Hanifaru Bay - A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
Swimming amongst the feeding aggregations of manta rays and whale sharks at Hanifaru Bay is one of the most exciting and mind-blowing thing you can do. There are only handful of places in the world where visitors can get so close to so many manta rays, snorkelling alongside them as they barrel-rolling and ‘fly’ in formation through the dense plankton - a behaviour that has become known as cyclone feeding.
The best time to visit Hanifaru Bay is from June to November. During these months the South West monsoon causes massive built up of planktons drawing hundreds of manta rays and whale sharks in to the bay.
Discovery and Protection
Hanifaru was long known to local fishermen who would travel to the site to hunt whale sharks feeding in the bay alongside the manta rays. In the early 1990s dive safari boats began to visit the bay but given the exceptional nature of the experience, word soon got out and it wasn’t long before Hanifaru Bay became crammed with boats and divers every day - far too many for the tiny bay and its rays to sustain.
Quickly realising that dive tourism at the site was getting out of control, the government stepped in and after several dramatic twists and turns, Hanifaru Bay was declared a Marine Protected Area in 2009, then incorporated into the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 2011.
Visiting Hanifaru Bay
Hanifaru Bay is now one of the ‘core zones’ within the wider Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve and in order to visit, you are required to go to the Hanifaru Visitor Centre in Eydhafushi Island and purchase tokens for $20. Each token gives you 45 minutes in the water with the manta rays, whale sharks, and an approved snorkel guide, with all profits going towards the Baa Atoll Conservation Fund. Resorts and liveaboards purchase the visitor tokens themselves and sell them to their guests, and are then allowed to drop their guests off in a designated zone outside the bay. Guests must then swim into Hanifaru Bay.
Diving is no longer permitted in the bay - you can only snorkel with the manta rays and whale sharks. To keep any disturbance to a minimum, strict guidelines for visitors have been put in place. Snorkelers are requested to keep a minimum distance from any animals – a radius of 3m from the head section of a whale shark and 4m from its tail - and refrain from approach animals from the front or crossing paths, staying to one side instead. Touching or stroking is strictly prohibited and whilst photography is allowed, no flashes can be used. No motorized devices or scooters are allowed in Hanifaru Bay.
How does a Hanifaru Bay snorkelling trip work?
Hanifaru Bay trips cannot be scheduled in advance. The trips are almost always spontaneous.
Through out the years, there is a network of trust and professional friendship built amongst almost all the tourist facilities in Baa Atoll. This network in addition to the news from the rangers who regulate Hanifaru Bay ensures no one misses a beat when it comes to any Whaleshark/Manta activity going on around us.
When we are notified of Manta/Whaleshark sightings, we try and get to the Bay as soon as we can. We use a Manta Alert group on WhatsApp to notify our guests of the trip. As mentioned earlier, we try to be as quick as we can so we usually request snorkellers to be on the boat with their snorkelling gear in maximum 20minutes.