Hanifaru Bay in the Baa Atoll is famous for being a nursery ground for grey sharks, and stingrays and is a sanctuary for people who love snorkeling with manta rays and whale sharks. This UNESCO biosphere reserve in the Maldives is legally designated as a Marine Protected Area. It is one of the very few places in the world where whale sharks congregate to mate. However, it is best known for its concentration of the enigmatic, graceful, inquisitive and charismatic reef manta rays.
Hundreds of these large, graceful, cartilaginous elasmobranch fish congregate to gorge themselves in the plankton-rich waters. When time and tide align, fortunate snorkelers get to observe and capture a roiling, whirling feast.
Photo credit: Dive Into Life
Generally, manta feeding is akin to a coral-reef ballet. However, due to the confined space and sheer numbers, the status quo is all but forgotten. Their natural feeding patterns are replaced by feeding frenzy behavior, which results in a disorganized, bumper-car like performance.
The reef at Hanifaru Bay is shaped like a funnel. From June to November plankton get trapped in the funnel and concentration of plankton attracts whale sharks and manta rays. At any time, there could be over a hundred mantas and several whale sharks feeding off the coral reef – the world’s largest feeding station.
This incredible bay is also home to five of the seven species of marine turtles in the world – the green turtle (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) and leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea).
To protect the wildlife, diving is not allowed at Hanifaru Bay.
Photo credit: Ocean Dimensions
What’s so special about Hanifaru Bay?
Hanifaru in Baa Atoll, is an uninhabited island of the Maldives with a small, enclosed, underwater bay approximately the size of a football field, locally known as ‘Vandhumaafaru Adi.’
Observing the manta feeding frenzy in Hanifaru Bay is a spectacle to behold. This small area, coupled with the rich plankton-filled soup, has altered the natural feeding habits of these graceful creatures whose wingspan can reach up to 3.5m.
Mantas are usually observed feeding in a sedate, patterned behavior which includes barrel rolling and swimming near the surface to funnel their microscopic meal via their cephalic lobes into their wide mouths which is filtered, and the water is then passed back out through their gills. Tourists flock to this confined soup bowl, to observe mantas ‘cyclone feeding’. During mass feeding, of 50 or more mantas, the head of the line catches the tail, and the chain spins into a vortex.
If the number increases to over 100 mantas they spiral out, the chain breaks down, and chaos feeding ensues. These stately creatures are observed bumping into each other as the veritable feeding frenzy unfolds. There can be no doubt, witnessing this spectacle can be considered a once in a lifetime experience.
Photo credit: Manta Trust
Best Time of Year to Visit Hanifaru Bay
Between May and December each year, during the South West Monsoon, a lunar tide also occurs which results in a massive build-up of plankton in the bay. This high concentration draws in hundreds of filter feeders, and it is not unusual to see up to 200 manta rays accompanied by whale sharks.
Management of Hanifaru Bay
Nowadays Hanifaru Bay is considered to be the world’s largest manta ray feeding station. For hundreds of years, Hanifaru has been known to local fishermen who used to hunt the whale sharks that also frequent this site. More recently the site is frequented by scuba divers; the first dive operators ventured up into Baa Atoll in the mid-1990s. Such a spectacular site would not be kept secret for long, and soon up to 14 boats were crammed into this small area daily in anticipation of thrilling filter feeder encounters.
In a dramatic turnaround in 2008, the Fisheries Ministry (which is empowered by the Fisheries Law to establish unique sanctuaries), agreed to lease Hanifaru to a private party on a long-term basis, to be developed for industrial purposes. Furthermore, the island was not put to tender, and no Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA) was done, neither were any clauses included to ensure the lessee respects the wildlife in the contracted area. Bluepeace and other interested parties took action, and successful protests put a stop to the industrial development on Hanifaru.
The Maldives is a party to the Biodiversity Convention, Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Under these treaties, the Maldives has obligations to ensure the conservation and protection of habitats and species in both national and international context.
Realizing that the bay had turned into something of a circus and the situation would affect the sustainability of the area, a proactive stance was taken, and the bay was declared a Marine Protected site in 2009 by the Maldives government, in recognition of its importance in the ecosystem. In 2011 it was also declared a core-protected area within the newly designated UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve that encompasses the entirety of Baa Atoll.
Photo credit: Ocean Dimensions
Limitations on Visitors and the Future
A limit was set at to a maximum of five boats and 80 divers or swimmers at any given time. Subsequently, all scuba diving has been stopped in the bay and tourists have been confined to snorkeling only. It was touted in 2011 that the ‘last’ swim with whale sharks and mantas in Hanifaru Bay would be in 2012, however, the tourist dollar is just too strong, and tours to visit the world famous Hanifaru Bay to swim with whale sharks and mantas are still being sold today.
Divers can experience the spectacular scuba diving at the northern atoll dive sites of Baa Atoll which includes two protected marine sites, one being Hanifaru Bay (on the eastern side of Baa Atoll). Diving is now prohibited in the bay, however, your snorkeling permit can be arranged by the live-aboard operator ahead of your trip to ensure that you will be one of the lucky few to witness this incredible spectacle between May to December.
Photo credit: Swim With Mantas
Article source: www.scubanews.co.uk / www.dive-the-world.com