My seaplane touched down at last light on August 14th 2009 settling on the choppy waters of Baa Atoll during a welcome lull in successive monsoon squalls. I can’t really think of a better birthday gift then returning to one of my favorite places on earth. Just over a year had passed since I last visited this northern corner of the Maldives to photograph a story on manta rays for the July 2009 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Hanifaru Island, situated at the atoll’s eastern edge is the home of the world’s largest manta ray feeding aggregation and became my most productive photo location of that expedition. Back then Hanifaru enjoyed no protection from fishing and was in danger of being overrun by well meaning tourists.
On World Oceans Day 2009 however all that changed for the better when the waters surrounding the island were proclaimed a marine protected area. The foresightedness and environmental ethos of the newly elected Maldives government, the hard work of Save our Seas Foundation marine biologist Guy Stevens and National Geographic magazine’s ability to reach more than 50 million people around the globe has given Hanifaru’s manta rays and whale sharks a fighting chance to survive into perpetuity.
I have returned to Hanifaru on assignment for the Save our Seas Foundation and this time I am principally concerned with documenting the process of transforming this location into a fully fledged and functioning marine reserve. I will also be bearing photographic witness to Guy Steven’s and Dr. Bob Rubin’s efforts to tag 25 manta rays and monitor their movements in and out of the reserve and across Baa and into other atolls. I will be combining the best images of my 2008 season with my favorite images from 2009 to create a book tentatively titled: Manta Rays and Whale Sharks of the Maldives to be published in mid 2010. This book , co-authored by Guy Stevens aims not only to celebrate and reveal the natural history of these two gentle giants of the Maldives, but also to create a lasting blueprint for their conservation and their role in sustainable marine wildlife tourism.
The first few days on location at Hanifaru saw me battle torrential monsoon rains, winds and heavy seas, but these adverse conditions did not appear to effect the manta rays which again have assembled in large numbers to feast on plankton during the full and new moon periods. Their numbers have been slowly increasing since my arrival with around 50 rays on day one and close to 100 mantas on day two. Yesterday I was treated to a spectacle of 150 rays feeding for more then one hour and despite the visibility not being stellar, I nonetheless managed to take one photograph that recorded in excess of 60 large 3 m+ mantas in that one frame. There was also one whale shark feeding amongst the school of rays, but so far their numbers appear to be lower then last year when I regularly encountered up to 5 feeding alongside the mantas. The records of manta numbers from previous years and the predicted oceanographic conditions had us all convinced that today we would be treated to the largest feeding aggregation of this spring tide cycle. We were expecting schools of 200 + manta rays when we approached the site, but instead there were just a few dozen rays in loose groups feeding on patchy plankton at the edge of the bay. Just when you think you have a handle on the parameters that drive this complex marine natural history event, mother nature throws a curve ball that sends both scientists and photographers back to drawing board. More updates from my 2009 Maldives Manta Season will follow soon.