In 2018 Monique and I had the opportunity to go swimming with manta rays in Bali; not once but twice! The first time was during our Advanced Open Water Diving Course, when we went manta ray diving at Manta Point just off Nusa Penida. The second time we went for a manta ray snorkel during a Nusa Penida tour, this time at Manta Bay.
Both experiences were magical to say the least and, if cost and vacation time didn’t have to come into it, I would leave the minute I finish typing this to do it all again. The experience moved me to the point of having now adopted a manta ray with the Manta Trust to try do something towards looking after these amazing creatures. My next tattoo is also going to be of a manta and I will publish it as an update to this post when I have time to get it done.
In the following paragraphs I hope to show you what makes mantas so special and why you should care about them. I want to help you find where can you snorkel or go diving with manta rays to share in this incredible experience. And how you too can adopt a manta ray to aid in preserving them and their natural habitat.
What are manta rays?
Rays and their ancestors have been around for the past 420 million years, with fossil records that date back further than primates, dinosaurs and even trees. Ray species, along with sharks, are classified as elasmobranchs which differ from other fish in number of gills, and the fact that they have a cartilaginous skeleton and tooth-like scales that cover their skin called dermal denticles. There are four groups of rays: Rajiformes, Rhinopristiniformes, Torpediniformes and Myliobatiformes. Manta rays belong to the Mobuild family which is part of the Myliobatiformes group and the earliest Mobuild fossils date back 28 million years. So just let that sink in. When you go swimming with manta rays you are encountering a creature that has been evolving for around the last 28 million years. If that isn’t just a little mind-blowing, I don’t know what is!
Manta rays are the largest of the Mobuild family and can reach a width of 7 metres and a weight of 7 tonnes. Despite their large size manta rays are incredibly gentle and curious creatures. They have the largest brain of any fish and are known for their intelligence. While diving, and out on our manta ray snorkel, the animals would effortlessly glide right up to us in a way that was playful and non-threatening.
Identifying a manta
There are at least 2 distinct species of manta rays: the oceanic manta and the reef manta. The reef mantas are much smaller than the oceanic mantas and these are the mantas that we went swimming with around Nusa Penida. Reef mantas also have a distinct Y-shaped shoulder pattern as opposed to the T-shaped shoulder pattern of oceanic mantas.
All mantas have a unique pattern of spots on their bellies (ventral surface). Similar to fingerprints, the unique nature of these spots allows the mantas to be easily identified by scientists. The manta that I have adopted with the Manta Trust is called Mr Spotty because of his super spotty belly! The next time you are swimming with manta rays try and see if you can spot the different patterns on their bellies.
Manta rays feed on plankton and they have become experts at locating this microscopic meal. It requires a lot of energy to feed, so mantas will only open their mouths when the levels of plankton in the water are high enough. The concentration of plankton is varied and it moves with the ocean currents. Mantas can sense the density of their prey by testing the water with their sensitive cephalic fins. Different types of plankton live in different parts of the ocean and the manta rays have to adjust their feeding strategies accordingly.
Hugging the surface of the water mantas are able to feed on plankton that is just below surface of the water.
Sometimes mantas will feed by somersaulting backwards to feast on dense patches of plankton.
Copepods, a type of zooplankton favoured by mantas, try to escape mantas by swimming higher in a column of water. Using a coordinated feeding strategy mantas take advantage of this, lining up head to tail in a feeding chain and as the chain swims forward each manta can feed on the copepods as they jump higher up to escape.
A unique feeding event happens in the Maldives, which is an evolution of the chain feeding strategy. It happens when a manta feeding chain starts to loop around itself and forms a tight spiral column of as many as 150 mantas. The column creates its own current which pulls in surrounding plankton.
Manta ray diving
As I said at the start of this post, Monique and I had the opportunity to dive with manta rays while on holiday in Bali. We decided to do our Advanced Open Water qualification with Adventure Scuba Diving Bali. We had the option to just do the five qualifying dives or we could take a package of seven dives which included potentially diving with manta rays. It wasn’t even a question. We signed up for the seven dives and it was a fantastic choice. There was a moment where we nearly didn’t get to do our manta ray dive because the sea around Nusa Penida had been particularly bad and several tours just days before had to be cancelled. On our actual dive the rough sea had kicked up a lot of silt so visibility wasn’t quite as clear as it could have been but we got to see the mantas.
The best part of swimming with manta rays while you are scuba diving is that you can just hover in the water and watch them. You don’t have to worry about taking a deep enough breath to dive down to them or hope that they will meet you on the surface. Diving is already an amazingly peaceful activity, and can even be used to treat anxiety and PTSD, add watching these graceful creatures gliding around underwater and you have one of the most magical experiences.
There are places all over the world to dive with manta rays. One day I hope to go diving in the Maldives to hopefully see a manta cyclone and maybe spot Mr Spotty. PADI has their list of the top 5 dive destinations to view mantas, check it out and maybe on your next big holiday you can add a manta ray dive to your itinerary. You won’t regret it!
Manta ray snorkel
Due to the fact that you can’t fly just after scuba diving, we planned to have a 2 day buffer between our diving course and travelling on to Chiang Rai in Thailand. The first of those 2 days we spent exploring burial grounds and hot, volcanic springs, and the second day we had booked a tour of Nusa Penida which included a manta ray snorkel. Again the sea was rough so we didn’t know if our adventure would be successful but we were no disappointed, not by a long shot. We got taken out in a small boat to Manta Bay and hopped into the water to go swimming with the manta rays. There were quite a few other tourists there, each with their own guides. In a matter of seconds the guides started to call out where the mantas were swimming.
Snorkeling with the mantas was quite a different experience. On our manta ray dive we had been on our own under the water while here there were quite a few people pushing and I even got headbutted by someone not paying any attention to where they were swimming. But this time when we were swimming with the manta rays they were a lot more inquisitive and several times we had to avoid being bumped by them as they swam past. I managed to get better photos and videos here and we had an incredible hour just snorkeling with these amazing creatures.
Adopt a manta ray
With the crisis facing our oceans, and wildlife in general, it is a very real possibility that in the near future doing things like swimming with manta rays will just be a memory. As terrible as that sounds, it does more damage to hide ourselves from the truth of the impact of things like climate change, illegal and over-fishing, and all the other ways we destroy environments and eco-systems. Obviously it is not possible for everyone to don a wet-suit or climb aboard a research boat and actively try to protect and research animals like manta rays, but there are other much simpler ways that we can help.
One of the ways is providing monetary support to groups who can do the active, on the ground work. The Manta Trust is one of these groups and through them you can adopt a manta ray to help support their efforts. There are several packages you can choose from with the smallest being a once off GBP 20 payment. This gives you an adoption pack of your chosen manta ray which includes a bio of your adopted manta, a manta fact-file, an adoption certificate, a digital poster of your adopted manta and a kids activity pack. All of these are digital because we don’t need more printed waste!
If you’re looking for other causes to support you can also read our posts about sun bears and how to adopt one of the world’s smallest bears and brush up on orangutans and the palm oil trade.
Swimming with manta rays
Swimming with manta rays will go down as one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done and I spent 2 years skydiving! It was a magical moment that I got to experience twice in one trip and I hope to experience again one day, hopefully in the Maldives. The natural world is so full of wonders and experiences that can change our lives for the better. If you’re looking for something different to do on your next holiday, find out where you can go swimming with manta rays and experience the magic for yourself.
As promised, here is the picture of my manta ray tattoo. I had it done by BK in Seoul and you can read all about the experience and how to get a tattoo in Korea. I couldn’t be happier with the results and I can’t wait to get my next sea creature tattooed onto my arm!
Happy travels and blue skies!
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