Magical diving with manta rays and other denizens of a world-class reef whilst listening to a cacophony of sounds from the humpback choristers. This is Manta Reef as loved by Fiona Ayerst.

When I think of Guinjata Bay, lying in the southern half of Mozambique and on the coast, I think of coconut trees (millions of them), whale sharks, manta rays, long beach walks and twinkling stars. I am not alone. Ask any person who has travelled to this area and you will get a similar response. Some travellers may also refer to platefuls of prawns and crab rissoles or bags of lightly roasted cashew nuts. Certainly, this particular bay has long been a haunt of fishermen and divers who come to enjoy the incredible marine life of the area.

Manta Reef, the most famous reef in this area, became famous in the 1990s for the two manta cleaning stations that it hosts. At the cleaning stations, hundreds of small butterflyfish, sergeant major fish, anthias and cleaner wrasses live and work amongst the cabbage coral. Manta rays hover over the corals to have the tiny fishes pick parasites off their bodies and gill cavities. The small fishes feed on skin parasites and pieces of loose flesh and keep the rays in pristine condition. Well, almost pristine. Unfortunately, the tiny fishes cannot protect the rays from having bites taken out of their wings by the hungry sharks of the area.

I was fortunate to spend two months diving on and around Manta Reef this past winter, so I am well qualified to update you on its current offerings.

It is a gentle drift dive that begins with a 25m drop onto an amphitheatre called the Pinnacles. Mantas still frequent this area to be cleaned by the different fishes and patient divers are often treated to a spectacle as up to six hovering manta rays glide slowly over the reef. If divers hang around under the lip of the reef, the manta rays will “stay put” and divers can enjoy up to an hour of manta viewing from a perfect vantage point. It is a perfect scene. If the dive operator so wishes, divers can move over to the second cleaning station – the Canyon. Much the same event occurs at the Canyon, but it is far less popular than the Pinnacles due to prevailing currents that make the Pinnacles side the drop of choice.

If divers are relaxed in the water, then manta rays will not be bothered by their presence and some may approach divers to solicit attention and may even enjoy a tummy tickling caused by the exhaled bubbles from the scuba apparatus. It is recommended that divers do not touch rays, as they have a mucus layer that assists them with swimming and keeps their bodies healthy. Studies show that in some areas, where rays were regularly touched by divers, the mucus layer became compromised resulting in pink, bloody-looking areas where the rays had been touched, ultimately compromising their immunity and perhaps even their speed in the water.

One of my most memorable moments with a manta ray on Manta Reef was when I was almost ignoring it. Having already snapped off more than 20 very “baggable” shots, I had become blasé and also noticed that my buddy had moved about 20m away and was engrossed in a cave that housed a sleeping turtle. Getting ready to move over to him to get my fill of shots before the turtle awoke, I started to swim away from the manta cleaning station. As I did so, I noticed a shot forming in front of me. I could see a particularly friendly and relaxed manta swimming towards me. At the same time I noticed a shoal of big-eye crescent tails swimming to get out of the way of the descending manta and as they did so the shoal of fish became wedged between the manta and me. When these particular fish perceive danger, they turn red and this occurs in a flash. If they are not red, they are usually all shades of pink through to red and silver and sometimes striped shades too. I assume that the fish all flashed red at the same time due to the close proximity of myself below and the manta above their heads. They were like a layer of tomato sauce in a sandwich. All of this occurred in a split second and I managed to get one shot as the manta hovered over my head for more, seemingly asking where I was going? In my experience, mantas prefer to interact with individual divers and I always get my best shots of them when the rest of the group are already on their safety stop.

But Manta Reef is not all about mantas; it has its fair share of schooling reef fishes too. This past winter, we were treated to large schools of jacks. There are a few massive orbital batfish left, but unfortunately we did not get to see the school of hundreds that used to frequent the reef in the early 2000s. Hopefully it is a seasonal thing and they may be back in the summer in larger numbers. There are currently four friendly potato bass that have colonised Manta Reef as well as one very large and fairly friendly loggerhead turtle.

As Manta Reef is a fairly deep dive, there is not always time to look at its wealth of macro creatures. Currently, one of the most interesting is the orange and yellow striped leopard moray eel, commonly referred to as the dragon eel (Enchelycore pardalis). This eel has massive eyes, a frightening-looking jaw and an array of teeth and tubular nostrils.

I am particularly fond of porcelain crabs and anything else that makes its home in the myriad of fleshy anemones protruding like stubby roses and nestling into the sand and rocks of Manta Reef. Each anemone can be studied for an entire dive and you will never tire of the array of creatures living in and around it.

On my recent trip, there were large numbers of humpback whales weaning their babies around Manta Reef. On each of the 20 or so dives, the loudest choir of ocean angels accompanied me. The twittering, tweeting, bellowing, plaintiff mewling and humphing that went on were quite incredible. It was pretty hard to concentrate on the reef when feeling that, at any time, a whale may be swimming right overhead. Sometimes the sounds were so loud that I could feel my heart and muscles reverberating.

The whale sharks arrived in mid-August with particularly soupy green water, clearly full of the tastiest treats for these fish. On an ocean safari, we saw at least six whale sharks. If you want to dive with all of these animals then there are few places in the world that beat Manta Reef. It is certainly worth diving with these icons. Apart from the fact that some of these animals might not exist in the near future (for example, catches of mantas have increased by up to 80% over the last 10 years and they are now on the threatened list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN]).

Mantas and whale sharks are gentle and unassuming characters, each with its own special aura and personality. Floating next to a cleaning station and watching a manta ray settle down for a good spa day is one of the most special experiences a diver can imagine and I for one will never tire of it. Many who have dived with mantas have likened the experience to something other-worldly and almost all of them have felt that their lives have been enriched by the experience.

The short and sweet

Fiona runs month-long underwater photography courses in this area from April to September annually. These courses are unique in that even if you do not yet own a DSLR, you will be given one to use for the duration of the course. Visit www.oceans-campus.com to see more.

Manta Reef is just 12km north of Guinjata Bay and about 18km south of Tofo in the Jangamo district of Southern Mozambique.

Best time to go:  All year

Ave. viz in summer: from 10m and up.
Ave. viz in winter: as little as 2m due to plankton blooms and plankton-rich currents.

Ave. water temp: 22-28°C

Common critters: Humpback whales, manta rays, whale sharks and macro fauna, including a good estuary “muck” dive for juvenile critters of all types.

Diving feature: The canyons and topography both house large, charismatic animals (mantas, potato bass and turtles) as well as tonnes of macro and schools of fish.

Other things to do: Deep-sea fishing and exploring Inhambane Town.

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