Hanifaru Bay Marine Protected Area
Discovery and Protection
Hanifaru was long known to local fishermen who would travel to the site to hunt whale sharks feeding in the bay alongside the manta rays. In the 1990s dive operators began to visit the bay but given the extraordinary nature of the experience, word soon got out and it wasn’t long before Hanifaru Bay became crammed with boats and divers every day - far too many for the tiny bay and its rays to sustain.
Quickly realising that dive tourism at the site was getting out of control, the government stepped in and after several dramatic twists and turns, Hanifaru Bay was declared a Marine Protected Area in 2009, then incorporated into the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 2011.
Visiting Hanifaru Bay
Located close to the south-eastern edge of the atoll, a 1,300m section of keyhole-shaped reef acts like a funnel, concentrating both currents and any plankton in the water which in turn attracts filter-feeding giants - the schools of manta rays and whale sharks. Conditions and currents have to be just right for feeding aggregations to occur - it is not a daily event - and the best season to witness this extraordinary natural phenomenon is from late July to early October, although it can occur as early as March and as late as December.
Hanifaru Bay is now one of the ‘core zones’ within the wider Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve and in order to visit, you are required to go to the Hanifaru Visitor Centre in Dharavandhoo Island and purchase tokens for $30. Each token gives you 45 minutes in the water with the manta rays, whale sharks, and an approved snorkel guide, with all profits going towards the Baa Atoll Conservation Fund. Resorts and liveaboards purchase the visitor tokens themselves and sell them to their guests, and are then allowed to drop their guests off in a designated zone outside the bay. Guests must then swim into Hanifaru Bay. Alternatively guests can use a water taxi from Dharavandhoo to get to the site.
Diving is no longer permitted in the bay - you can only snorkel with the manta rays and whale sharks. To keep any disturbance to a minimum, strict guidelines for visitors have been put in place. Snorkelers are requested to keep a minimum distance from any animals – a radius of 3m from the head section of a whale shark and 4m from its tail - and refrain from approach animals from the front or crossing paths, staying to one side instead. Touching or stroking is strictly prohibited and whilst photography is allowed, no flashes can be used. No motorized devices or scooters are allowed in Hanifaru Bay.
- Visitors can purchase a token for $30 from the Hanifaru Visitor Centre on Dharavandhoo Island, or their operator can purchase these in advance.
- Each token gives visitors 45 mins in the water with the manta rays and whale sharks.
- Snorkelers must be accompanied by a certified guide, approved by the Baa Atoll Conservation Fund - BACF.
- All visitors must travel from Dharavandhoo using one of the taxi boats. Liveaboards cannot visit the site directly.
- Snorkelers must keep a minimum distance from any whale sharks, touching is prohibited and whilst cameras are allowed, no flashes can be used.
- All proceeds from the sale of tokens goes to support conservation of Hanifaru Bay and Baa Atoll.
Images courtesy of The Manta Trust