email a friend iconprinter friendly iconManta Rays
Page [ 2 ] of 3

From May through November, when the lunar tide pushes against the Indian Ocean's southwestern monsoon current, a suction effect pulls tropical krill and other plankton from deep water up to the surface. The current sweeps the krill into the cul-de-sac of Hanifaru Bay. If the krill stayed at the surface, they'd wash over the bay's coral walls and out to the safety of the open sea. But they can't. Instinct forces them to dive away from daylight. When they do, they get trapped deep in the bowl. In just a few hours a massive concentration of plankton builds up, a swarm so thick it turns the water cloudy.

Cue Manta birostris. "Just after high tide you'll see a few manta rays turn up," says Guy Stevens, a British marine biologist who's been researching the Maldives mantas for the past three years. "Then poof, a whole group will move in, and you'll get as many as 200 feeding for two to four hours in a bay no bigger than a soccer field."

These massive fish (the wingspans of Maldives mantas can reach 12 feet) are dynamic filter feeders, shoveling their shoe-box mouths through krill like threshers through wheat, inhaling prey. They barrel roll when they hit a rich patch, somersaulting backward to stay in the hot spot. They chain feed, following each other in a train of open maws.

In the tight confines of Hanifaru Bay, mantas must expand their repertoire, and Stevens has identified maneuvers rarely seen by scientists. When 50 or more fish chain feed in the bay, something extraordinary happens. The head of the line catches the tail, and the chain spins into a vortex. "We call that cyclone feeding," says Stevens. "When you get more than a hundred mantas doing that, they start to spiral out. When the chain breaks down, you get chaos feeding." The stately dance in the milky waters turns into a free-for-all, with hundreds of mantas bumping into each other. Adding to the confusion are whale sharks—languid, plankton-eating giants, each about the size of a 40-foot shipping container—that show up to share the spoils. Within hours the plankton run out, the feast winds down, and the mantas plow the bay's sandy bottom with their cephalic fins to throw hidden prey back into the water column.

Generations ago those hornlike cephalic fins earned mantas the name devilfish. Their terrifying size and bat shape fed an aura of mystery and menace, and mantas were vilified as ferocious monsters. That changed in the 1970s, when scuba divers found mantas to be gentle creatures. Sometimes they even permitted humans to catch joyrides on their broad backs.

Page [ 2 ] of 3