Freediving with Manta Rays at Hanifaru Bay (Baa Atoll)

After a very long 2 year wait to travel, finally flights were opening up again and we embarked on our long awaited travel out of Singapore to the Madives! Our journey started on a very empty Singapore Airlines flight. After not being able to fly for so long, it was certainly very exciting to be on a plane again. Airline food never looked better!

Located in the Baa Atoll in the Maldives, hundreds of manta rays congregate to feed between May and November. The Baa atoll is a designated UNESCO Biosphere reserve, and one of the ways to get there is to fly into Male, and either take a 3hr ferry (Around USD$99 return) or 25 min sea plane (Around $340USD return) to Dharavandhoo where you can stay at the guest houses or hotel there. Usually the guest house or hotel will be able to help you to arrange the ferry transfer. And from Dharavandhoo, it’s about a 20-30 min boat ride to Hanifaru Bay to see the majestic manta rays.

If you are taking the ferry from Male to Dharavandhoo, and depending on the weather, you could be in for a really exciting bumpy ride launching off waves at high speed like we did on the way there, or a nice smooth ride on our way back. So be prepared!

After the adrenaline pumping ferry ride from Male, we finally reached Dharavandhoo, a very small kampong (village) like island. It was certainly a welcome relief to be greeted by the beautiful clear blue waters and laid back pace of life.

We chose to stay at the Manta Retreat and were very well fed with ample food at each meal! The typical dishes were curries, nasi goreng, mee goreng, pasta, salad and mostly tuna fish, and at the Manta Retreat there was freshly cooked papadum every day. It was a pretty comfortable guest house at a very affordable rate, good wifi, and the staff looked after us very well. The guest house was just 5 minutes walk away from the beach which was mostly empty during our trip there, which made it easy to just take a walk there to snorkel and freedive everyday.

There’s another hotel, LVIS Blancura which looked quite nice right on the beach as well if you prefer a beach front accommodation.

Dharavandhoo is an island where the locals live, so do take note that the state religion in the Maldives is Islam, hence no alcohol or pork products are permitted, and only bikinis are allowed at certain tourist beaches, otherwise it’s necessary to adhere to the modest dress code for women generally.

The coral reef at the beach is pretty shallow, just a few meters deep with fantastic visibility till you reach the drop off where it gets much deeper, probably more than 20 meters deep. There’s quite a variety of colourful fish, anemone and coral to see, and if you are lucky, some passing nurse sharks, manta rays, turtles or eagle rays.

Although one of the main reasons for visiting Dharavandhoo was to swim with the manta rays at Hanifaru Bay, as we went in October, which was the tail end of the season they may not congregate everyday. For the first 2 days there were no sign of manta rays, but finally on the third day, we were told there were manta ray sightings and we hopped onto the boat and off we went!

We were given a safety and etiquette briefing on the boat on the way to Hanifaru Bay, and as it is a protected area, fishing and boating is restricted. Only 5 boats and 80 visitors are allowed to spend a maximum of 45 minutes. In order to reduce keep disturbance to a minimum, scuba diving is not allowed and only snorkelling is permitted. Strictly no touching of the manta rays we were told to keep our distance as well.

Also unfortunately due to pressures from fishing and manta and mobula ray gill trade, giant manta rays which can reach up to 8 meters in width are now listed as endangered species.

Although at the peak, it’s possible to see about 200-300 manta rays, we saw about 30 manta rays that day which was still pretty spectacular. Some of the mantas we saw were around 2-3meters and as large as a man, gracefully flying through the water and making barrel rolls to feed in the plankton rich water. Unlike sting rays, their tails do not have any stings and are harmless. They are really intelligent creatures and when they are not feeding and relaxed at the cleaning stations, they will sometimes swim up to you and you can see them watching you curiously. And if you’re wondering what’s a cleaning station, it’s like an aquatic car wash where bigger aquatic life go to and are cleaned by smaller creatures.

This visit to the Maldives was certainly a very memorable one, being able to soak in the ocean and breathe in the sea breeze everyday was very healing as well. I hope to visit it again one day.