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Alien Planet: Rays By Night

Northern Maldives is renowned for its Manta Ray cleaning stations. Uniquely, Manta Rays visit at night too, enticed by the plankton attracted to the lights on live-aboard boats. Our contributor had lived in a boat on the open ocean for seven nights, and “wake up – dive, post breakfast – dive, post-lunch – dive” was his basic itinerary. However, on a special night dive, nothing prepared him for what he witnessed – a dance of the Rays by the night.


We soon heard the all-exciting chime of the dive bell and excitedly rushed to our dive boat. It was 7:30 pm and pitch dark except for a light set up on our liveaboard. As a marine photographer, I realized the challenges immediately. Kneeling down in the sand in a semi-circle at about 12 meters would be 14 divers, some with lights and cameras.  Strict protocols were to be followed, but experience had taught me what happens when 14 divers got excited: there would definitely be plankton and sand all around. A photographer’s nightmare.

A Manta Ray glides by in the Maldives


10 minutes into the dive and I was mesmerized. It was like an alien planet. One could see Mantas gliding by in the beams of dive video lights, silently materializing and suddenly vanishing in the dark. With mouths wide open, twirling around, moving above my head just an inch away. No circus acrobat or ballet dancer could have replicated this amazing dance. Now add to this studio setup, random video lights at different spots.  It was a choreography of the highest order by Mother Nature. Completely unreal, like a surreal scene from “Avatar”. Breaking out of this one-pointed reverie, I realized that not a single frame had been shot by me, yet. Time was running out. Hoping to get some images that had manifested in my mind, I moved a few meters away from everyone. But there was no action for what felt like an hour, which in reality was just five minutes. Recollecting instructions of pointing my focus light upwards from the divemaster during our pre-dive brief helped. Also, the fact that I had two spare lights to help focus on the performers. This solitary audience was greeted with some amazing performances by these graceful dancing acrobats of the ocean.

Graceful performers with stage lights in the background


Clicking good photographs even in ocean conditions with particulate matter is an art. My training and instinct kicked in and some of these gorgeous memories were captured on camera. If wishes were horses, divers would stay beneath forever. But alas, in another 15 minutes, the dive ended. Many imaginary pictures were still in my mind. The performers would always accommodate, I know. This solitary audience is also ever willing to watch.

Like a scene out of a science fiction movie, this Manta comes a few inches away from me.


Often confused with sting rays, eagle rays, mobula rays etc., mantas are cartilaginous fish (Elasmobranchii), and are actually relatives of sharks. Their brain to body ratio is the largest in the family of sharks, rays, and skates. Csilla Ari, director of the Manta Pacific Research Foundation, studies manta ray brains and behaviour. These rays have enlarged brain areas, she argues, associated with intelligence, vision, and motor coordination. Some of their brain cells are physically more like those in birds and mammals than in other fish. No wonder they can be very curious and playful. They are also known to regularly interact with divers. Scientists’ best guess puts a manta ray’s lifespan at 40-50 years, but, as scientific tracking of individuals increases, we could find that the massive fish live as long as 100 years. However, the following threats pose an existential concern mantas:

  • Targeted Overfishing: The biggest threat currently facing the Manta’s is increasing trade of manta ray gill plates leading to targeted overfishing. There a belief in East Asia, and particularly in Chinese medicine, that eating dried and crushed manta ray gills detoxifies human blood and aids in curing everything from cancer to chicken pox.
  • Shark Fin Substitute: Fishermen also target them in the absence of other valuable fish stocks that are now depleted, as fillers for shark fins
  • Global warming
  • Collision with ships. This happens as they are known to feed on the surface and in large gatherings.
  • Ending up as Bycatch: You can help prevent innocent rays from ending up as bycatch by only purchasing sustainably caught seafood. Check out the Seafood Watch app before heading to the grocery store to find the best options.
  • Plastic and mainly microplastic : Eight million tons enter the oceans annually and over a million deaths are recorded. Participating in beach clean-ups, rethinking our plastic habits, and avoiding single-use plastics would go a long way.

A Manta feeding on microscopic plankton, showcasing its much targeted gills


Image credits (for all images): Digant Desai

About the Author /

Digant Desai is a very well known marine photographer from India. Marine life and the under-water world have been a childhood fascination for him, and he has seized every possible opportunity to capture awe-inspiring sights of this world on camera and study marine life. Digant has won international and national awards and has been penning articles for various wildlife and other local and international magazines. He was also on the team as a primary photographer while exploring the Angria Banks on a project by NIO and has co-authored the book Field Guide to the Sea Slugs of India.

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