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It is hard to adequately describe the incredible experience of swimming with manta rays. The few moments of chaos as you get into the water, waiting for the bubbles to clear and to orientate yourself, and then, the magical, silent and graceful approach of a manta ray from the blue. Simply unforgettable!
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Manta Point on Nusa Penida
Manta rays inhabit tropical and subtropical coastal and oceanic waters. There are few places as rewarding, and as easily accessible to go swimming with manta rays as the island of Nusa Penida, between Bali and Lombok in Indonesia. Although the largest of a cluster three islands, most visitors stay on the picturesque Nusa Lembongan and join a day snorkeling boat trip that combines the unforgettable manta rays and breathtaking coral gardens of Nusa Penida.
Manta rays are filter feeders. By swimming with their mouths open they sieve the water, catching and eating tiny zooplankton that swarm in nutrient-rich waters. Manta rays congregate in these "soupy" areas, making them ideal places to view these unique fish. A localised area of upwelling at Manta Point off Nusa Penida creates the perfect manta ray cafetaria, and although the water is a little chilly, visitors who go swimming with manta rays here are not disappointed as the manta rays abound!
Our experience of swimming with manta rays
There are a number of operators who offer snorkeling trips from Nusa Lebongan, and our first step in swimming with manta rays began by selecting which operator to use. The snorkeling opportunities around the three Nusa islands are endless and there are a number of packages to choose from, each with their own combination of snorkeling spots. Because we had come for the mantas, we had no problem selecting the package that first made a stop at Nusa Penida's Manta Point before continuing on to the island's coral wonderlands.
Early the next morning we drove our rented scooters to meet the charter on the northern, mangrove-lined coast of Nusa Lembongan. After a safety briefing, we climbed aboard and began the slow and scenic journey from the dock, through the mangrove forest and over the lip of the fringing reef before setting our course for Manta Point.
Because of the proximity of the three islands to each other, most of the boat trip hugged the coastline of one or another of them. The passing rocky cliffs and wave cut edges were very interesting to watch, and provided a reference point for the seasick-prone among our group!
Being July, the scene that greeted us on arrival at Manta Point was a little disappointing. There were boats everywhere, but to be fair this should be expected during peak season. We were relieved when our skipper told us he would first take us to a quieter spot around the corner to look for mantas there while we waited for the crowd to thin out a little.
Now I don't know about you, but when I think of tropical Indonesia I picture warm water! If you choose to go swimming with manta rays at Manta Point, be prepared for water that is decidedly nippy (but not unbearable without a wetsuit - toughen up Jill!...). Without the cold water though, there would be no mantas as the cold temperature comes from water that has upwelled from deeper areas. Unlike the warm surface waters that are nutrient poor, these deep waters are full of nutrients that support dense zooplankton swarms - perfect feeding conditions for manta rays! For this reason the water was also not crystal clear, but once again, no zooplankton soup equals no mantas.
Apart from an interesting sighting of small squid we didn't spot any mantas at the first spot, but all of that changed when we returned to Manta Point. By now the crowd had thinned out and we entered the water, bobbing around expectantly but at the same time not really knowing what to expect. Soon the shout went out - "Manta, over here"! Scanning the murky blue for any sign of the approaching ray I saw nothing at first and then, a dark shape that quickly transformed into the biggest manta ray I have ever seen.
Unperturbed by the snorkelers, it arced through the water, mouth open and wings gracefully beating. It felt like it was heading straight for me and I was certain of a collision until, barely a meter or two in front of me it dived, swimming directly below me and up again on the other side. What an experience!
Probably the highlight of my time swimming with manta rays was when, by chance, I found myself slightly separated from the rest of our group and in the thick of things. Two mantas, like athletes on a course or airplanes at an airshow, were lining up and swimming laps through the water, passing directly below or to the side of me, before cycling through and beginning their passes again. As they passed I was able to notice and appreciate small details - the markings on their backs, the surprising fleshyness of their wing-like pectoral fins and the occasional hitchhiking remora.
Back on land, it was time to examine the Go Pro footage (of course!) and try to relive the experience. Being able to share the water with these endangered animals was a privilege and undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Indonesia. If you get the chance, this is an experience I'd definitely recommend not passing up.
More on mantas
Worldwide there are two species of manta rays, the reef manta Manta alfredi (as seen in our video) and oceanic manta Manta birostris. The reef manta grows to a disc size of up to 5 m across while the oceanic manta can grow to the gigantic size of 7 m across! Depending on the age of the individual however, the two are difficult to distinguish using size alone, but the markings on the dorsal (top) surface give an easy clue. The oceanic and migratory M. birostris has two white patches that are clearly defined and resemble a "T", while in the coastal and reef-associated M. alfredi, the lighter patches are less clearly defined, appear to form a "Y" shape and are usually grey.
Although the reef manta stays within close proximity to reefs, islands or coasts, and the oceanic manta is migratory, their distributions overlap and both species are found in Indonesia's waters. In 2014, Indonesia instituted a fishing and export ban on manta rays. Mantas are protected in Indonesian waters, and with its 5.8 million km² (2.2 milion m²) of ocean, Indonesia is the world's largest sanctuary for manta rays. Swimming with manta rays is a huge draw card for tourism and a single manta ray is estimated to be worth over US$ 1 million during the course of its life in tourism revenue for Indonesia!
Manta rays grow very slowly, reach sexual maturity late (at approximately 10 years old) and only give birth to a single pup every 2-3 years. This makes them highly vulnerable to fishing, as their population can't grow fast enough to keep up. Both M. birostris and M. alfredi are classified as vulnerable by the IUCN's Red List of Endangered Species.
A guide to swimming with manta rays
Swimming with manta rays is highly rewarding as mantas are easily habituated to humans. If swimmer-manta interactions are conducted in a responsible manner, your experience of swimming with manta rays will be a memory that you will cherish forever. In some cases where this is unregulated however, manta rays can be scared away from a site by too much boat traffic, noise and disturbance from swimmers. Whichever operator you decide to use, we would encourage you to place pressure on them to operate in a responsible and sustainable manner, and report any violations or abuse to Aquatic Alliance, the Marine Megafauna Foundation's SE Asia branch (based on Nusa Lembongan).
Manta Trust have put together a great guide and video to diving and swimming with manta rays that you should definitely check out before your visit!
Some guidelines from their material include:
- Enter the water quietly and calmly, and no closer than 10 m (33 ft) to the manta rays.
- In the water, keep splashing to a minimum.
- Do not approach the mantas closer than 3 m (10 ft). Rather remain in one place and let them come to you.
- Approach a manta from the side, and do not block its path ahead.
- Do not chase after a manta ray - this will make them feel threatened, and they are much faster swimmers than you!
Places to stay
Nusa Lembongan is a picture-perfect island, with clear blue water, anchored boats bobbing in the shallows and a view across to the cloud-enshrouded peak of Bali's Mount Agung. An easy fast- or local-boat ride across from Bali, it has a range of accommodation to suit every budget and travelling style, and with world-class surfing, diving and small enough to easily explore by scooter, it is one of our favourite destinations.
Nusa Lembongan has two main stretches of beach; Jungutbatu Beach on the northwestern coast and the more secluded Mushroom Bay.
Pretty much everything, from restaurants to tour operators to scooter rental to the ferry pick-up and drop-off point happens along Jungutbatu Beach on the island's northwestern coastline. Three fantastic surf breaks also line up along the outer fringing reef. Within Jungutbatu Beach, visitors can choose to stay in waterfront accommodation like Bungalow No. 7 or the more budget-friendly homestays like Pondok Wisata Widi or Wayhu Homestay 2, and in the busier southern stretch or more relaxed north.
Nothing beats checking the surf from your breakfast table, and then enjoying the sunset over the sea from the comfort of your poolside deckchair or room verandah. If you really want to be in the centre of the action, while still enjoying a great hotel with enough privacy, we would recommend Bungalow No. 7 to the south of Jungutbatu Beach, close to the ferry meeting point. Bungalow No. 7 faces the famous Lacerations surfbreak, making it super convenient for surfers with their eye on this wave.
Further towards the northern stretch of Jungutbatu Beach things quieten down a lot. The hotels here are more spread out and life is generally more peaceful. The beach also widens in the north giving a lovely area of sand that is lacking towards the south. For families with children or those looking for a more relaxed experience, this northern stretch is the way to go. The northern stretch of beach faces the Shipwrecks surf break. Staying in the north, we'd recommend renting a scooter to make getting around a lot quicker and far more fun. Luckily most hotels will be able to arrange this for you with no problem.
Budget travellers should keep an eye out for the plethora of homestays on Nusa Lembongan. Although you will be sacrificing a beachfront location, these homestays offer fantastic value for money and many are excellent options. We arrived on Nusa Lembongan in peak season without a hotel reservation, and easily found a room at Wayhu Homestay 2. Just a block back from the beach, it was more than adequate and offered a pool, and rooms with air conditioning. You might wish to try the higher-rated Pondok Wisata Widi to the north of Jungutbatu Beach, however.
What to pack
As this is a boat- and water-based day trip, don't forget the following essentials:
- Sea sickness medication (if you are prone to motion sickness).
- Sunblock and other sun protection including a hat and rashvest.
- Drinking water and a snack (if not provided by your operator).
- Snorkeling gear and a towel.
- A light jacket, depending on weather conditions on the day.
- A waterproof bag to keep your essentials dry.
- A waterproof camera.
Manta rays congregate to feed at Manta Point. As this is a natural occurrence, manta sightings are not guaranteed and can be affected by weather and other conditions.
Although the swimming area is calm and boat operators will not launch during rough sea conditions, this experience is unsuitable for anyone who is not a proficient swimmer or who feels uncomfortable in deep water.
It is necessary to book your spot on a boat at least one day in advance.