The Maldives hosts the largest recorded population of reef manta rays in the world. More than 5000 individuals have been identified and extensively monitored by our team at the Manta Trust, an international charity with 27 affiliate projects. However, there are manta sub-populations of the Maldives that remain a mystery to us…but we are making some exciting discoveries!
In November 2021, our team took part in a unique exploratory expedition, navigating through the remote Northern atolls of the Maldives to survey from boats, drones and underwater for manta rays at potential feeding and cleaning sites.
Following a day trip to Makunudhoo, an island in Haa Dhaalu that is home to the Maldives’ largest lagoon, we learnt from the fishermen that it’s very common to see mantas in their lagoon every day, and the fishermen have reported seeing huge aggregations of mantas there in the Northeast monsoon season.
After an invite to return, our team of seven manta ray researchers, educators, university students, and media makers came to record and explore Makunudhoo and its undocumented manta rays. We spent one month on a fishing boat, searching for manta rays, and documenting the reefs of Makunudhoo. With the help of a local fisherman and captain Alha, we mapped the reefs, pinpointed manta ray cleaning stations, and discovered what conditions would determine manta ray aggregations. We collected identification photographs, conducted aerial surveys, deployed remote underwater video and time-lapse cameras, and interviewed fishermen to discover local historical knowledge of this species.
This project was like no other that we had run before. Having little to no knowledge of this region’s reefs and manta rays, we had no idea what to expect. During this short time, we encountered an incredible number of manta rays and identified more than 150 new individuals to be added to the Maldives database. We saw courtship behaviour, met pregnant females and pups, and discovered active cleaning stations.
However, the most rewarding part of the trip was working so closely with the Makunudhoo community. We ran outreach and education sessions with local stakeholders such as council members, police, and the women’s development committee. We conducted marine education classes in the school and took the students to study the reefs first-hand. The majority of Makunudhoo’s population has never swum with a manta ray before, and many have never been swimming at all. So, we took community members swimming with mantas for the first time and trained them on our research techniques to help them to understand why we were here and show them just how captivating and majestic manta rays are.
We are so grateful to the community of Makunudhoo for their hospitality, kindness and wealth of local knowledge, without which this project would not have been possible. We are so inspired by the collective desire of the people of Makunudhoo to protect their environment, retain their culture and traditions, and to ensure that any development of their beautiful island occurs sustainably. We would also like to thank Carl F. Bucherer, our long-term partner, for supporting the Manta Trust and making this scoping project possible. The Manta Trust looks forward to continuing working with the Makunudhoo community to ensure that the manta rays that call this incredible place home remain safe and protected.