VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers


Manta Rays, Whale Sharks Receive the Protection of Maldives

Maldives has created three new marine protected areas, including important feeding grounds for manta rays and whale sharks.


Photo by Thomas P. Peschak/Save Our Seas Foundation

The Indian Ocean archipelago country is famous as a destination for tourists seeking exotic island getaways. But it is also one of the planet’s most important hotspots for many species, including whale sharks and manta rays, two of the largest and most charismatic fish.


The manta rays of the Maldives are featured in the July 2009 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

At least 120 individual whale sharks, the world’s largest fish, live in the ocean around the Maldives. The country is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks can be encountered all year round.

Mohamed Aslam, the Environment Minister of the Maldives, announced the protection of coral reefs and waters in and around Baa atoll Hanifaru, Baa atoll An’gafaru and South Ari atoll Maamigili to commemorate World Oceans Day on June 8.

Maldives image by NASA/ GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./ Japan ASTER Science Team

“The government is committed to protecting and preserving the Maldives’ exceptional biodiversity,” Aslam said in a statement announcing the proclamation.

“The marine environment is the bedrock of our economy, supporting our largest industries, tourism and fisheries.

“Not only will this initiative protect whale sharks and manta rays, but also other important megafauna, including reef sharks.

“The marine protected area sites are globally significant. By protecting them we are helping to protect manta rays and sharks throughout the Maldives.”


Photo by Thomas P. Peschak/Save Our Seas Foundation

Apart from restrictions on fishing, the marine protected areas will permit diving and snorkeling only under strict guidelines. Speed limits will be imposed on boats to prevent lacerations to the giant fish from boat hulls and propellers, and waste management programs will be run on local islands to prevent pollution.

The initiative is spearheaded by the government, the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme and the communities of Baa atoll and South Ari atoll, according to the Maldives Environment Ministry.


NGS illustration of Hanifaru by Caitlin Sargent

The new protected areas are “one of the last places on the planet where rays and whale sharks still roam in numbers reminiscent of times gone by,” said Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF) Marine Biologist Guy Stevens, who has been doing manta ray research in the Maldives for the past five years. The National Geographic article “Feeding Frenzy” covers the work of Stevens and features photographs by SOSF chief photographer Thomas Peschak.

See photographs by Thomas P. Peschak of manta rays as they converge to feed in a spectacular coral-reef ballet:

Mantas in the Maldives >>

“Each year between May and November the tide works its magic to suck krill and other plankton into Hanifaru Bay,” SOSF said in a separate statement about the new marine protected areas (MPAs). “The tiny creatures then become trapped and form an irresistibly thick soup. This delightful offering attracts manta rays from all over the Maldives and they converge here to feed in the hundreds.”


Photo by Thomas P. Peschak/Save Our Seas Foundation

SOSF said the proclamation of waters around Hanifaru in the Baa atoll as a marine protected area (in the map above) was a giant step towards protecting the threatened manta rays. “This and the creation of two other MPAs, An’gafaru in the Baa atoll and Maamigili in the South Ari atoll, demonstrates the new government’s forward thinking in marine conservation.”


SOSF is providing a patrol boat for the new marine protected areas.

The marine protected areas are the latest in a series of environmental initiatives by President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration, which assumed office after the country’s first multiparty presidential election by popular vote, in November last year.

“President Nasheed deserves much praise for his push to protect these ecologically valuable marine areas in the Indian Ocean,” said SOSF Director Chris Clarke. “His action protects one of the world’s most vital populations of manta rays by prohibiting all forms of commercial fishing, only permitting traditional bait-fishing by local fishermen.”

Earlier this year Maldives banned reef shark hunting, and Nasheed announced in March that the Maldives will become the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2020.


Photo by Thomas P. Peschak/Save Our Seas Foundation