There are few experiences more exciting than diving or snorkeling with manta rays. Every year tourists spend an estimated US$140 million globally to see manta rays in the wild. Tourism is potentially one part of the solution to the issue of global manta fisheries, providing many countries and governments with a strong economic incentive to protect these animals. By swimming with mantas you could be helping to save them! However, as you watch these fascinating animals it is important to keep in mind that manta rays are sensitive to disturbance. There have been occasions where uncontrolled human interactions with manta rays have negatively impacted the local manta populations.
Many dive operators around the world have developed guidelines for manta encounters. These guidelines help to ensure that the mantas are not disturbed and aim to create a sustainable approach to manta ray tourism to ensure these special sites and their inhabitants remain healthy for many more years to come. However, none of these previous guidelines have been validated by scientifically quantifiable studies. To ensure the most effective regulations are implemented globally the Manta Trust has taken a systematic approach to addressing this need by developing a Best Practice Code of Conduct based on our own long-term scientific studies and information pooled from previous guidelines.
A Scientific, Evidence-based Approach
Over a decade of research from sites all across the globe has provided our team of project leaders with great insights on manta tourism interactions. Based on these studies, a Best Practice Code of Conduct for interacting with manta rays is summarised below and is available for download, together with a supplementary document that highlights the scientific reasoning for these recommendations. The Best Practice Code of Conduct and associated documents not only refer to in-water behaviour by divers and snorkelers, but also includes recommendations for vessels approaching and departing manta aggregations, and key points to include in the briefing by crew and operators prior to the manta experience.
Our extensive experience and study has shown every site is different, however at a broad scale there are several steps that can be taken to minimise the negative impacts upon these graceful giants. Most notably interactions at manta cleaning stations will differ from those at feeding aggregations, therefore the Code of Conduct recommends different practices at each type of manta aggregation site. Cleaning stations are prominant reef outcrops, reef crests or coral bommies which are home to small specialized cleaner fishes. Manta rays visit these cleaning stations in order to have parasites cleaned from their bodies. Feeding manta aggregations on the other hand occur in predicatble locations when the ocean currents and the reef geography concentrate the rich planktonic creatures upon which the manta rays feed. Learn more about the social lives and feeding frenzies of mantas on The Manta Trust website.
This section enables you, the operators, to provide your staff and guests with the information needed in order to conduct your business in a way that reduces potential negative impacts on the manta rays which can often occur as a result of poor management practices. Below are some general principles and guidelines which we feel will enable you to better achieve sustainable management and effective conservation of the animals upon which your business profits. All of these documents can also be downloaded directly from our Code of Conduct section here in a PDF format.
Recommendations that should be considered mandatory at all manta aggregation sites are highlighted in bold and should be strictly enforced to ensure the sustainability of the site.
- Vessels entering and leaving the manta dive or snorkel aggregation site must reduce their speed and have a staff member at the front of the vessel looking out for animals and/or swimmers on the surface. Should mantas be spotted, the vessel must keep a safe distance away from animals and people. A recommended vessel speed is 8 knots within 100m of the animals and 5 knots within 30m of the manta aggregation site.
- There should be absolutely no vessel traffic directly above the aggregation site where mantas are expected to be seen. Divers and snorkelers need to enter and exit the water at a safe distance away from the aggregation site. A safe distance can be considered 10 meters away from any animal and/or the manta aggregation site.
- If there is a current, the vessel should drop off guests at a safe distance upstream from the animals and pick up guests downstream from the animals and/or the manta aggregation site. There should be absolutely no towing of snorkelers on ropes behind the vesselthrough the manta aggregation site.
- A pre-encounter briefing should always be conducted by the crew/guide that highlights entry and exit procedures, the in-water Code of Conduct, and any environmental and safety conditions to be aware of; such as currents, boat traffic, etc. See details for tourism in-water Code of Conduct below.
- Briefings should also include additional information on manta ray biology, behaviour and threats, which can be found at our Mantas At A Glance page here.
- Manta interactions at cleaning stations are predominantly best conducted via SCUBA diving, while interactions with feeding manta rays are best conducted via snorkeling. An exception to this rule is when the manta cleaning station is shallower than 3m (10 feet), or if there are government regulations preventing scuba diving activity.
- An in-water guide or supervisor should always accompany the divers/snorkelers during the interactions in order to ensure safety and compliance to the Code of Conduct. There should be a maximum ratio of tourists to each guide, which should be defined in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreed upon by all operators visiting the site, or through government legislation.
Adapting to Your Local Conditions
Every country is subject to different conditions, local regulations and government laws, therefore every operator should adapt these guidelines to fit with the local site and manta tourism experience. For instance, sites that fall within marine protected areas may not allow any scuba diving activity. It is also recommended that all operators (resorts and dive centers) in the area should enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that clearly defines how to behave when visiting the local manta site including restrictions on vessel speed, approach, and maximum number of boats and tourists at the site.
The Importance of Your Crew
Crew and staff can greatly contribute towards enhancing the manta experience and providing additional value to the interaction. However, it is important that boat crew and guides are appropriately trained, aware of the Code of Conduct and how to supervise in-water behaviour. A pre-encounter briefing by crew should be mandatory, which should include (at least) the following points:
- Entry and exit procedures for divers/snorkelers
- In-water Code of Conduct (see below)
- Any risks associated with manta interactions
- Weather and current conditions
In addition, crew may also provide further information on 1) manta biology, distribution and behaviour, 2) threats to manta rays, 3) interesting facts and figures through either informal conversations or scheduled evening presentations at the resort or dive center.
Best Practice Code of Conduct for Tourists
Below is a simple table and individual diagrams which clearly lay out the key guidelines for interacting with manta rays, both at cleaning stations and during feeding events, either when snorkeling or on SCUBA. All of these documents can be downloaded directly from our Code of Conduct Public Resources section in PDF format here.