Hanifaru Bay Snorkeling With Hundreds of Manta Rays

Are you planning a Hanifaru Bay snorkeling trip? Then you will get all the necessary information here to organize it, including when the best time is to visit to find the largest number of manta rays, where to stay, and what to expect from this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Snorkeling with manta rays in Hanifaru Bay Maldives has been on my bucket list for a long time, and finally, I made this dream come true. Now, I share my experience and answer the frequently asked questions to plan a successful trip to observe the fantastic mass manta ray aggregation and, if lucky, swim with whale sharks.

Key Takeaway:

-Hanifaru Bay is in the northern Maldives, in the Baa Atoll UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve
-The manta season in Hanifaru Bay is from May to November during the southwest monsoon, with the best time to visit between late July and early October
-Visiting the bay is possible through licensed tour operators only; excursion costs between 80-300 USD depending on where you are staying and what price your tour organizer charges
-It is also possible to encounter whale sharks as well as other types of rays, sharks, dolphins, and turtles in the bay
-There are several accommodation options nearby; you can stay on budget local islands and resort islands that are within 5-30 minutes by boat from the bay

Where Is Hanifaru?

Hanifaru is an uninhabited island located at the southeast edge of Baa Atoll in the northern Maldives, approximately 75 miles/120 km from Velena International Airport. It has a small, approximately football pitch-sized, keyhole-shaped bay next to it, referred to as Hanifaru Bay or Vandhumaafaru Adi as locals call it.

What Is Hanifaru Bay Famous For?

Hanifaru Bay is known for hosting one of the world’s largest manta ray aggregations. It is also an important feeding and mating ground for whale sharks. Thanks to the area’s rich biodiversity and the presence of these gentle giants, it is one of the top spots if it comes to go diving and snorkeling in the Maldives.

Although the giant manta ray tends to be solitary, they aggregate at specific sites to feed and mate. There are some places in the world where manta mass feeding events occur, but Hanifaru is where they gather to feed in usually high numbers.

Feeding frenzy - Hanifaru Bay

During the southwest monsoon, Hanifaru -normally a sandy-bottomed, shallow area- turns into a special feeding ground for filter feeder creatures due to plankton accumulating in it. On ideal days, up to 200 manta rays can be seen in the area feeding, often accompanied by some whale sharks.

Once, Hanifaru Bay was known only among local fishermen; when dive operators discovered this perfect manta and whale shark spot, its popularity quickly increased. Finally, Hanifaru got significant attention when it was featured in the National Geographic Magazine and on the BBC in 2009, leading to an extreme rise in tourism at the site.

Baa Atoll’s uniqueness and incredible biodiversity have been recognized by the nearby resorts and the Maldivian government, so the area (and like this, Hanifaru Bay too) was declared a marine protected area (MPA) in 2009, then a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2011.

To protect this ecologically important site, keeping the levels of harassment to the animals under control and limiting the number of boats and people, strict rules have been introduced and are enforced by rangers continuously monitoring the area.

Why Is Hanifaru Bay So Populated With Manta Rays?

Manta rays are year-round residents in the Maldives, but it depends on the season where they can be found as they follow the plankton that is moved across the atolls by the wind and currents.

In the northeast monsoon, they are usually found on the western side of the atolls (this is the dry season because the winds are blowing dry air from the land). During the southwest monsoon (this is the ‘wet season’ as the wind is blowing from the ocean, bringing humid air to the area), the plankton concentrates on the east side of the atolls.

The Hanifaru manta aggregation, this unique natural phenomenon can occur due to the bay’s location (as mentioned above, it is on the southeast edge of Baa Atoll) and the unique shape of the surrounding reef that acts like a funnel.

The bay lies at the end of a 1600-meter-long channel and is surrounded by shallow reefs that give its keyhole shape. Due to this funnel-like form and the shallowness of the area (the water is not deeper than 20 m in the bay), when the currents, winds, and tidal movements are ideal, large mass of phytoplankton and zooplankton gets trapped and accumulates in it, creating a thick ‘soup’ attracting filter-feeding giants, mainly manta rays but sometimes also whale sharks.

Can You See Whale Sharks In Hanifaru?

Most people think about going to the South Ari Atoll (Island of Dhigurah and Maamigili) when they want to swim with a whale shark. Still, actually Baa Atoll, and like this, Hanifaru is also an excellent spot to encounter these gentle giants.

Around Hanifaru, whale shark sightings peak during the southwest monsoon ‘wet season’ when the prevailing winds and currents move the plankton on the eastern side of the atolls.

From time to time, whale sharks swim into the plankton-filled bay to feed. The luckiest snorkelers might even catch a manta mass-feeding event accompanied by one to three whale sharks!

How To Get To Hanifaru Bay?

There are two ways to get to Hanifaru Bay; you can choose domestic flight transfer or take a seaplane.

Domestic transfer: There is a domestic airport on the island of Dharavandhoo that you can reach from Male Airport with a 20-minute flight. After arriving at the island, you will be picked up by your guesthouse or resort’s representative and transported to your island by boat (or taken directly to your hotel in case you are staying in Dharavandhoo).

Aerial photo of Hanifaru - Maldives

Seaplane transfer: After arriving at Velena International Airport, you will board a hydroplane at the seaplane terminal and be transferred directly to the floating platform of the resort island you will be staying on.

When your Hanifaru Bay excursion happens, you will be taken to the bay by boat from the island you stay on. The nearby islands are within a 5-30-minute boat ride.

All transfers should be arranged through the resort/guesthouse you will be staying at providing your arrival/departure information.

When Is Hanifaru Bay Manta Season?

The manta season in Hanifaru Maldives runs from May to November. However, the period between late July and early October is the best time to come when the weather conditions are the most ideal.

During these months, the tides and currents accumulate a dense mass of plankton in the bay attracting filter feeders, manta rays, and often whale sharks to the area since plankton is the primary source of food for these gentle giants.

Mata rays filtering plankton

There is no golden rule for what day or what time of the day is the best to see manta rays; however, as the solunar activity (peak fish feeding activity) is the highest around new moon and full moon, there is a higher chance for larger aggregation of manta rays around these moon phases.

It has also been observed that the greatest feeding intensity occurs around the high tide time; Hanifaru snorkeling tours are usually scheduled accordingly.

What To Expect When Snorkeling In Hanifaru Bay?

Hanifaru itself is an approx. 1200 meters by 600 meters bay. Boats cannot enter the bay, only the lagoon next to it, so you will be dropped into the water at the shallow reef separating the lagoon and the bay and need to swim into the bay to look for the manta rays.

If mantas are feeding in the bay, it is easy to find them as they are splashing at the surface. Your guide will lead the group there if they are around the cleaning stations. The onsite rangers also help locate them as they continuously monitor the bay using drones.

The feeding aggregation in Hanifaru is not a daily event; conditions and currents must be just right for this extraordinary phenomenon to happen. However, during the peak manta season between late July and early October, the chances of witnessing it are high.

If you are lucky enough to be in the bay when mass feeding happens, you will swim among 50-200 manta rays. Feeding mantas move together like a cyclone and start feeding in chains (the phenomenon is often called a manta train) and follow each other with open mouths, often rolling around and bumping into each other to be able to suck in the highest amount of plankton.

Manta mass feeding - Hanifaru

It can also happen that there are no mantas in the bay at the time of your excursion, but it is rare during the manta season. Usually, there are at least 2-5 mantas around the cleaning stations where they get dewormed by small cleaner fish.

Although it is not a WOW experience as witnessing a feeding frenzy, it is still nice to see these gentle giants peacefully cruising around.

During our one-week stay, I went snorkeling in Hanifaru three times and saw manta rays every time. The first trip was the best when we were lucky enough to catch at least 50-70 mantas feeding, while on the other two tours, there was ‘normal’ activity in the bay with 10-15 manta rays around the cleaning stations.

I recommend coming for at least 7-10 days so you can go on an excursion more times and have a higher chance of experiencing a mass feeding event.

How Is The Visibility In Hanifaru?

The visibility is often bad in Hanifaru due to the water’s high plankton density, but this is why the filter feeders are there! Swimming into a plankton mass might initially seem weird, but do not worry.

Group of manta rays - Maldives

Plankton is not harmful to humans; you might experience a slight itching and burning sensation when swimming through the plankton soup, but these symptoms are very mild and do not last long. Wear a long-sleeved rash guard top and pants if you have sensitive skin and want to minimize contact with them!

Also, your pictures and videos will look a little ‘fuzzy’ and not fully clear due to the presence of those microscopic animals (you can see it while looking at my pictures and watching my video). But this shouldn’t hold you back from bringing your underwater camera to capture this magical adventure!

Hanifaru Bay Manta Snorkeling Rules

Hanifaru Bay is a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve so there are special rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency of the Maldives for visiting this unique location that are enforced by the rangers patrolling the bay.

  • Maximum five boats and 80 persons are allowed to be in the bay at a time, extra boats need to stay in the waiting zone
  • Boats must adhere to a strict speed limit in the area
  • Snorkeling is possible only with a certified guide, tours need to be booked through licensed operators
  • Each group can spend 45 minutes in the bay
  • Chasing or touching the mantas is not allowed; individuals trying to do so will be fined
  • Keeping a safe distance from mantas/whale sharks is required and staying calm without kicking with your fins if they approach you
  • Using flashes, underwater lights, and selfie sticks is not allowed
  • Motorized vehicles such as jet skis or underwater scooters are forbidden
  • Wearing a life vest/snorkel vest is not mandatory, however, it is required by most guides to keep the group together

For sustainable manta interactions, check out the How To Swim With Mantas initiative, a best practice code for manta ray tourism.

Hanifaru Bay snorkeling map

How Much Does A Hanifaru Bay Snorkeling Tour Cost?

A snorkeling tour to Hanifaru Bay costs between 80-300 USD, depending on where you are staying. Generally, excursions from nearby local islands are cheaper, while further Baa Atoll resort islands charge more.

Each visitor must purchase a token for 30 USD from the Dharavandhoo Island Hanifaru Visitor Centre, which allows 45 minutes in the water. This amount goes entirely to the Baa Atoll Conservation funds.

Operators buy these tokens in advance and include this cost in the price of the excursion, so you should not need to worry about this if participating in tours organized by a local dive center.

Note that listed prices in the Maldives are exclusive of taxes. To final bills, +10% service charge and +16% government tax will be added.

For reference, the prices were the following at Joy Dive Center in Dreamland Maldives:
First tour:
110 USD plus service charge and tax
Additional tours: 95 USD plus service charge and tax

What Type Of Manta Rays Can You See?

You can see two distinct manta ray species in Hanifaru; reef manta rays (Mobula alfredi) and giant oceanic manta rays (Mobula Birostris).
Most species you will encounter are reef mantas; studies indicate that the population of Mobula Alfredi is around 6,000 in the Maldivian waters. From time to time, oceanic manta rays can be seen too.

The species can be identified from their coloration, size, and habitat use as per the following:

Reef Manta Ray (Mobula Alfredi)

  • have a wingspan of up to 5 m
  • live in shallow coastal areas, around reefs and atolls
  • have a Y-shaped shoulder pattern and usually spots between their gills
reef manta rays in the Maldives

Oceanic Manta Ray (Mobula Birostris)

  • have a wingspan of up to 7 m
  • feature a T-shaped shoulder pattern, dark mouths, and dark bands along the edges of the fins, no spots between the gills
  • spend their life mostly in deep waters in the open ocean
Oceanic Manta
Oceanic Manta Ray – Image source: wikimedia

Interestingly, each manta has a unique pattern of spots on its belly. Manta Trust, a charity coordinating global Mobulid research and conservation efforts, is developing a photo-ID database, a visual gallery of the area’s manta rays.

Through their ID The Manta initiation, you can also submit your manta photos to receive information about the manta you encountered. The best is, if the manta you photographed is not in their database yet, you can name it! Moreover, you can even adopt a manta through them!

Is Swimming With Manta Rays Dangerous?

Manta rays are filter feeders (meaning that they primarily feed on plankton, small fish, and crustaceans) and have no poisonous tail stingers or sharp teeth, so despite their large size, they pose no threat to humans.

In fact, mantas are tolerant of human presence and sometimes even show friendly behavior by approaching people. Swimming with manta rays is a safe and enjoyable experience.

Other Marine Species To See in Hanifaru

Although the bay’s biggest attractions are the manta rays and whale sharks, it is possible to see other creatures while snorkeling in Hanifaru. The sandy-bottomed bay has a few small patch reefs (these function as cleaning stations) and the surrounding shallow reef also attracts marine life:

  • Different types of rays (devil and eagle rays)
  • Turtles
  • Shark species
  • Dolphins
  • Maldivian reef fish species

Can I Go Diving In Hanifaru?

Although was once allowed, diving is now prohibited in Hanifaru Bay except for marine biologists/scientists conducting research with special permits.

There are mainly two reasons why you cannot do scuba diving in the bay:

  • Divers and the bubbles they make can disturb mantas while feeding, resulting in making them swim into corals, hurting themselves and scaring them away
  • As the main action is happening close to the surface, diving would not be a good choice to enjoy the magical experience

Where To Stay Near Hanifaru Bay?

Baa Atoll offers a wide range of accommodations with choices for all types of travelers; whether you want to stay on a luxurious resort island or are looking for a guesthouse on a budget-friendly local island, you will indeed find the perfect one that fits your style and budget.

Best Resorts Near Hanifaru

Do you seek an unbeatable tropical resort vacation experience when coming to Baa Atoll snorkeling with manta rays and whale sharks? Here, I collected the best resort island close to Hanifaru Bay including affordable and luxurious options.

Kihaa Maldives: The closest resort island to Hanifaru, Kihaa Maldives is a popular choice among people who are coming to swim with manta rays in Baa Atoll. Its natural beauty, rich marine life, good food, welcoming staff, and wide range of amenities please everyone.

Dreamland Resort: Just about a 20-minute boat ride from Hanifaru, the 4-star Dreamland Maldives is a good choice if you are looking for excellent value-for-money accommodation in Baa Atoll. The island is famous for its rich marine life; you can encounter various types of sharks, turtles, and rays (even mantas) while snorkeling at Dreamland Maldives!

Reethi Beach Resort: The eco-friendly, 4-star deluxe Reethi Beach Resort is an excellent choice for water lovers as it has a huge watersports and a scuba diving center. Reethi Beach offers daily Hanifaru Bay excursions in the manta season, and it is one of the best snorkeling resorts in the Maldives with a vibrant house reef.

The Nautilus Beach & Ocean Houses: In search of something different? Then check out The Nautilus! Providing highly personalized service and adventures tailored to you, this private luxury resort is made for travelers seeking a not-everyday vacation experience.

Four Seasons at Landaa Giraavaru: Featuring cozy bungalows and panoramic water villas in a beautiful setting and surrounded by stunning white sandy beaches, the Four Seasons will never disappoint! You can enjoy several activities, including exciting water sports, relaxing spa treatments, or the fabulous dining scene. The resort even has its own marine discovery and turtle rehabilitation center.

Milaidhoo Maldives: You can quickly put yourself into a relaxing space on this boutique luxury resort on a beautiful tropical island in the Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. With luxury private pool beach/water villas and an intimate island atmosphere, Milaidhoo Maldives is the ultimate luxury escape!

Amilla Maldives: Just 10 minutes from the world-famous Hanifaru Bay, Amilla Maldives provides you with the perfect tropical background to celebrate life in the Maldives. From your arrival to your departure, you will enjoy the special attention and care of the incredibly friendly and helpful staff so you can fully relax during your vacation. A place where you definitely want to be back!

Dusit Thani: Featuring one of Maldives’ largest infinity pools and Thai-style villas, Dusit Thani is where you embark on a journey of pure luxury. This resort is the perfect choice for those with high expectations regarding quality and service level.

Royal Island Resort: This 5-star resort offers elegantly furnished villas and a wide range of relaxation and entertainment facilities; a perfect choice if you are looking for a quiet yet adventure-filled hideaway.

Soneva Fushi: If you seek an out-of-the-world vacation experience, you will find top-level service at this high-end resort that offers spacious beachfront bungalows, luxury over-water villas, and upscale restaurants.

The Westin Maldives Miriandhoo Resort: Celebrating something special or coming for a honeymoon? Then look no further than The Westin Miriandhoo. This Maldives resort certainly belongs to the more expensive ones, but you will surely enjoy the personalized service.

Local Islands Close To Hanifaru Bay

If you want to get a sense of the real Maldives and visit Hanifaru Bay on a budget, check out these local islands that offer accommodation at a fraction of resort island rates:

Dharavandhoo: The best location for visiting Hanifaru Bay if you’re looking for a budget alternative is the nearest inhabited island, Dharavandhoo. Being just 10 minutes away from Hanifaru, getting to the bay is quick and easy when the best action happens. Kiha Beach and Biosphere Inn are popular accommodations here.

Kamadhoo: One of the most picturesque local islands in Baa Atoll, Kamadhoo is a good place to experience the simple yet authentic Maldivian life. The island has its own house reef with vibrant marine life. Recommended guesthouse here: Kamadhoo Inn.

Maalhos: This beautiful local island is just a couple of minutes away from Hanifaru Bay. Maalhos is famous for its lush vegetation, white sand beaches, and excellent hospitality; locals welcome visitors as if they were living there. My accommodation tip here is Thundi Village & Spa.

Eydhafushi: the capital of Baa Atoll. Although it is the highest populated island in the Atoll since it has most government offices and public facilities, it is still popular among travelers who wish to experience the real side of the Maldives.

Dhonfanu: If you want pure diving instead of a luxury stay, you must come to Dhonfanu. It is the closest inhabited island to Hanifaru, providing easy access to go snorkeling in Hanifaru Bay. There is also a well-equipped dive center (Fehi Velaa Dive) so if you want to go scuba diving, you can do it too. Fehi Velaa Stay offers simple, but modern and clean accommodation.

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Anett Szaszi

Anett is a certified scuba diver, freediver and an expert in snorkeling with more than 10 years experience. She fell in love with the ocean when she put her head underwater in the Red Sea in 2008. Since then , she is traveling all over the world to discover our waters. Wherever she goes, she takes her mask, fins and underwater camera with her. Visiting mega-cities is not her style but getting lost in tiny coastal villages, capturing the beauty of the sea while snorkeling. She is interested in sustainable traveling and marine conservation. She is hoping to inspire people to protect our oceans by sharing her underwater stories. Find her photos on @anett.szaszi Instagram too!