The rich waters of the Coral Triangle are home to a dizzying diversity of life, from the immense blue whale down to innumerable microscopic plankton. It is these tiny, planktonic plants and animals, fed by bright sunlight and nutrient rich upwellings, that support one of the Coral Triangle's most majestic and charismatic creatures. The manta ray.
The Coral Triangle is one of the best places to see manta rays in their natural environment. Whether coming to feed in the plankton rich waters, or to visit a convenient cleaning station, mantas are a treat for visiting divers, occasional bounty for intrepid fishermen and an important feature of local cultures and belief systems for many coastal communities.
But, within the immense waters of the Coral Triangle, where is the best place to see mantas? Here I offer my top five locations to get up close and personal with the majestic manta ray.
Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands
Located in the Solomon Islands' Western Province, Marovo Lagoon is one of the largest salt water lagoons in the world. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book Tales from the South Pacific, author James Michener described Marovo as "the eight wonder of the world" due to its outstanding diversity and richness of life, both above and below the water.
When searching for mantas within this immense lagoon, the barrier reef island of Uepi rarely disappoints. Flanked by the warm, shallow waters of the lagoon on one side, and the oceanic abyss on the other, it is a natural aggregation point for mantas.
Early in the morning, local boat captains know the best locations to find the "tape gette" — the Morovo word for 'big ray". The shallow waters of the lagoon are ideal for divers and snorkelers alike. In fact, without the noise of exhaled bubbles, snorkelers may have a much closer experience. The mantas will often remain for the entire day, whirling and playing in groups of 10, 20 or more. And as the sun rises, it penetrates the greenish waters, making for some striking photo opportunities of black and white giants against an emerald background.
Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea
Milne Bay was named in 1873 by British Naval Officer Captain John Moresby, who mistakingly thought he had discovered a new passage from Australia to China. Lying at the southeastern-most tip of Papua New Guinea, its coastal ecosystems are some of the remotest and most untouched in the world and its coral reefs are some of the richest, with over 1,000 species of reef fish and 420 species of coral identified to date. Mantas can be found throughout the 250 km2 bay, but a handful of sites have earned a special reputation with divers.
Cobb’s Cliff is a shallow shoal that rises to around 5m. On one side a steep drop off descends to more than 50m, while on the other lies a shallow, sandy lagoon. Manta rays are frequent visitors, as are other large pelagics such as hammerhead sharks. And if you can tear your eyes away from these ocean giants, myriad macro subjects abound, including leaf scorpion fish, Rhinopius, elegant fire gobies, and many more.
The dramatic drop off and blue water of Wahoo Point is another great site for big fish action. Manta rays are regularly seen at cleaning stations, or feeding in the currents and eddies. Hammerheads, whalesharks, dolphins, minke whales and orcas have also been known to pay a visit. Remember to take a camera, or no one will believe your amazing tales.
Perhaps the best manta site in Milne Bay is Giants@Home, a coral bommie within an otherwise featureless shallow protected bay. Groups of 15 or more mantas line up to visit a cleaning station on the top of the bommie in just a few meters of water. These sunlight drenched, shallow waters offer some fantastic photo opportunities.
Derawan Islands, Indonesia
The Derawan Islands lie to the east of Kalimantan in the Sulawesi Sea. They include the islands of Derawan, Sangalaki, Kakaban, Maratua, Panjang, and Samama. These islands are a biodiversity hotspot, containing some of the richest coral reefs of the Coral Triangle, and one of the largest green turtle nesting sites in the world.
Many divers refer to Sangalaki as the world capitol for manta rays. Large mantas come in their hundreds to feed in the plankton rich waters emanating from the Berau River. Mantas are extremely likely to be found year round.
Beneath the waters of northern Sangalaki divers encounter a sandy seafloor bisected by a series of coral ridges. Plankton rich currents are funneled between these ridges, and it is here that the mantas come to feed in the concentrated waters. They are often found swimming, feeding and playing just below the surface, ensuring divers and snorkelers alike a good chance to see them up close.
Atauro Island, Timor Leste
With its warm shallow waters, deep ocean channels, minimal tourist trade and almost nonexistent commercial fishing or heavy industry, Timor Leste boasts some of the best dive sites in the world. Manta Ray Cove, on the southern tip of Atauro Island, is among the best of the best.
Manta Ray Cove is cut from cliffs that tower more than 300m above the waves. Beneath the surface, the cliffs plummet vertically into the abyss. It's remoteness, deep waters and strong currents make this site more suited to the experienced diver. But those who venture here are sure to be delighted.
The steep cliffs surround crystal clear blue waters, and from August to November you are almost certain to encounter the dense aggregations of mantas that give this site its name. And, if the mantas are not enough, this is also perhaps the best wall dive in the world. The wonderful topography, overhangs and ridges are crowded with spectacular marine life, vying for position. Pristine corals, vibrant anemones, giant sea fans and so much more.
In the afternoon the sunlight creates a spectacular light show as it filters through the many ridges and arches. The effect is akin to arches and stained glass windows illuminating into an immense cathedral nave. This unique combination of mantas, exciting diving conditions, beautiful topography, rich coral life, and atmospheric lighting make this a truly memorable dive.
Komodo National Park, Indonesia
The World Heritage Site of Komodo National Park is famous for its Komodo dragons. But Komodo also harbors one of the richest marine environments in the world, and is a world class diving destination.
Manta rays may occasionally be found at many of more than 50 well known dive sites throughout the park. But two sites in particular are renowned for their magical manta experiences.
At Manta Point to the northeast of Komodo Island, mantas can be found from March to April and from September through November. This shallow shoal contains numerous cleaning stations, as well as deep gullies and ridges that channel the nutrient rich waters in which the mantas feed. Large groups of 10, 15, 20, or many more mantas will often play and leap in the shallow waters, and will investigate snorkelers with apparent curiosity and intelligence. Divers who move cautiously and allow the mantas to control the encounter may find themselves within a few centimeters of these gentle giants, and able to capture stunning closeup photos in these shallow, well lit waters.
To the south of Komodo lies Manta Alley, an exposed rocky seamount that receives the full force of the southerly seas, making it inaccessible for parts of the year. But if you drop in at the right time and in the right place, you can find yourself in the center of a vortex of looping, playing, feeding mantas. This site has two personalities. To the north, strong currents race through the narrow channel that separates Komodo Island, and mantas may hang effortlessly as you lose your battle against the current. To the south, a sheltered bay creates eddies that trap the plankton rich waters, and here you can hang motionless as the mantas fly by. A truly magical experience.
These five locations represent my opinion of the top manta dive sites in the Coral Triangle. Perhaps you disagree. Maybe you feel this list should include other, better, more abundant manta sites. If so, you could help scientists to identify the most important manta sites in the Coral Triangle.
MantaWatch promotes a social approach to manta ray conservation. By joining the community and submitting your manta encounters and photographs online, you can make an important contribution to identifying key aggregation sites, monitoring population trends and understanding migrations. Your manta reports are vital to help improve understanding, conservation and management of these magnificent creatures.
So I urge you to visit some, or all, of these five sites, to witness these majestic gentle giants in their natural environment, to interact with them responsibly and to play a role in researching and conserving manta rays. And of course, I encourage you to share some of your best manta moments in the comments below!