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Loving Mantas…to their detriment!

Note: This post is about the situation shown in the attached You Tube video located near the end of this story.  If you don’t view it, you’ll never be as concerned as you need to be!   After watching the video and receiving input from various trusted sources, my mood lies somewhere between abject depression and cautious optimism!

This serene image shows the action of manta rays at a cleaning station at “Manta Sandy”. The mantas are basically undisturbed!

And this image is a screen grab from the Manta Ridge video. The action is anything but serene.

I have been blessed to have the good fortune to dive with Raja Ampat’s mantas more than most.  Raja and the entire Bird’s Head is one of the few places in the world which provides them a safe sanctuary due to a pioneering law passed in 2014 by Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.  First established to protect Raja’s mantas, this pioneering and unprecedented law is now in effect throughout the nation.  (We’ve posted a multitude of stories about mantas, so if you want to read more just do a search on the BHS site for manta and/or manta sanctuary.)

Manta feeding aggregation near “Manta Ridge”

We also have a Manta ID database with over 1500 individuals.  (Note: If you have images of mantas please send them to us so we can add them to the database.  And here’s a perk…if your image of a manta is not in the database, you get to name it!).

Raja is also home to the world’s first documented “birthing” nursery.  Raja and the Bird’s Head, what a special place!

Sadly despite this protection and its success, all is not well!  You, however, can make it better…

Manta at the cleaning station/bommie at “Manta Sandy”

Raja’s two most popular and frequented dive sites where mantas are predictably seen are known as Manta Sandy and Manta Ridge.  Both sites are manta cleaning stations, which the mantas need to visit to have parasites and diseased tissue removed by certain species of reef fish.  These sites are essential to the health of the mantas!  And both sites are in the Dampier Strait, where tourism is the most concentrated; a blessing and a curse!  Manta Sandy is likely the most popular site in Raja.  So much so, that in 2017 a ranger post was constructed on the site to regulate the number of divers allowed at a given time.  The system works and the mantas at Manta Sandy are relatively undisturbed.  (Again for more info, just search the site for “Manta Sandy”.)

Ranger Station at “Manta Sandy” ©Arnaud Brival 2017

Manta Sandy has become so popular that on some days not everyone who wishes to dive there can reserve a spot.  So the relatively nearby, but previously unregulated, site known as Manta Ridge has increased in popularity.  While Manta Sandy is usually an easy dive and can even be snorkeled, Manta Ridge is prone to a strong current. Sometimes very strong!  It’s not for everybody, and on some days not for anyone!  On most days, however, the use of a reef hook is required to keep from being swept off the site.

These facts have created a problem at Manta Ridge and now the same booking system has been put into operation there.  Like at Manta Sandy, anyone…any homestay, resort, private yacht or liveaboard must now reserve a time slot to dive at Manta Ridge.  This regulation is so new that many operators are not yet aware they have to reserve a time slot to visit Manta Ridge.  Making a reservation at both sites is fairly straightforward, however, via texting the What’s App group called “BOOKING Manta Sandy” (yes, the same app is used for both sites) .  You must be “invited to join” the group but all hosting operators know this (or should) and are already members of the group.

The BOOKING Manta Sandy Group on What’s App

The patrolling of and the experience at the two sites are very different.  Manta Sandy’s ranger post is adjacent to the site, so it is easily monitored. Plus there is an underwater “barrier” designating where divers should kneel to maintain their position during the dive and not disturb the mantas.  This barrier is placed so that the mantas have unrestricted access to the cleaning station.

Divers kneeling behind the barrier at “Manta Sandy” allowing the mantas clear access to the cleaning station.

Manta Ridge is more challenging, not only for divers due to the strong current but for the mantas as well.  The ranger post at Manta Sandy is too far away to patrol the diving activity/number of divers on Manta Ridge at a given time. And since there’s no barrier for divers, not only does the coral suffer, but the mantas and the divers can easily end up in a chaotic mishmash.  (You might refer to it as a Cluster ….!) This is especially true when operators either don’t know or choose not to respect the regulations resulting in far too many divers on the site at the same time.

A singular manta experience at “Manta Ridge”

Yes, it is up to the operators to follow the rules and make the reservations but very sadly, some don’t!

Now Please view the video!  This video was sent to me shortly AFTER the new regulations for Manta Ridge went into effect!  I was shocked and more than a little concerned viewing this.  It brought my wife to tears!

How many divers did you count?  Would you want to dive in these crowded conditions? Of course not!  Why would anyone?  A better question is why would a dive guide subject clients to this circus?  But it’s much worse for the mantas.  Between the sheer number of divers, all their bubbles, and without clear access to the cleaning site, they become stressed.  Do you love mantas?  Do you want to stress them?  I would hope the answer is “never/of course not”.  Sadly for some, the answer must be, “I don’t care”!   Remember this is primarily about the mantas!

Note:  I’ve been monitoring the BOOKING Manta Sandy group page.  Some days, there are manageable numbers; others not so much.  On 26/01/2024 at Manta Ridge, 8 groups with a total of 70 divers made bookings.  These groups started at 7 AM and the last divers exited the water at 3PM.  During this entire time the mantas never had a break. And even though those divers were spread throughout the day, 70 is still a LOT of divers!  Another friend, who I asked to review this article, was there in mid-January before the booking system was required for Manta Ridge.  In under 2 hours he counted between 80-100 divers entering the water. Fortunately, the mantas are not in the area year round.

Diving at Manta Sandy used to be just as chaotic as what you just witnessed in the video.  With the construction of the ranger station, the barrier, and the scheduling procedure in place, the situation at Manta Sandy has dramatic improved for both mantas and divers.  I’m optimistic the same can happen at Manta Ridge.

What can you do?  Before getting on the dive boat to dive with the mantas, make sure that your dive operator has made a reservation.  Ask!  Consider it your moral responsibility to ask.  If you are suspicious, ask to see the booking on the app.  There are only so many cleaning stations.  PLEASE if you love them, respect them and allow them to thrive.  Now that a system is in place for both sites, hopefully, hopefully, there will be full compliance.  Please do your part!

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