Only a few days ago I was leaving Naifaru harbour, surrounded by blinding blue skies and enticing turquoise water. I wasn’t going home, but instead to a sweet little sandbank in the atoll with the A.V. squad to search for nothing other than the great Manta Ray.
As we neared our destination, we had spotted something catapult itself out of the water with all the acrobatic ability of an Olympic gymnast. Not surprisingly, within two minutes we were joined by a curious and playful pod of Spinner Dolphins, resident here in our atoll. We had seen the same lot only the day before. They dashed to the front of the boat and took turns nimbly twisting, diving and leaping at the front of our boat, much to our excitement.
Yet it was hardly a few minutes we had observed these guys our heads were turned by the cry of our skipper. This Maldivian man cut quite an imposing frame. Salaam is a knowledgeable, experienced chap and finding gentle marine giants is was what he does best. “Manta, Manta!” he yelled in a powerful and stereotypically Indian accent, pointing to a dark shape just beneath the waves.
We were scrambling to get in the water as speedily as possible while trying to negotiate our masks, snorkels and fins. “Come this side, this big one is coming” Salaam commanded me, and I plopped in abruptly.
My heart was racing and I admit I was a little fearful, but I had craved this opportunity most of my life and I wasn’t going to let a little nerves get in the way. I swam to the place she was spotted, but somehow, she had eluded me. I was gutted. I swam back to the boat for a better view of the reef and a second opportunity.
The crew spotted another one and hastily steered the vessel directly into its path, I dropped myself in gently and gradually made my way toward the fish. I soon came face to face with a truly magnificent animal. Manta alfredi in Latin, the Reef Manta Ray can reach more than 5 metres across and feed exclusively on zooplankton, mostly tiny marine animals that accumulate in huge numbers.
The animal I faced glided casually toward and then past me, straining the organisms from the current with its huge basket like mouth. It felt surreal, but this was very much reality. To put the icing on the cake, a short while later I was lucky enough to meet three individuals feeding within close proximity of one another.
They would swoop to deeper water and then with a few flicks of their wing-like pectoral fins would swiftly and elegantly spiral up to the surface in an effort to engulf as much prey as possible, avoiding each other in the process. With this impressive display, it is no surprise their family was aptly named, the Eagle Rays. Their agility and movement was memorizing. To me they appeared to be dancing with one another and I felt engrossed in some kind of enchanting submarine ballet.
This lucky encounter was just the latest highlight from my time here since I arrived in the Maldives. I joined Cara two weeks after she touched down in August to commence work on the marine programme. We are both here as the new marine biologists for Atoll Volunteers. I have been in the Maldives for just over a month now and the time is flying by. There is a lot of work to be done on the development of the new marine park and development of the marine programmes.
When combined with the hot climate and salty air bed times become earlier and days become shorter. But alongside the hard graft there is loads of fun to be had here. Just like our journey to the Manta sandbank there are many more excursions planned for volunteers.
This can be snorkelling at the atoll shipwreck, sleeping under the stars at an uninhabited island with postcard sunsets or a day tuna fishing ‘pole and line’ Maldivian style with the locals.
Speaking of the locals, they are a charming bunch that goes out of their way to be welcoming and friendly. I am always greeted by a gracious smile from the women and a ‘hey Jordan!’ from the guys on my walks throughout town.
The culture here is quite unique and their cuisine deserves a special mention. Outside of the more ‘westernised’ restaurant such as our much loved ‘Lovers’, their local cooking is very, very tasty and is fish based. Reef fish such as Madras Snapper is a delicacy, marinated in zingy spices and simply grilled on the barbeque. Yet it is the Yellow fin and Skipjack tuna that is their staple, caught everyday in good quantity and included in most dishes. They often dry fish, outside their homes to eat as jerky, alongside chillies and rice, the other main ingredients in traditional Maldivian cooking. I eat anything, like a hog, but have a particular liking for seafood and hot chillies, so I’m very happy!
Overall, It has been a superb month for me, but also for Cara and the rest of the gang at Atoll Volunteers. We have seen great progress at our marine park thanks to the help of some passionate and enjoyable volunteers.
The Green Turtles we are caring for deserve a blog all to themselves, so more on these guys next time!
All the best, Jordan