Nothing can compare to the moment you are surrounded by massive Manta Rays, gracefully gliding overhead suddenly swooping in closer to the reef before gliding off into the distance. Many divers will travel halfway across the world to have even a chance to experience this.
Manta Rays are widespread throughout the oceans of the world, some areas are famous for their Manta sightings. One such area is Raja Ampat, situated in the heart of the coral triangle in the Eastern part of Indonesia. This diving destination is known as the most biodiverse marine environment in the world. It is no surprise that manta rays would be found in this area. What makes the manta presence in Raja Ampat interesting is the migration patterns of the mantas who yearly call the region their home.
While Mantas are common throughout the Indonesian Archipelago because of the nutrient-rich waters caused by upwelling in many regions of the country. Raja Ampat is one of the very few areas in the world where both the Reef and Oceanic Mantas can be found in the same place.
The deep waters of the Dampier Straits allow for deep water upwelling to bring incredibly nutrient-rich waters to the shallow reefs of the area that fuels the most biodiverse marine ecosystem in the world. Including the ideal conditions for both of these manta species to interact together.
In the last few years, Raja Ampat has drawn the interest of many research groups hoping to track and understand the behaviour and migration patterns of the mantas that call the area their home for a few months of the year. Because of this research as many as 700 individual manta rays have been recorded in the area, identification has been aided by divers submitting their photographs of mantas. Manta rays are identified by their unique markings on their underside.
Further this research initiative has also brought to light that many of these individual rays undertake a yearly migration to the other regions of Indonesia including Bali and some have even been tracked traveling as far as the Southern Barrier Reef in Australia.
These migrations can be attributed to shifting weather conditions that make these areas see a rise in nutrient-rich waters that rays and whales prefer for their feeding grounds.
It has also been discovered that rays are able to dive to incredible depths of over 600m. While not much is known about the reason some mantas dive this deep, the behaviour has been linked to possible plankton masses at deeper depths.
One of the most interesting and surprising discoveries of recent years in manta behaviour in the area is the discovery of a natural manta nursing ground.
One of the most protected and picturesque natural lagoons in all of the Indonesian Archipelago is found above the equator in Northern Raja Ampat. Wayag Lagoon has long been known for its beauty and extreme remoteness; it is now also known as the first discovered manta nursery in South East Asia. Visitors to the area have often reported large groups of manta rays including many juveniles gracefully swimming over the shallow reefs of this protected lagoon.
While diving in the lagoon is strictly prohibited it is still possible for visitors to see these mantas play around in the crystal clear waters from one of the many viewpoints in the surrounding hills.
While manta rays have long been the focus of many diving trips all over the world. Much is still left to be discovered about these species. Marine parks like the Raja Ampat MPA allow scientists and many recreational divers to see these incredible animals up close. It has also led to a massive increase in boat traffic to the area. In the known manta season months Raja Ampat there is a massive increase in liveaboards that offer their diving services. While this does allow more to share the experience it has also led to a change in the behaviour patterns of the mantas. They have become drastically more elusive to the area and are often found on reefs they have never been spotted before.
When considering all of this one has to wonder if the mass tourism the area sees during these months is in fact detrimental to the area and the marine ecosystem as a whole. Many protests have been made to further protect this Marine Park by limiting the number of dive operations that are allowed in the area. With the main focus falling on land-based resorts that support the local communities year-round while aiding in the conservation of the area. A mental shift that is much needed not only to preserve the natural environment but also the communities in areas like Raja Ampat especially in a post Covid 19 world.