Dwelling in the mystic blue hues that surround the small pearl-shaped islands of the Maldives is a multitude of organisms that could, quite literally, take your breath away. Here is a world where background noise fades into the crash of waves and coral gardens stretch as far as your eye can see. Here is a world in which you can get lost between the wings of manta rays and find yourself swallowed by the shadows of whale sharks. Seeing the beauty of these magnificent creatures up close and in your vicinity is an experience that no one could ever forget in their lifetime.
The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate. It cruises open waters with temperatures that do not fall below 22 degrees Celsius. On average, a fully grown whale shark can reach up to 10 meters and weigh around 20 tons. The distinctive white markings on its back and the size of it makes the large cartilaginous fish easy to distinguish, and quite different from other sharks. These white markings, known as the spot pattern, can be used to differentiate between sharks, because they are unique for every individual, much like human finger prints.
Whale sharks are most commonly spotted in Maldives around South Ari atoll, and can be seen all year round, although statistically the most number of sightings occur in November, December and May.
Tourists are allowed to dive and snorkel alongside the peaceful filter feeders, provided that they maintain a distance of three to four meters away from the shark. Many describe their experiences of swimming alongside whale sharks with so much awe saturating their voice. This proves how surreal an opportunity to detach from the real world and spend some time with a peaceful sea giant is.
Maldives is home to various shark species along with the whale shark. They include leopard sharks, scalloped hammerhead sharks, black tip reef sharks, white tip reef sharks and grey reef sharks. All of these animals are protected – fishing, killing and collection of these species are prohibited.
With wingspans reaching up to 5.5 metres, manta rays are one of the largest species of rays found in the world. Like whale sharks, they are also filter feeders and project the same tranquil behaviour that the whale sharks do. Seeing the rays gracefully soaring through the azure blue ocean is truly a magnificent sight to witness, because these creatures move as if they are flying through the water, wings beating in harmony. Manta rays travel in schools, and have very distinctive feeding habits.
The best spot in Maldives – or even the entire world – for manta ray watching is Hanifaru Bay, a lagoon the size of a football field in Baa Atoll. Manta rays are filter feeders that sometimes travel in groups of 50. They come in the largest numbers when the tide is high and when the plankton has been concentrated at the end of the lagoon by wind and current. Manta rays feed by opening their mouths wide and swimming through plankton rich water. Fish larvae and other small organisms are also swallowed with the plankton. The food passes through the gill rakers present in the manta ray to be filtered and utilised in the digestive system.
In rare occasions, mantas end up in a formation where they are swimming in a vortex during feeding, and the end result looks like an underwater hurricane of wings and mouths. Usually the number of mantas present within the vortex does not exceed 50, but a rare phenomenon that occurs when the number nears 100 have been observed in Hanifaru Bay. The vortex collapses, and manta start swimming in various directions in a panicked feeding frenzy. This is the most erratic behaviour ever observed in these peaceful, humble creatures. Scientists are still conducting studies about this rare phenomenon that have not been yet observed in any other part of the world.
Apart from the two graceful giants mentioned above, the oceans of Maldives also provide sanctuary for dolphins, whales, skates and other species or rays, and five species of sea turtles including green sea turtle, loggerhead, hawksbill, olive Ridley and leather back. Research and conservation stations to study and protect marine organisms have been set up in many resorts and uninhabited islands in order to improve their populations and release them back into the wild.
Seeing these marine organisms in their natural habitat and realising how the actions of man have taken such a toll on the population and well-being of these organisms make people realise the fragility of the environment we live in. It inspires golden hearts to step up and try a little harder to save the world. It inspires them to inspire others to do the same. We have a whole planet in our hands, to do whatever as we please, and it is in our best interest to coexist peacefully with the rest of the life forms around us. The memories we make will remain with us forever; the echo of ocean waves will linger in our ventricles. This is how we hold onto happiness; by witnessing miracles and being brave enough to become a part of one.
The Maldives reopened to international visitors on July 15, with travellers being offered free 30-day tourist visas upon arrival in the country. Many airlines have now resumed or will restart flights to Male, offering connections to and from destinations such as Doha, Dubai, Colombo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai, Istanbul, London, Zurich and Frankfurt. To book your holiday in paradise directly with the resort of your choice, visit www.madlymaldives.com.