Heading off the back of the boat it was a fast descent. The deep blue below and ahead of us. The current was running. I could feel the thermoclines washing past, my depth increasing with each fin stroke. Ahead was the channel, the opening into the atoll from the big blue outside. Finning hard, my breathing laboured and tiredness hitting I was beginning to wonder what we were doing here. This was not where I was supposed to be. It was hard work, far too hard for a holiday. The current was pushing us into the atoll now. A blessing in a way. I could see the sides of the channel and the bottom was coming into view. And then it was the moment I had been dreading. We had to hook on to the reef. After 25years of diving this was a new skill. If I got this wrong it was the end of the dive for everyone. Could I do this to my friends; missing the hook was not an option.
All of a sudden our guide was there, unravelling my hook line, finding me a piece of the seabed that was not going anywhere. And then the thing that goes against everything in diving was needed. I had to inflate my jacket. If the reef hook came loose I was going to the surface in a hurry. A recipe for a visit to the decompression chamber.
Taking a deep breathe I was hooked on. The line was vibrating in the current. I was still and not going anywhere. More deep breathes, calming myself. Looking around the cleaning station was nothing more than a plateau. Small fish were swarming, but the 5 mantas that had been seen from the surface were nowhere to be seen.
And then in the distance an outline appeared. It was there. The creature we had travelled so far to see. The manta glided past, looking at us on its first loop. Gliding gracefully against the current that we had fought to reach this point. As we turned to watch it pass there was the realisation that another was on the cleaning station. Sizing each other up, the larger manta rises above the smaller.
The large manta circled us, looking into our eyes. There was a connection. The strangest feeling; that this huge creature was understanding and accepting our presence in its world. After a while it's cephalic fin rolled, content with our presence and ready to enter the cleaning station.
Stacking like planes over an airport the mantas waited their turn at the cleaning station. The small cleaner fish working their magic with each customer as they arrived. Small nips made the mantas jump and the movement of pleasure as they swam over and through our bubbles was clear to see.
Eventually our air was low and it was time to return to the human world. Carefully emptying the air from our jackets and as a group we unhooked and left the bottom. Racing again we headed further into the atoll. Ascending all the time. Slowly at first but then getting caught in up-currents, eddying around us and spinning us to the surface. A fast and furious dumping of air and finning downwards took us back to a safe depth to finish the safety stops and end our dive on a high.
Who Can Dive the Cleaning Station at Addu Atoll?
The cleaning station at Addu Atoll is located in one of the channels that funnel from the ocean into the calm atoll. It is not an easy dive. The start of the dive involves a free dive into the blue before swimming against the current into the channel. Once in the channel you will need to hook on and be able to control your buoyancy as you hook on and release the hook. The cleaning station sits at about 25metres and this depth needs planning and good air consumption. For this reason this isn’t an easy open water dive. If you have a number of dives and are confident, booking with one of the local recognised dive centres will ensure that you will be taken straight to the cleaning station and there will be help with getting hooked on. Guided diving is the best way to dive in this area and Aquaventure Maldives are the best from our experience.
When is the Best Time to See Manta Rays in the Maldives
As these are wild creatures nothing can be guaranteed and we did have a few days within a weeks trip that was manta free at the cleaning station. However, in general from November to April more manta rays are seen on the western edges of the atolls, moving the with higher concentrations of plankton to the eastern side of the atolls from May to October.
The best times for diving and snorkelling are from December to May when the weather is calm and the visibility is good. Outside of this time the visibility decreases because of the plankton but the life under water increases because of the abundance of food. It is also quieter and so a decision on visibility, weather conditions and species visits needs to be considered.
Where Can I Dive with Manta Rays in the Maldives?
Manta rays are seen year round in Addu Atoll. The site is ideal for diving but they can’t be seen while snorkelling unless you are very lucky. The manta rays that come in to this atoll are large with wingspans of over 5 metres. The diving in Addu Atoll is excellent with the wreck of the British Loyalty and lots of large pelagic fish including eagle rays and sharks. Turtles live on the shallow reefs which are thriving and full of life.
South Ari Atoll
This atoll is known for its whale shark sightings but other large pelagic fish including manta rays visit its waters. They are usually seen during the northeast monsoon from October to May with the best time to see them being in February to April. At other times they elusive and may not be seen.
Hanifaru Bay, Baa Atoll
Hanifaru is an uninhabited island and the bay is tiny, no bigger than a football pitch. During the south west monsoon from late July to early October the plankton builds to huge quantities. This draws in hundred of manta rays and whale sharks to feed. The largest manta ray feeding station that is so far known about. Since 2009 this bay has been a marine protected area with fishing and boating restricted. This extends to human activity. Diving is not permitted and only 5 boats with a total of 80 visitors are allowed in the bay to snorkel for a maximum of 45 minutes at a time.
Photographing manta rays takes multiple dives to achieve pleasing results. The water that the manta rays inhabit is moving and this can lead to plankton building up and being visible in images as backscatter. The moving water also makes life difficult for photographers as you are unable to get a solid position. Photographs have to be taken whilst attached to a reef hook with the rays gliding by.
Position and behaviour in the water
The size of them can also cause problems. They are not the usual small reef creature and so focus points and setting are completely different to reef photography. Your presence and behaviour can also alter your chance of photographing these amazing creatures. Stay still and calm and allow them to come to you. The dive guide will know the path of the manta rays and will position you on this route. Take time to relax into the dive, watch the manta rays and allow them to investigate you and your buddy.
To get a manta ray with a perfect blue background start with f/5.6 or f/8 and adjust your shutter speed to give the perfect exposure. Use the sunlight that filters through the water to your advantage.
Strobes and lights
If you are using strobes you will need two due to the size of the mantas. Open them out to the side and ensure they are not parallel to the lens. This will ensure that backscatter is not a problem in the image. Make sure they are on as manta rays can move pretty quickly as they come into the feeding station
Think about composition. A wide angle lens is best given the size of the manta rays and will work for both distant shots including the reef and portraits of individual creatures. Using the ambient light and no strobes a silhouette can be achieved with the manta ray between the camera and the sun. This works really well as the shape of the manta ray is easily recognised. If the rays are not coming in close then find some colourful corals to place in the foreground with the manta rays behind at the cleaning station. Head on shots with the manta rays are also fun to attempt, especially when they are used to your presence and exploring.