At the moment there are two distinct species of manta ray, the larger oceanic manta ray (manta birostris) and the slightly smaller reef manta (manta alfredi). To keep things simple I’m going to just refer to them as mantas as they are found in the same areas with a few exceptions. Mantas inhabit just about any temperate, tropical, and sub tropical water world wide, with the exception of the Mediterranean. This gives us lots of options for being able to find them, however, to narrow things down I’m going to just list a few places around the world where mantas have a long standing reputation of turning up on a regular basis, and also just so happen to be snorkel venture destinations.
A few miles off the coast of Kalimantan-Indonesian Borneo, is an idyllic island known as Sangalaki which tends to regularly host manta feeding and cleaning parties. While mantas do spend a fair amount of time roaming the open ocean, it’s easiest to find them by waiting next to their cleaning stations or by scanning the surface where mantas are known to feed. Cleaning stations are just giant coral heads that host colonies of different types of small fish, most commonly referred to as cleaner fish, who love to pick off the parasites of mantas. There are a few of these cleaning stations just off the white sand beaches of Sangalaki making this a very predictable place to encounter individuals and larger groups of mantas. Along with that, the ocean currents bring healthy amounts of plankton up to the surface around the island where you’re likely to find the mantas hoovering up the plankton with their giant mouths.
Palau is another excellent place to find mantas, with one site called German Channel as being the go-to place. This channel was actually created by the Germans in WWII as a more direct route from the lagoon to the Pacific Ocean. Mantas can’t help themselves when it comes to narrow passageways for a number of reasons. These bottlenecks in the ocean not only condense all the plankton into one area where the mantas just have to face into the current with open mouthes and let the plankton dense water flow through, but these geographic features also increase the current. Mantas are incredibly dense animals and if they were to stop flapping they would quite literally sink. When a manta is cleaning they need to be as calm as possible for the cleaner fish to approach and do their work. So, in order to remain as motionless as possible without sinking they will approach a cleaning station while facing into the current and soar just above it using the current and their wings the same way eagles use the wind to keep them gliding. German Channel not only acts as a popular all-you-can-eat buffet but also as a communal bathhouse for the mantas.
Raja Ampat is one of the world’s first manta sanctuaries and also happens to be one of the few places in the world where you can see both oceanic mantas and reef mantas together in one site. While there are specific cleaning stations scattered all over the area with more being discovered all the time and channels where mantas congregate to feed, they can be seen just about anywhere. This is one of the beautiful things about Raja, you just never know when they are going to turn up, and sometimes you’ll find yourself suddenly surrounded by fifteen or more of these gentle ocean giants as they go about their feeding ballet.
Komodo is one of my personal favorite places to snorkel with mantas as it just seems to always deliver in a big way. Komodo is like Raja in that you never know when one is going to casually pass you by as you cruise over the reefs, but it just seems to happen so much more frequently. That’s for the sites which aren’t really known as ‘manta sites.’ For the sites where mantas are known to congregate regularly, aka manta sites, the number of mantas can be quite astounding. Back when drones were still allowed in the park I was able to capture over seventy mantas on the surface in one photo. There are dozens and dozens of cleaning stations all over the park and multiple areas where the feeding behavior is predictable. So, if they aren’t cleaning or feeding in one area we can move to the next where they are likely to be. Also, because there are so many mantas within the Komodo National Park you also regularly get the adrenaline-pumping courting behavior which can involve up to forty mantas all competing for a single female. This type of behavior is not uncommon in the various manta sites around the world, but I’ve never witnessed it so frequently and with such an abundance of mantas as I have in Komodo.