Lifting the Ray Ban

Honiara resident Fiona Marston has long wanted to get up close and personal with the area’s renowned manta rays but thought until recently, she may have been harbouring some kind of in-built manta deflector. After discovering this was not the case, Fiona was mesmerised by these wonderful protected creatures.

An easter weekend on a glorious outer island of the Solomons with a blood moon eclipse, could it get any better? Well, turns out it can when you can snorkel with a family of feeding manta rays a mere stone’s throw from your bungalow.

Maravagi Island Resort is located just north of Honiara in Central Province, about an hour’s banana boat ride from the capital. The resort itself is simple and unpretentious, but affords you a plethora of activities or hours to sit, relax and take in the spectacular scenery.

For those who have a more adventurous drive, Maravagi features a small surf swell within paddling distance from the resort, a number of generous fishing spots, two great coral walls for fabulous drift dives and an abundant reef for snorkeling literally a metre away from the resort’s main dining hut.

Sheer exhilaration

The resort is fully catered with three simple, local, fresh meals a day, plus tea and coffee. It is also licensed, so nice cold SolBrews can be purchased at a reasonable price to rehydrate after the day’s activities.

For those who prefer a quieter existence, the resort is divided into a few different areas for lounging, relaxing, sunbaking and reading, or you can always retreat to your own private island-style bungalow for an afternoon nap. Be aware however, the island’s generator doesn’t run between sun-up and sun-down so it can get very hot and humid indoors.

Back to those manta rays. It has long been on my Solomons bucket list to dive or snorkel with the elusive manta rays of Maravagi. I have heard plenty of stories about their feeding patterns being linked to the cycles of the moon, but the last few full moon dives have proved futile. In fact, I was almost convinced my body contained some kind of in-built manta ray deflector as it seemed I was the only one who had not witnessed this majestic spectacle in the wild.

So you can imagine my sheer exhilaration, sitting on the beach eyes glazing over watching the afternoon unfold before me, when the sight of a manta ray wing tip breaking through the current caught my eye. Was it? Could it finally be? Before I knew what had happened, I had fins on and mask in hand, and my friend and I were on the paddle board making our way out into the channel. Literally as soon as my head ducked under the water I was confronted with an enormous elegant manta ray gliding past me, just out of reach. I was breathless. I have heard the rays being described as majestic before, and there really is no better description. With a wing span between two and three metres, they look like an underwater albatross flying in slow motion. The family of rays swam in a repetitive cycle from the depths to the surface, up against the current, before swooping back down to repeat the manoeuvre again. When swimming against the current, their enormous mouth is open, to filter feed on the millions of tiny plankton in the water.

A full moon return planned

Time flew past much faster than the manta rays in front of my eyes and before I knew it, it was time for me to reluctantly give up my post to let another of our group come out and witness the spectacular scene as well. I really could have stayed, completely mesmerised, as long as the mantas were there, but this was an experience that had to be shared with the entire group.

So now that I know I indeed do not have a built in manta deflector, I’ll be on the first boat across the passage next full moon to relive this incredible experience.

Maravagi Island Resort can be contacted on (677) 29 065 and the resort owners will happily come to pick guests up from Honiara (at an additional charge). Be sure to make a booking, particularly around the full moon if you too have swimming with manta rays on your Solomons bucket list.

Conservation Efforts

There are two types of manta ray, the larger Manta birostris can grow upwards of seven metres across, while the smaller, coastal variety, Manta alfredi can reach up to five and a half metres in width. Both species are pelagic and found in temperate, sub tropical and tropical waters across the globe.

Manta rays are related to sharks (described by the Manta Trust as their ‘flattened cousins’) and are considered as perhaps the smartest fish on the planet because their huge brains relative to body size makes their behaviour closer to marine mammals rather than typical fish. Although related to stingrays they lack the stinging barb in their tails so are harmless creatures and definitely not the species that killed Steve Irwin. Their diet consists entirely of microscopic zooplankton which they ingest by swimming with their mouths gaping open.

They are now listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and protected in international waters by the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals. While still in danger from pollution and entanglement in fishing nets, they were previously harvested as a food source and for use in Chinese medicine. Mantas can live for more than 50 years but are slow breeders with a gestation period of twelve to thirteen months after which they ‘pup’.

There are at least two organisations devoted to their conservation and research. The abovementioned Manta Trust is a UK registered charity set up to co-ordinate global efforts to conserve manta rays and their habitats. They also run trips and expeditions in conjunction with eco-minded tour operators around the world. Closer to home, in Australia, there is Project Manta, established in 2007 with the aim of providing much needed biological and ecological information about the species in the waters of eastern Australia, they are based at the University of Queensland’s Moreton Bay Research Station and Study Centre. Project Manta relies heavily on community support and participation and encourages involvement by asking for photographs from the general public so that they can keep tabs on previously unidentified rays – see their Facebook page (facebook.com/ProjectMANTA) for lots of stunning photographs and updates on their work or visit their website).

Among those contributing to this effort is recent PhD graduate Dr Lydie Couturier whose PhD project focused on reef manta rays in eastern Australia under Project Manta. She says “Collaboration between manta ray researchers is crucial to help improve the conservation and protection of manta rays and their habitats around the world.”

She continues: “I have also successfully established a volunteer-support network along the east coast of Australia by engaging with recreational divers and diving industries, offering them the opportunity to be involved with Project Manta.

“It is extremely rewarding to see how the community has also contributed to the success of my research by providing important data, expertise and support along the journey.”

Accommodation and Transfer bookings

Maravagi Island Resort + 677 29 065.

Solomon Island Tourism Bureau +677 22442.