My stomach is queasy. A mixture of excitement and motion sickness churns my insides as our boat, the Ocean Whisperer, lurches over a rather innocuous swell. We haven’t travelled far but I’m both regretful for the third glass of champagne at breakfast and thankful for passing on the fourth.
We’re in the Maldives, staying at the luxurious Anantara Kihavah resort, which sits just off the shores of a tiny jungle island. With private white sand beaches, a moonlight cinema and an underwater restaurant that’s so cool Leonardo DiCaprio left his own resort to check it out, Kihavah ticks all the boxes of decadence. It probably holds the Maldivian record for the most used screensaver with its obligatory overwater bungalows. I never want to leave.
We’re not here for the champagne, lobster barbecue, oysters on tap and muscle-melting spa treatments, though. The boat is taking us about an hour southeast towards Hanifaru Bay, where we’re looking to meet the manta rays that congregate en mass when the full moon draws a cloud of plankton into the protected bay. Bo, the hotel’s resident marine biologist, gives us a run down of the do’s and don’ts.
“Don’t touch them,” he tells us. “If they come right at you, stay still and they’ll glide around you. Swim with them and under them if you can hold your breath long enough.” I mentally accept his challenge and my excitement starts to take over the champers-induced nausea.
There is some debate over the collective noun for manta rays, also known as devilfish – they’re either a squadron or a fever – but whatever you call them, nothing quite prepares you for the moment ten horn-shaped cephalic fins glide out of the dark blue ocean in almost perfect formation, with gaping mouths wide enough to swallow a small child. The visibility isn’t great for this first sighting; the plankton has clouded the normally gin-clear waters, but it’s a small price to pay to be surrounded by so many mantas at once.
It takes a few minutes to gather my breath but I’m up to Bo’s challenge and dive below the devilfish, gazing up at their white bellies. They’re oblivious to our small group of six. I continue to swim with the fever until there are just four left. I float on the surface of the water, watching as they backflip below in slow circles and then disappear into the depths.
Back on the boat, the exhilaration is fever pitched. Each one of us is lost to the experience and we all have a story to tell, our faces beaming. The trip back to Kihavah is a blur, but the air is filled with the sound of storytelling-chatter. As stars blanket the night sky, I fall asleep quickly with the help of the memory of slow waving manta wings, which are far more sleep inducing than counting sheep. Only, I’ve fallen asleep on a beanbag in the moonlight cinema, woken suddenly by my cocktail spilling onto my chest.