That night I joined some of the crew for a quick land exploration on nearby Dharavandhoo Island, where the locals were celebrating Eid. As children played in the streets beneath pink bunting and fruit bats swooped between the palms, I noticed that several buildings seemed to be made from coral. “They don’t do it anymore,” explained my guide, “now they understand it’s something we need to protect.”
That night Guy explained just how important having coral, and the marine life it attracts, really is for the Maldives. The annual revenue from people coming here to snorkel totals US$8.1 million. But why did he specifically choose the mantas to protect?
Guy pondered: “I could say it’s because they are the most intelligent – they have bigger brains than any other fish. I could say it’s their size or the way they almost seem to have personalities. But really to understand why you have to get in the water.”
Later, at Maayafushi Lagoon, we did just that. On my first ever night dive, I sat 12m beneath the waves, clutching a torch and waiting for the mantas to come. Two did, including a pup born earlier that year. Her name was Sea Spirit, and for more than 40 minutes I watched as she kept returning to my torch, barrel rolling again and again in front of me. Despite her young age, she already had scars from encounters with humans – her pectoral fin had been cut by fishing line. For the past 420 million years these remarkable creatures have evolved to be the gentle filter feeders we see today. Yet now they are endangered.
The Manta Trust is doing more than cataloguing individuals; it has started to educate Maldivian communities about the importance of the creatures. “People will only try to protect what they care about,” said Guy. “If we can create empathy then the rest will take care of itself.”
As I peered into the eyes of Sea Spirit as she swam playfully, casting a shadow like a UFO, I couldn’t argue. If everyone was able to swim with mantas, no one would ever want to hurt them. Then, without realising it, I began to float towards her and for several minutes it was like dancing. Dancing with the devilfish. Though at that moment, in the dim, otherworldly light, it was like communing with an angel instead.
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