This post comes to us from guest blogger Chris Alstrand.
You can follow Chris’ diving adventures on the blog The Dive Shack Tides
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. Then we arrive at the lovely. peaceful, slow-paced sovereign nation known to us as LAX. It’s no wonder why once you settle into your seat on the plane a collective sigh can be heard!
Editors note: for those of you who haven’t flown via LAX, Chris’ comment about it being “lovely” we suspect is sarcasm. His comment about paying a small fortune to park, however, is painfully dead on.
After settling in for your flight, you start anticipating the types of diving ahead – drift dives, wreck dives, night dives – and the underwater life you expect to see. If you are a photographer or videographer you’ve definitely started anticipating famous wrecks or reefs or the critters you expect to shoot on your dives. One thing is for sure: you really can’t imagine what the 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. With an extremely healthy marine ecosystem there are chances to see whale sharks, mantas and loads of fish. What ended up standing out to me was something totally different.
Prior to leaving for this trip, I arranged to take the PADI Manta Diver distinctive 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. As it turned out, my trip to the Maldives was all about the manta.
After boarding the Sea Spirit, our liveaboard boat and home-away-from-home for this trip, we completed the usual paperwork and listened to the briefing presented by our cruise directors and dive guides Matt and Dr. Anne-Marie Kitchen-Wheeler. Dr. Wheeler is the project manager for The Manta Ecology Project in Maldives, and only the fourth person in the world to receive her PhD on mantas.
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 Hawai’i and Palau. Whereas in the Socorro Islands, we were diving with Manta Birostris, otherwise known as giant mantas.
After our first class session we did a few dives with mantas and observed some of the the things we learned from Anne. The second class session, a couple nights later, was even better than the first. We learned how to ID mantas using spot patterns located in between their gills and other factors.
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: feed, get cleaned, or swim off, etc. I had noticed when diving with mantas in the past that different mantas held their cephalic fins in different positions and thought it was interesting, but I never knew it really meant anything.
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 its mouth.
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, using reef hooks to watch dozens of grey sharks and white tips and the best night dive I’ve ever done … 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 and show your support for these amazing creatures by donating to Project AWARE or ordering a Project AWARE manta certification card.