Why Intercontinental's Maldives outpost is a haven for manta rays

Caroline Baldwin takes a deep dive into the Raa Atoll to discover how certain properties in the region are helping reef rays thrive

We’ve heard the mantas are about 35 minutes away, so we’re going full steam ahead,” the skipper tells us. We feel the engine ramp up as the speedboat darts over the indigo waves in search of the elusive creatures. Our small group buzzes with anticipation.

As we secure our masks and snorkels and jump overboard, we are delighted to be told that a pair of manta rays are just a few metres below our flippered feet. Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of swimming with mantas in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Despite a wingspan of up to four metres from tip to tip, initially their dark shapes are difficult to spot in the depths of the water, but the duo soon become visible, their fins moving majestically in tandem.

The Maldives has become a haven for reef manta rays, which have been nationally protected since 2014. While elsewhere their numbers have dwindled under the threat of fishing industries, the Raa Atoll, where we are snorkelling, has become an anomaly where they are present in huge numbers. This special place offers the perfect feeding ground for mantas and more than 5,000 of the rays have been identified by the Manta Trust.

Charitable partners

As they tumble and somersault through the water, our two mantas reveal white underbellies with distinctive markings, which help the UK-based charity identify individual rays and keep track of the population. But we’re told it’s often their personalities and cheeky curiosity that allow the guides to recognise frequent visitors.

We watch as the adult male and juvenile female glide as if in slow motion, playfully rolling back on themselves, again and again and again, which we learn allows them to concentrate plankton into a smaller area so they can feed more efficiently. It’s an exhilarating experience. And when our guide gently tells us it is time to leave, we all stare for a few more seconds before climbing back on board to return to our base at InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort.

This excursion isn’t available to just any tourist visiting the Maldives. While many of the country’s island resorts offer boat trips to see various sea life, the InterContinental wanted to go above and beyond to ensure its guest experiences had a positive footprint on the local environment.

Set on the southernmost point of the Raa Atoll, the property opened its doors in 2019 and a partnership with the Manta Trust was quickly established due to its close proximity to a newly discovered juvenile manta feeding ground. The resort offers researchers a base to work from, with incredible access to study these animals.

Personal touches

As you’d expect in the Maldives, the service levels are impressive. There are 81 beach, lagoon and overwater villas and residences and each is assigned a ‘curator’ to ensure every possible whim is met. Personal touches are in abundance: every guest has access to a bicycle to use if they wish during their stay – mine came with my initials underneath the wicker basket.

If cycling isn’t for you, send a quick message to your curator and a golf buggy will swiftly be ready to take you anywhere on the island. That said, at just 600 metres long, it is easy to stroll along the golden beaches or through the lush vegetation, which provides natural privacy to the residences and a home to the indigenous wildlife.

Wander through the jungle‑like canopies and you might be lucky enough to spot the national bird of the Maldives, the kanbili, with its distinctive call, or fruit bats the size of kittens, which dart from tree to tree at dusk. While my Beach Pool Villa is not the typical stilted overwater accommodation one pictures when thinking of the Maldives, it’s more spacious, with a private pool enveloped by greenery, and just 20 seconds from one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen.

Sipping fresh coconut water straight from the shell, surrounded by sand as fine as icing sugar, and looking at the turquoise water lapping the shore, it feels like a scene from a film. It’s remarkably still too, apart from the gentle waves, a tern occasionally weaving across the sky and the tiny hermit crabs that scuttle across the sand’s surface. It’s the definition of peace and quiet.

Lagoons and retreats

A little farther up the beach sits one of the resort’s lagoons, as well as the main pool area, with all‑day dining options. The shallow water provides the perfect spot for a variety of watersports, with complimentary kayaks, paddleboards and windsurfing boards, while private snorkelling and scuba diving lessons can be arranged on the island’s house reef.

If you fancy something a little more thrilling, jetskis can be arranged in a heartbeat – I enjoy an exhilarating afternoon channelling my inner Iron Man being shot out of the sea by my feet while trying out jet blades. After some adventurous pursuits, recommend clients spend time in the Avi Spa or take a leisurely walk to the nearby adult-only Retreat.

This second pool area overlooks the resort’s inner lagoon, where baby reef sharks chase schools of fish through the glistening waters and a resident crane keeps a watchful eye on proceedings. With an infinity pool, private cabanas and a restaurant offering relaxed lunch dishes such as seared tuna burger, nutritious salads and even afternoon tea, it’s the perfect spot to unwind.

The culinary options are vast. The Fish Market restaurant affords spectacular sunset views and allows guests to select their own seafood, while the Lighthouse promises a more elevated dining experience with a Mediterranean influence. The top of the Lighthouse affords an unparalleled 360-degree view of the resort and the sparkling ocean; after forcing myself out of bed early one morning to catch the sunrise from this viewpoint, I was rewarded with the sight of an eagle ray basking in the shallows.

A day earlier someone had spotted a hammerhead shark. From champagne sunset cruises and wine tasting in the resort’s own wine cellar, to cookery classes where I blend spices to make a Maldivian tuna curry, the choice is boundless. But it’s the dinner on a private beach under a full moon on our final night that will stay with me, with the island’s curators going above and beyond to host the most spectacular meal.

Swinging my sandals in my hand as I walk along the sand to my villa, it feels like the entire beach belongs only to me. The moon is so bright its rays reflect off the white sand, lighting up the whole beach. In this brief moment of what feels like near-daylight, I pause to take in the beauty of the island and its magical manta rays, before wandering down the shoreline to bed.

Manta retreat

Adventurous guests who want to supercharge their manta ray knowledge can book themselves on to InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort’s annual Manta Retreat. The three-night programme, now in its third year and held annually in March, allows participants to view manta rays up close in the nearby lagoon and work alongside the Manta Trust research team.

Guests spend days out in the water, recording and observing the animals, while certified divers can also visit specialist sites that provide an opportunity to observe a natural manta ray 'spa' (cleaning station), as well as the wealth of other marine life in the waters around the Maldives.

The programme includes two manta ray snorkelling trips, a guided house reef snorkelling experience, the chance to name and adopt a manta ray, and workshops to learn more about manta rays, plankton and coral restoration and planting. The participation fee for the Manta Retreat is $1,490 per person in addition to the usual accommodation rate.

Book it: Prices start from $1,400 for a night in a One Bedroom Sunset Beach Pool Villa, including breakfast. An additional green tax is $6 per person, per night. Maldives.intercontinental.com

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