Friday, April 12, 2013

Chris’ Dive Experiences: Travel......The Maldives & Mantas

Photo By: Damien Newton
Lesley and I have a routine before a trip starts and it goes something like this: pack gear, weigh it, take a few items out, reweigh it, repeat, repeat, repeat until we get our main bags to about 48 lbs. This is undoubtedly followed by a white knuckled (for Lesley) ride to a square piece of pavement near the airport which will be home to our car for a small fortune only to be followed by unloading, loading, and unloading again, bags and persons into an airport shuttle.  And then another white knuckled ride (this time for both of us) to the lovely...peaceful...slow paced sovereign nation known to all of us as LAX. It's no wonder why once you settle into your seat on the plane a collective sigh can be heard!

After settling in for your flight, you may start thinking about and anticipating certain types of diving that you will enjoy like drift dives, wreck dives, night dives or, if you're me, shark feed dives. Or you may be thinking of a certain species that this area is known for and what kind of dive experiences you may have with it. If you are a photographer or videographer you're definitely start anticipating certain dive sites with famous wrecks or reefs or the critters you expect to shoot on your dives. One thing is for sure if you're traveling to a place for the first time you just really don't know what that standout dive, encounter, or experience that you'll always remember will be.

Our trip to the Maldives was really no different. I expected to see the unbelievable beauty and feel the serenity that you get just by looking at pictures of the Maldives, mixed with an extremely healthy marine ecosystem with chances to see whale sharks, mantas and loads of fish.  What ended up standing out to me was something totally different.

Photo By: Lesley Alstrand

Prior to leaving for this trip, I arranged to take the PADI Manta Diver specialty course while sailing on our liveaboard. Little did I know at the time that I really couldn't have picked a better destination, or boat, anywhere in the world for this specialty. This would turn out to make my trip to the Maldives all about the manta.

After boarding the Sea Spirit, our home-away-from-home for this trip, we completed the usual paperwork and then listened to the briefing presented by our cruise directors and dive guides Matt and Anne-Marie Kitchen-Wheeler. During the briefing, among other things, it was announced that Lesley and I would be taking the Manta class and if anyone wanted to join the class, they were welcome to. Nobody at that point indicated much interest in joining us, so it looked like it would be just the two of us.

Photo By: Dr. Anne Marie Kitchen Wheeler

Fast forward through two full days of diving and it was time for our manta class orientation that evening. To our surprise, Lesley and I were joined by almost half the guests on board. Our cruise director, dive guide, and PADI manta class instructor was Dr. Anne-Marie Kitchen-Wheeler, who is also the project manager for The Manta Ecology Project in Maldives, and only the fourth person in the world to receive her PhD on mantas. In two days of diving, Anne-Marie's sharing of her knowledge and passion for mantas had obviously piqued the interest of the other guests on board and now they wanted to learn more. 

During our first manta class we learned about manta anatomy, feeding, cleaning, reproduction, conservation efforts, and proper techniques for diving with the mantas. Compared to other manta dives and conversations I had experienced with dive guides during previous trips to several different destinations, I was blown away by how much I learned during just the first class session with Anne. The species of mantas we were getting to dive
with in the Maldives were Manta Alfredi, also known as reef mantas, which is the species we also experienced while diving in Hawaii and Palau. Whereas in the Socorro Islands, we were diving with Manta Birostris, otherwise known as giant mantas.

Cleaning Reef Manta Photo By: Lesley Alstrand

After our first class session we where able to do a few dives with mantas and observe some of the the things we learned from Anne. The second class session a couple nights later was even better than the first. During this class we learned how to ID mantas. When identifying any animal, the more info you can gather, of course, the better, but key points to identifying a particular manta are sex, tail length, and spot patterns between the gills. This was another instance where I learned something new. You ID Reef Mantas using spot patterns located in between their gills. Whereas Giant Mantas are identified using the markings and patterns that are directly on and below their gills since the area between their gills will generally have no markings.

Swimming Giant Manta (Socorro Islands) Photo By: Lesley Alstrand

The next thing I learned totally blew my mind. Depending on how the manta holds its cephalic fins, you can tell what its planning to do next. For instance, you can tell if a manta is getting ready to feed, get cleaned, or swim off. I had noticed when diving with mantas in the past that different mantas had their cephalic fins in different positions and thought it was interesting, but I never knew it really meant anything.

Feeding Reef Manta Photo By: Dr. Anne Marie Kitchen Wheeler

There really isn't any other animal that I can think of where you can get an idea of what it is thinking of or about to do before they actually do it. Now, of course, you can see signs like possible aggression from a shark depending on their pectoral fin placement, but this can be hit or miss because they use these fins to swim and turn as well. Or maybe watching a lion hunt you obviously deduce that it is hungry and wants to eat, but this is different to me than the body language I was learning from the mantas.

Cleaning Reef Manta Photo By: Dr. Anne Marie Kitchen Wheeler

Seeing a manta swim toward the reef and relax it's cephalic fins way before it reaches the reef tells you it is thinking about getting cleaned which is exactly what I saw. That same manta, after getting cleaned for a few minutes, rolled it's cephalic fins up, telling us it was getting ready to swim and around 30 seconds latter it took off and didn't return. Most divers that see mantas see them while the mantas are feeding, so last but not least, a manta indicates it is time to feed by cupping its cephalic fins. This allows it to channel as much food as possible into it's mouth.

Swimming Reef Manta Photo By: Dr. Anne Marie Kitchen Wheeler

After absorbing all this new information, I was thrilled to test my knowledge, watch mantas, and use what I  had learned to ID them. Our next manta dive took place at night. We were split into two groups. Our instructor, Anne Marie, led the second group, while Lesley and I were assigned to the first group. My assigned task to pass the Manta Diver class was to take aqua paper (underwater paper) on our night dive and use it to record the sex and tail length of two mantas. In addition, I had to draw the spot markings of these mantas. This was a lot harder then I first thought it would be. Let's see, hold the pencil and clipboard underwater at night; shine your light at the manta swimming quickly overhead; set the light down on the clipboard and start drawing and recording info quickly. It took me about 30 minutes to get a small amount of info on each of these mantas. From the info I recorded on that first dive Anne was able to determine that two of the three mantas we had on our group's first dive were the same mantas she had on her group's second dive. All of this info was logged into the database where we learned we dove with a female manta named Wiggly and a male named Squiggly.

Photo By: Lesley Alstrand
The Maldives had the  healthiest reefs by far I have ever seen. The sheer amount of fish on these reefs was astounding. Mix that in with drift dives, wreck dives, the best night dive I've ever done, using reef hooks to watch dozens of grey sharks and white tips cruising by in current so strong we were all looking around to see what was making that loud noise we were hearing (which turned out to be nothing more than the water screaming past our ears), to secretly hand feeding some moray eels with scraps from our fish we were having for dinner that night (I WOULDN'T RECOMMEND IT but I had fun with it), and you might ask me what diving the Maldives is all about. For me, the Maldives will always be about the Manta!

For more information on mantas, check out Dr. Anne Marie Kitchen-Wheeler's
Manta Ecology Project Site 


  1. Yup they are special Chris. We've dive in the Maldives with Matt and A-M a few times and off with them to Socorro next May hopefully to see the bigger cousin Mantas. Sounds like you had a great trip.

    Peter Sampson

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