In search of Mantas in the Maldives

Having a blast as a solo in a honeymooners paradise

As a solo traveller, the last thing you want is to find yourself stuck on a paradise island surrounded by honeymooners!  Looking back on my first trip to the Maldives three years ago, I avoided the crowds (and the honeymooners) by going slightly out of season and had the time of my life searching for mantas.

I have never arrived anywhere by seaplane before. It really was quite special. And after around 24 hours of travelling from London, I was about ready to see Reethi Beach Resort, my Maldivian home for the next 7 days.  I’m in The Maldives – or more precisely – Baa Atoll – for a week of diving and specifically a week of searching for the elusive manta. In all my years of diving holidays around the world, I have only ever seen them once and I am itching to see them again. I have even faced my extreme aversion to photographic advancements and bought a Go Pro just for this trip.

My first full day on the island starts with an orientation dive on the house reef, which to be honest doesn’t fill me with much excitement but actually turns out to be quite spectacular. If this is a taste of things to come then I’m definitely in the right place for some of my best diving ever.

Day 2, and after a rather unusual but delicious breakfast of curry and roti  (possibly not the best of breakfasts to have when embarking on a boat trip?) – I gather up my gear and head over to the dive centre eager to start the search for mantas. Unfortunately, the dive was not very exciting and my guide confirms my worst suspicions; this is not the best place to dive with mantas and that they are rarely spotted by divers. I’m about to throw myself overboard in desperation when a huge pod of dolphins appear next to us and accompanies us for most of the way home – so beautiful and incredibly special – all was not lost!

During an afternoon of lolling and general lazing about I cannot fail to overhear couples chatting about how fantastic the mantas were – the ones, they had seen when they were SNORKELLING or on the catamaran trip! I am beside myself and decide there and then that tomorrow I am passing over to the dark side – tomorrow I am going snorkelling!

Kisses from a stingray 

Around 7 pm I head back over to the dive shop. I’m beginning to wonder why I thought it was such a good idea to book a night dive as the thought of getting wet again is not at all appealing – but my spirits are lifted when I see that I am the only person signed up to dive! My lovely dive leader, Saneer, tells me during the briefing that I should not get nervous if I am surrounded by giant stingrays during the dive as they are gentle and inquisitive and like to come up and ‘kiss’ divers on the legs and body. He tells me to stay close – not something that he needs worry about – and off we go into the dark. We stay down for 60 minutes  – I don’t feel cold at all, the water is a steady 30 degrees C – and sure enough, as we progress into our dive the giant stingrays come out to play! At first, I am a little anxious but soon get my breathing (and buoyancy) under control and just enjoy the most incredible spectacle ever. One after the other these huge yet graceful creatures come around, over and above us and eventually brush up against us – it really is as though they are giving us a kiss – and any fear I might have felt quickly dissipates. Just to add to the excitement, 3 large nurse sharks come to join in the evening entertainment, although they keep their distance; still close enough to be part of the fun but thankfully not feeling as amorous as the stingrays.

Tired yet buzzing from the most incredible dive, I have just enough time for a quick shower before dinner and a stroll back along the beach, under the most beautiful canopy of stars, to my bungalow. I don’t imagine I’ll have much trouble sleeping tonight – after all, it’s not every night that a girl is kissed goodnight by a stingray.

The joys of travelling out of season

Day 3 – one of the joys of being here in low season is the fact that there are so few people joining in the daily diving and snorkeling trips; and so it was that this morning I ended up on a boat equipped for 30 snorkelers with just one other person, a delightful lady from Japan called Masami. We sat on the upper deck and chatted comfortably as the boat set off in search of mantas. She told me all about her life in Japan and how she had decided to take a break and change it all. I listened intently and we exchanged views and experiences on everything from herbal medicine and healthy eating to internet dating. (It seems that the men in Japan lie about their height just as much as the guys in Europe!) After about 30 minutes our boat captain suggests that we might like to head off to a lagoon where we are certain to see turtles. My heart sinks. Now I like turtles as much as the next person but we are here to see mantas! About to throw in the towel, we are just in the process of turning around and heading off towards turtle territory when BOOM! Mantas! Thank God the crew are not health and safety conscious  – no life jackets required – literally a minute to get mask and fins on and we’re sliding quietly into the water. Nothing. The crew are shouting to our guide and pointing frantically in various directions.  We swim off at breakneck speed towards the general area where the mantas are supposedly feeding. Masami is off like a whippet – or whatever the aquatic version is – and I fin madly behind in order to keep up. I hadn’t realised that this was going to be such a work out! And then we see it.

Gliding effortlessly towards us, silently, majestically. I remember my GoPro and hurriedly switch it on, take a few shots but then decide that this needs to be savoured in all its glory, no distractions. We hang around on the surface for around 20 minutes watching this magnificent creature surface and then head down below us and around, once, twice, I lose count of how many times, and then gone. We swim back to the boat and clamber on board, chatting excitedly about what we had just seen. We set off again, back inland towards our island and then WOW, more mantas. This time we are in the water in a split second and we are rewarded by a larger manta circling around and towards us again – this time we have apparently hit on a cleaning station, so no swimming required. We just bob on the surface and watch until the manta has finished it’s grooming and heads off into the plankton murky sea. What a fantastic morning. What can possibly beat it.? Well, tomorrow, Masima and I are getting a catamaran to ourselves and a guide who promises that if we don’t see 50 mantas he will take us out again for free the next day! An offer like that is hard to refuse – I can hardly wait!

Day 4  – so, the catamaran manta safari did not disappoint. I think it was rather oversold with 50 mantas but never the less we must have seen well over 20. Masami and I were just 2 on the cat, and first up were a couple of large pods of dolphins; nice but quickly passed over in our determination to find the real thing (since when did dolphins become chopped liver?) Literally 5 minutes into our sail and bingo – mantas in every direction, surfacing and then diving gracefully down. It was one of the most magical experiences of my life! We just hung in the water and they came around again and again – head on towards us as though they were going to barge us out of the way – but then turning at the last minute almost casting us a backward glance as they glided away.  Again we had been fortunate to hit a cleaning station and the mantas just kept on coming. I managed to get some shots and a few video clips but in the end, I just let the GoPro hang off my wrist as I watch in awe at these fabulous creatures. We played around in the water with the mantas for what seemed like an age and then they were gone.

What a morning – so amazing  – and when I finally checked out my photos I was really quite pleased! Thank goodness that we are just 2 people on these expeditions and my photos do not include the large rear ends of numerous tourists all splashing around and trying to get near the mantas – probably a realistic scenario in high season.

The last day – thoughts on the week

What is it about the last day of a holiday? Even though you have the whole day ahead of you, your mind is already thinking about what you need to do when you get home. Try as I might to put Clapham to one side, thoughts of work and emails and wearing shoes again have begun to creep into my mind. I have one remaining evening meal to go before I catch the 6.30am seaplane from the island over to Male to start the long journey home and back to reality. What are my thoughts on my week here?

First the resort. Owned and run by Germans, it has an air of efficiency that you would expect; a staff of 270 looking after around 70 guests and making sure that everything runs with precision – and it most certainly does. Friendly, relaxed, yet stuck in a bit of a ‘90s time warp – especially musically, with Lionel Ritchie playing in the restaurant and endless soft rock in the bar – more pina colada than G & T – it is without a doubt incredibly beautiful and has every facility that you might need. Still, I came to dive and even though it was certainly some of the most expensive diving I’ve ever done (everything here is expensive!) it wasn’t really that great. The night dive was fabulous but the rest was very average. Thank goodness I decided to snorkel instead as that was how I was able to see the mantas in all their incredible glory. I passed on an afternoon trip to a neighbouring island to see the locals making local things – I felt it was a bit like leaving the museum via the gift shop – deciding instead to have one last afternoon on the beach. Now, as the sun sets, I’m enjoying a final pina colada, writing my blog, with Brian Adams playing in the background –  I’m really going to miss this next week when it’s back to work, back on the diet and back in the gym!

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(This blog was written in 2015. I booked with Original Travel who did a great job of getting just the right resort for me. Since then I have been lucky enough to see mantas many times, always as a diver, and they never cease to take my breath away!) 

 

 

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