On 24th November 2018, the first ever festival dedicated to manta rays took place in the Maldives. The Baa Atoll Manta Festival 2018 was an event spearheaded by Manta Trust in partnership with the Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Four Seasons, Baa Atoll Council and Dharavandhoo Council, held on Dharavandhoo Island.
The manta festival initiative aimed to increase young Maldivians awareness of manta rays and marine conservation in Baa Atoll and the Maldives. We aimed to increase young Maldivians connection to the ocean by getting local students passionate about snorkeling and ocean exploration.
Around 1000 visitors enjoyed marine-themed stalls, competitions, performances, snorkeling sessions and academic presentations. Guest of honour, former president Mr Mohamed Nasheed, gave a thought provoking speech on the importance of the Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and sustainable development in the Maldives. Twenty-two marine-themed stalls included creative games designed to educate students about manta rays and marine issues such as turtle poaching, bycatch and plastic pollution. Seven environmental organisations – Manta Trust, Biosphere Reserve, Environmental Protection Agency, Olive Ridley Project, Atoll Marine Centre, Parley and Marine Savers – participated, showcasing how students can get involved and safeguard their environment. Students took part in a stall treasure hunt, learning something new at each stall before printing their own recycled, reusable bags with marine creatures.
The festival brought together 12 luxury resorts, 11 local schools, 7 environmental organisations, and local guesthouses, dive centres and councils. This rare collaboration between all these parties was one of the most special components of the festival. The sponsor resorts and the Biosphere Reserve provided funding for 14 schools across Baa and Raa Atoll to be donated a total of 222 sets of Cressi snorkeling equipment. The donations aimed to increase Maldivian students ability to access the ocean for years to come, ultimately increasing young peoples love for the sea and desire to protect it. Many of the donors conducted snorkeling lessons with the students upon donation. These lessons continued through the day at the Manta Festival, with over 200 students taken snorkeling by resort guides, some for the first time ever. In the Maldives, many girls do not swim or snorkel. In my opinion, getting all these students, especially girls, in the water and enabling them to access it into the future was the most exciting outcome of the initiative.
Students and visitors learnt about manta rays, coral reefs and environmental protection in motivational presentations from environmental organisations and guest speaker Zoona Naseem, the first female Maldivian PADI Course Director and an avid diver. Zoona’s talk reflected the inspirational message of the event, to get more females into water-based activities across the Maldives.
Over 100 people entered photography, art and sculpture competitions, awarded exciting prizes including manta snorkeling fieldtrips. Seven schools created their own life-size manta ray sculptures from recycled materials, based on real manta rays from the Manta Trust research database. Visitors engaged in a treasure hunt to find all the different manta rays and learn something new about their unique characteristics.
As the sun set on the picturesque event, 200 students came together to create a huge manta ray on the beach. The event culminated in evening performances from local artist Shiuz and a traditional Boduberu band, enjoyed by many community members with dancing and singing.
The festival was great educational fun for all visitors and organisers involved. We must work together as tourist operators, conservation organisations, government, and local communities, to help solve conservation problems and drive solutions. I believe this festival may be the start of this movement across Baa Atoll. We can’t wait to do it all again next year! Who’s coming?