The Maldives are simply magical, but one of the most memorable moments of my time there was the day I swam with a manta ray.
We had travelled by wooden dhoni through the islands, stopping off twice a day to snorkel on the spectacular reefs that litter the shores. However, between the shallow waters of the atolls are much deeper channels, and these are when you find the manta rays. We set off one morning in search of them, seeking out the stretches of ocean where the mantas are known to congregate, and watching dolphins, turtles and other sea life along the way. Eventually our patience was rewarded: a manta ray, gliding serenely ahead of our boat.
I have never seen a group of people enter the water with more enthusiasm. Dropping anchor, we quickly threw on our masks and flippers and jumped directly from the dhoni into the blue water. The first sensation was one of a curious prickling on my skin. The plankton on which the rays feed is, of course, plentiful in this area – it is what draws the manta rays here in the first place. I had expected cloudy water; however, I hadn’t expected the plankton to bite back! Still, it was a small (and harmless) price to pay.
Ignoring the plankton, we swam off in the direction in which the manta ray had been spotted. And suddenly there it was, many metres below us, drifting slowly along between us and the deep waters below. It was an incredible moment. The manta ray was remarkably close to us, and unmistakable, swooping and gliding with its distinctive wide, curved “wings” and long, needle-like tail. We started to follow it as it swam, completely in awe and somewhat jealous of how well adapted it was to its environment; it glided along with grace and ease, unlike us humans who were having to work for every metre we swam in the open water.
A few members of our group picked up the pace, and the manta ray took off for safer pastures. We swam after it as quickly as we could, but it disappeared into the blue of the sea faster than we could keep up. I wish we had had more time to spend with this beautiful creature; apparently they will often stay and play if they are not scared off. But it was an incredible moment nonetheless, and one I will not forget.