gets kick-started by the bloom of phytoplankton, which in turn is fed on by zooplankton. As the water gets pushed through the atolls, bioproductivity increases and the highest plankton concentration is found on the leeward sides of the atolls. The local manta population follows their food source. And the result for underwater photographers and manta maniacs is simply unparalleled.
Shooting video in Hanifaru Bay is the best way to capture movement and feeding behavior
The Manta Rays of Hanifaru Bay
Hanifaru Lagoon is located on the eastern side of the Baa Atoll and has an open channel facing west that leads into a gradually shallower dead-end bay. Between May and November, monsoonal currents push plankton-rich water into the bay. This increases during high tides, when tidal currents push water the opposite way and create a back-eddie, forcing more plankton to get trapped in the end of the bay.
The high plankton concentration can lead to crazy feeding aggegations with up to 200 mantas and (sometimes) whale sharks in the bay. It is an experience of a lifetime to see tons of mantas use spectacular feeding strategies: barrel rolling, chain feeding, and cyclone feeding.
Mantas line up for a spectacular chain feeding
Manta Ray Conservation in the Maldives
As Hanifaru’s popularity has increased in recent years so too has the number of divers and snorkelers—to unsustainable levels. But after UNESCO declared the Baa Atoll a World Biosphere Reserve in 2011, the Maldivian government implemented strict regulation with the scientific help of the Manta Trust organization.
Only snorkeling and freediving is allowed in the bay, as divers and bubbles in the water column disrupt normal feeding behavior of the animals. As they mostly feed quite close to the surface, diving is not necessary for a great experience.
Two mantas barrel rolling in sync
Boat access and mooring is regulated so as to limit any negative interaction with the mantas. And no boats are allowed into the bay itself. At any given time, no more than five boats and 80 people are allowed to enter the area. A daily alternating schedule between liveaboards, guesthouses, and resorts exists. Tourists must be guided by a certified Hanifaru Bay guide and are briefed on how to behave without disturbing the animals.
Local rangers are present on site and enforce the regulations in water and with the use of drones. Penalties apply for misconduct like actively touching an animal. This has improved the situation for our plankton-feeding friends, and they again come back in high numbers.
Advice for Visiting Hanifaru Bay
The official Hanifaru season is May to November, but it’s a safer bet to plan your trip between June and October. Try to stay over a full or new moon, as there are higher tides and possibly more plankton in the bay. These are often the best periods.
For accommodation there are three options: resorts, liveaboards and local guesthouses. The closest resort to Hanifaru is Kihaa Maldives, which is a five-minute boat ride away. The Hanifaru Bay trips are organized by the Ocean Dimensions dive center on Kihaa, and it’s possible to go out every other day with one of their experienced licensed guides.
Cephalic fins help to funnel the plankton soup into the mouth
Every second day is reserved for the liveaboards and guest houses, but you can use those days to go diving at several manta cleaning stations that are close to Hanifaru. There you can attach your strobes and get good photo opportunities from a different angle.
As there are huge numbers of mantas in the area between June and October, Baa Atoll is known for diving with mantas and sometimes a whale shark if you get lucky. Most cleaning stations are pinnacles inside the atoll and have nice coral cover with black coral bushes, clouds of anthias, turtles, morays, and plenty of reef fish.
Beautiful cleaning stations provide amazing manta dives just outside of Hanifaru Bay
Diving in Baa Atoll offers great photo opportunities with nice coral cover between 30 to 90 feet (10–30m)
About the Author: Joerg Blessing is a passionate underwater photographer and works as guide for Ocean Dimensions in the Baa Atoll. See more of his work at www.joergblessing.com or on his Instagram. For more information on Hanifaru and diving in Baa Atoll contact email@example.com.
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