By Chris Dwyer
Dec 22, 2020
AN EXTRAORDINARY, LIFE-CHANGING TRAVEL EXPERIENCE started with a phone call on a battered old Nokia phone dating from about 2005. Known as ‘the manta phone,’ it’s given at check-in to all Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru guests keen to experience one of the world’s greatest natural wonders in the flesh, namely getting up close and personal with vast squadrons of manta rays, the hugely intelligent, sub-tropical fish that can reach almost 10 meters wide and live for half a century.
The first hint came as we deplaned at Landaa Giraavaru “airport” — really, a blue wooden deck about six meters across, floating in the impossibly clear Indian Ocean — where a sign was decked with silhouettes of three mantas and the words, Welcome to Baa Atoll – A UNESCO biosphere reserve.
The remote spot is home to the stunning Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, their partners the Manta Trust and the real stars of the show: the world’s single largest population of manta rays. Since the precursor of the Manta Trust was founded back in 2005, almost 5,000 separate reef manta rays (or Mobula alfredi as the scientists know them) have been logged and studied across The Maldives, critically advancing research, understanding, management and protection of these magnificent creatures.
Their name comes from the Spanish word for cloak, the perfect description of their vast, black diamond-shaped bodies that let them fly through the water. The fins on their heads are slightly horned, which once gave them the nickname ‘devil fish.’
Your chances of seeing them depend on a number of factors, notably the time of year, i.e. May to November. If you’re at the resort during those months, the Manta-on-Call service will ring your ancient Nokia — encased in a handy pouch to wear around your neck — and tell you to hotfoot it to the jetty where a speedboat awaits. Even if you’re in the middle of a blissful treatment in the resort’s Ayurvedic spa, you’ll need to drop everything (well, except the towel, in fact, do toss on some clothes, please) to get there.
Once out on the water, you don your snorkel gear, hope to God you charged your GoPro battery, and then follow the experts in. The mantas are easily visible from the boat but nothing compares to being among them, in all their majesty. Time seems to stand still as your brain tries to comprehend what it is experiencing, a once-in-a-lifetime aquatic ballet, a Blue Planet moment that will never leave you. The sheer scale of these animals and their massive wingspan already has you speechless… and then you realize that there are dozens upon dozens of them.
What’s more, The Manta Trust experts know many of them by name, from the polkadottiest manta in The Maldives (cutely called Mr. Spotty) to the unfortunately named Blob.
It’s crystal clear that The Manta Trust and Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru prioritize sustainability, conservation and safety, so at no point do you feel in any danger — nor should you: first, touching them is of course banned, and second, mantas don’t even have barbs, as seen on stingrays. Besides, they’re far more interested in scooping up vast mouthfuls of plankton.
They are however curious by nature, a trait that reflects more than 20 million years of evolution and their remarkable intelligence, thanks to the biggest brain-to-body mass ratio of any fish.
Holder of one of the world’s most enviable jobs, Education & Outreach Manager at The Manta Trust, Flossy Barraud has spent years working with mantas, as well as accompanying guests to meet them: “Some of them are so moved by the experience that they end up in tears.” An even deeper experience can be had with the Manta Ray Scientist for a Day program. Learn to free dive, record environmental data and even get the chance to name a new manta.
My suggestion? Nokia.