Reporter: Allison Langdon
Producer: Gareth Harvey
It has to be one of nature's greatest shows. Certainly we've never witnessed anything like the dancing manta rays of the Maldives.
Their mesmerising underwater ballet only happens at one place on Earth and, even then, only rarely.
So, it's devastating to think that these massive and majestic creatures are being hunted to extinction.
And, if we're not careful, the curtain will come down on their hauntingly beautiful performance forever.
PHOTOS: See more from behind the scenes here.
BLOG: Read more about Allison Langdon's experience here.
INTRODUCTION – ALLISON LANGDON: It has to be one of nature's greatest shows. Certainly I’ve never witnessed anything like the dancing manta rays of the Maldives. Their mesmerising underwater ballet only happens at one place on Earth, and even then, only rarely. So it’s devastating to think that these massive and majestic creatures are being hunted to extinction. And if we're not careful, the curtain will come down on their hauntingly beautiful performance forever.
STORY – ALLISON LANGDON: In a far-off patch of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives spreads over 1,200 islands and atolls, across 90,000 square kilometres. And amidst all this, we’re looking for one of the ocean’s most magical and elusive creatures – the manta ray.
GUY: They’re beautiful to look at. They’re extremely graceful, elegant creatures. They are, for me, the ‘wow’ creature in the oceans.
ALLISON LANGDON: Marine biologist Guy Stevens has dedicated his life to understanding and protecting this mysterious giant of the deep.
GUY: I’ve seen lots of really cool things, and hopefully I’ll see many more cool things, but I’ve yet to find an animal that’s quite so cool as the mantas.
ALLISON LANGDON: The manta ray grows up to eight metres across, weighs up to 2,500kg, and travels the oceans alone – and that elusiveness makes it an intensely difficult subject for scientists like Guy to study.
GUY: One of the really amazing things about manta rays is that they just move around individually, and so they spend most of their time wandering around, searching for where they can feed on the plankton. We can learn so much by observing them really, really close, and for a large animal like manta rays in the ocean, that’s usually quite difficult to do.
ALLISON LANGDON: But this solitary giant has one extraordinary, momentary social event, and it takes place in a very remote corner of the Maldives, called Hani Faru, and that’s where we’re headed.
GUY: Basically, the whole of this reef and the island over here, the whole lagoon area, that is now part of the Hani Faru marine protected area.
MARK: I’m going to head up this way with the camera, and I’ll follow you and Allison, okay?
ALLISON LANGDON: Guy’s invited Australian and fellow marine biologist Mark Meakin, a specialist in measuring marine creatures.
ALLISON LANGDON: They’re hoping Mark’s purpose-built stereo camera will provide a critical piece of data to unlocking the manta mystery.
MARK: The key bit of information he lacks is growth rate. You need to know how fast an animal grows to work out how resilient the population is. How much impact can it take from fishing? How much impact can it take from humans? If they grow really fast, then they replace themselves quickly and they can sustain a bit of damage. If they grow really slowly, then the resilience of that population is low, and we really have to look out for them. This is just the first year of what will probably take a couple of years to really get a good idea.
ALLISON LANGDON: Tough job you’re doing, isn’t it?
MARK: I hate having excuses to go back to the Maldives.
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s not the turquoise waters and pristine beaches that attract the mantas to the Maldives. It’s a very rare feeding bonanza at Hani Faru reef.
GUY: Hani Faru is all about the food, so if there’s lots of food in the bay, the mantas come to feed on it. No food, no mantas.
ALLISON LANGDON: Mantas feed on plankton, and we’re searching for a patch of sea no bigger than a football field where that plankton is super-concentrated. It’s like looking for a drop in the ocean, but if we find it, Guy says we’ll find mantas – not one or two, but hundreds.
GUY: There’s nowhere else, really, which gives the opportunity for manta scientists to repeatedly see these animals up close when they’re feeding and exhibiting all these different types of behaviours. That’s one of nature’s all-time spectacles.
ALLISON LANGDON: But Guy has discovered that for this rarest of events to occur, there must be a perfect alignment of the tides and the lunar cycle. We’re heading into the darkest night of the month, and out there just beyond the reef, tides are stirring that will channel thousands of tons of plankton into a tiny section of the ocean, and that we’re hoping will draw the manta rays out of the depths.
GUY: For me, it’s the most amazing thing in the world, I mean, you can have these massive concentrations of plankton, massive concentrations of mantas feeding on it, and it’s all in such a small area, you know, something the size of a football pitch. The fact that they’re right there, you know, all around you, together, is pretty spectacular.
ALLISON LANGDON: And what are you hoping to see?
MARK: Well, I’m hoping to get up close and personal with a manta ray.
ALLISON LANGDON: This certainly wasn’t what we were hoping to wake up to. The moon and the tides might be perfect, but the weather has closed in, in every direction. The storm sets in, and under this broken ocean, there’s no way of knowing if the mantas are moving in, or moving on. Then, as quickly as it set in, the storm lifts. There’s a bunch.
GUY: Yeah, amazing, huh?
ALLISON LANGDON: And the water is alive with mantas.
GUY: You can just see them, they’re all basically feeding on this concentrated patch of plankton right here.
ALLISON LANGDON: This is fantastic. I can’t believe we’ve got the new moon, it’s now quite calm, and we’ve got it to ourselves.
GUY: Perfect. Perfect.
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s like diving into another world. Manta formations sweep over us. And as the scientists document this extraordinary gathering, I just watch in wonder.
GUY: They’re almost like underwater birds. I mean they have these massive, elongated pectoral fins that effectively they use to sort of flap, you know, fly through the water. And if there’s really, really dense amounts of plankton, and there’s lots of mantas there feeding on it, they will form this sort of cyclone, underwater cyclone of this spiraling mass of animals. There’s very little that compares to that on this planet.
ALLISON LANGDON: That was truly, truly spectacular.
MARK: That would have to be, I think, one of the best animal experiences you can do on the planet. It’s kind of a mix between eagles and small trucks, really, isn’t it?
GUY: Everywhere you looked, it’s like mantas barrel rolling in chains. It’s just an amazing sight, it really is.
ALLISON LANGDON: But while mantas are protected in the Maldives, half an ocean away they’re being fished to oblivion. The commercial fish markets of Sri Lanka – grisly evidence of a pointless slaughter.
GUY: They’re selling these animals for $40 for a whole manta ray. That scares the hell out of me, that these animals are worth so little, and it doesn’t take much to completely wipe out a population.
ALLISON LANGDON: The mantas aren’t even being killed to eat – the meat is thrown away. They’re wiped out for their gills, which are dried, pulverised and sold as a bogus cancer cure in Chinese medicine.
MARK: We’re killing these absolutely beautiful animals and we’re turning them into a powder.
ALLISON LANGDON: Tough to see?
MARK: Very hard to watch.
ALLISON LANGDON: But there’s real hope here. Back in the mantas’ haven of the Maldives, tourists are starting to converge on this undersea refuge – representing both threat and possible salvation.
MARK: It’s a great outcome that people think about these animals in terms of tourist dollars rather than just a dead animal hauled into a fish dock. That’s a really good thing. But the problem with all these things is that they’re a victim of their own popularity, and we stand a good chance of loving them to death.
ALLISON LANGDON: But Guy has convinced the Maldivian government to regulate tourism at this unique place.
GUY: We have to find a balance, we have to find a compromise to ensure that both people and the animals will be able to continue to enjoy this site for the future.
ALLISON LANGDON: Right now the Mantas of the Maldives are living proof that every endangered species needs a human champion.
GUY: Every animal has the right to exist, and to deserve to continue existing. We don’t have the right to make any creature extinct on this planet.
ALLISON LANGDON: What do we lose if animals like the manta become extinct?
MARK: You know, I just think we’re poorer as people. Those things are something we all need to see.