Tourism threatens to overwhelm mantas and whale sharks of Hanifaru Bay

In most places a 260 percent increase in tourist arrivals would be a cause for celebration. Not so for Hanifaru Bay.

Located off the uninhabited island of Hanifaru in Baa Atoll, the bay is a small enclosed reef the size of a football field. But what makes Hanifaru Bay unique and attracts tourists is the phenomena that occurs during the south west monsoon from May to November.

Interplay between the lunar tide and the south west monsoon enables build up of a massive concentration of plankton, which in turn attracts hundreds of huge manta rays and gigantic whale sharks. It’s usual to see up to 200 manta rays in a feeding frenzy, accompanied by whale sharks. The bay is one of the two sites in Maldives which acts as a cleaning station as well as feeding site for whale sharks.

Hanifaru Bay was declared a Marine Protected site last year by the government, in recognition of its importance in the ecosystem. When the bay was featured in National Geographic magazine last year, and a BBC Natural World documentary this year, the site’s fame spread all over the world.

Price of fame

“Sometimes we see up to 14 boats crammed into that little space,” says Mohamed Fathuhy, island chief of nearby Dharavandhoo.

He rues the fact that sometimes snorkelers and divers in the bay outnumber the animals.

Regulations announced by the Ministry of Environment on making the bay an MPA say that only five boats can engage in the area at any given time. It also limits the number of swimmers or divers to 80 at any one time.

However Fathuhy says  some visitors to try and touch the animals. Safari boats sometimes take money from tourists saying there is a charge for snorkeling in the area. And overcrowding is so bad that crews of visiting safari boats and others had almost come to blows over access.

Ahmed Sameer, general secretary of Youth Association of Kamadhoo, another island nearby, says his co-islanders share the concern: “We are worried that if this goes on, the animals might stop coming and the place might be destroyed.”

Asked why the interest in Hanifaru Bay, Sameer says that Kamadhoo islanders have always been a very eco-conscious people.

“Every household in the island recently signed a pact to not harvest turtle eggs or take turtles, and participate in the turtle conservation project by Four Seasons,” he explains.

Concerned and galvanised into action by the efforts of Seamarc, an environmental consultancy firm, and Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, Fathuhy and Sameer is a part of a delegation that visited the Environment Ministry yesterday to share their concern and to suggest co-management of the site.

Cries of a community

The delegation consisted of representatives from the islands of Dhonfanu,Dharavandhoo,Thulhadhoo and Kamadhoo. Province minister Ali Niyaz, Dhonfanu Councillor, Director General of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Mohamed Zuhair, Mari Saleem of SEAMARC, Guy Stevens of Maldives Manta Ray Project and Executive members of Liveaboard Association Shaheena Ali and Fayaz Ismail attended the meeting alongside Minister of Environment Mohamed Aslam and Deputy Minister Mohamed Shareef.

Marie a passionate advocate of co management said “Baa atoll community would like to work with the government to help implement the regulations in place.”

“A cross section of the people in the atoll as well as stakeholders in the tourism industry, support the initiative to develop and manage Hanifaru Bay sustainable.”

The figures in Fathuhy’s presentation was impressive.

“Manta ray tourism generates an estimated US$8.1 million annually,” Fathuhy explained. Hanifaru Bay alone is estimated to generate US$ 500,000 in direct revenue for Maldivian economy this year.

A discussion ensued over wheather Baa Atoll could retain the revenues and the danger of the animals deserting the area if things continued as they were.

Some alterations to the existing regulations were proposed such as penalties for those who don’t adhere to regulations: having a fine for those coming into contact with the animals, and banning speedboats and boats with un-protected outboard engines, as well as implementing a compulsory certification system for guides and boat captains working there, and banning scuba diving in the vicinity.

Way forward

With Minister Aslam admitting that central government had difficulties in managing the MPA as well as other protected dive sites, the question arose over how best to go about it.

The lack of  wardens or an effective system of policing the area is an acute problem in Maldives concerning MPA’s.

Hence the  group discussed ways of managing the site, government or EPA managing it, going for a business model or a community based one.

The idea of forming a corporative found the most supporters with Aslam saying that “it’s a structured way of doing it as the laws are also already in place.”

Ismail and Shaheena from Liveaboard association were adamant that government had to play a major role in managing the site.

Shaheena pointed out that it would be unfair if any group got ownership of the place. “The process can’t be too democratic.”

“Tourists that hire speedboats from Male and go to that area will be disappointed if they can’t have access to the area.”

The delegation from Baa Atoll went back to their respective communities at the behest of Aslam to draw and propose a practical plan to manage the area.

While Baa Atoll community and the government try and figure out the best way to manage the area, the future of Hanifaru Bay hangs in balance along with its seasonal inhabitants.


14 thoughts on “Tourism threatens to overwhelm mantas and whale sharks of Hanifaru Bay”

  1. Without a balanced ecosystem, you can pretty much say Wa'salaam to our fishing industry!

  2. you guys just promoting another white Guy Steven who is promoting the interest Four Season, it got nothing to do with mantas or whale sharks

  3. It is sad how people can twist everything into what it is not....especially when they are so racist! The community approached the government. Not Guy Stevens. What on - you should try to understand the is very simple....a little bay visited by mantas and whale sharks during the southwest monsoon was declared a protected area by the government and regulations were announced. Nobody is adhering to them. Somebody has got to do something about it and the community wants to help the government implement the existing regulations. Is that so bad? You should get off your butt and do something about it yourself. Or maybe not! Maybe you can just sit there and mouth off anyone who is trying to do anything so this country deteriorates.

  4. There you go. Now we know the "land" value of Hanifaru. High time the government put this one out as the first bid for marine sites with proper regulations. Why can these not be rented out if islands can be rented. Part of the rent can go to "conservation efforts in Baa Atoll" whatever that means.

  5. so marie saleem and thoma wants hanifaru and what a coincidence even four seasons aka guys stevens wanted it before them and apparently marie and thoma works for guys Stevens or four seasons. lol. people dont fall into traps of money minded freaks who work in the name of conservation but promote there agenda of way to get more money. enough marie saleen of trying to make baa atoll your golden egg laying goose. beat it.

  6. Some of the comments to this article is proof of the ignorance of Maldivians regarding environmental protection. The entire Maldivian tourism industry is based on the basis of a sound environment here.

    If Hanifaru Bay is destroyed by $$ hungry tour guides and boat operators, what will be next? The list will go on.

    Whether its Guy Stevens or Marie Saleem or whoever else, they are doing a huge service to the WHOLE country by highlighting the danger of exploitation of our ecosystems.

    My guess is that stupid comments here are from those who are bound to lose their $$ due to a proper enforcement of the MPA law.

  7. You are so right Ahmed. It's those with safari boats selling the place for thousands of $$ to go to Hanifaru that are getting pissed off. Obviously they don't know how an MPA operates. And for Shaahina to go and tell the Minister to not be too democratic.....who does she think is running the government now? Golha? He's gone Shaahina! Wake up!

  8. Reading the comments reveal a typical Maldives scene. Some 2 guys using media and their Maldivian girl friends to compete for a business and settle their petty issues.. Or it is just Shaahinaa vs Marie

  9. Shaheena pointed out “The process can’t be too democratic.”

    Hehe.. wat does that even mean? Golha much?

  10. Is this about Hanifaru and protecting our environment, or is it about Marie saleem, Guy Stevens and Shaahina?
    @ Love- you are saying this is a typical maldives scene, and u are confirming it by making some petty comment about the people involved in it..grow up and look at the bigger picture here
    This is the biggest problem in this country, we are incapable of seeing the real issues we should be tackling, cos we're so blinded and numbed by gossip, mistrust and ignorance.

  11. people stop fighting and do something about it! you all are responsible for what is happening here, try not blame any one, lets work for the good of the people and our country.

    And to people of Baa Atoll, first try to do some sustainable fishing in the atoll because i think everybody knows that the atoll it self is suffering a major shark extinction. so try to help your self by helping the environment.

    and ofcause at the moment the only income we can make is from the whale shark and manta place aka Hanifaru Bay.

    here in some comments sounds like some people are trying to make a huge issue about the hanifaru bay, well it seems like that safari boat divers and resort diver are in big conflict because of Hanifaru Bay, maybe resorts are selling Hanifaru on special price as well as the safari's no one knows, but you both are entitle to do your business here in according to the law, probably nobody follows the rules neither resorts nor safari boats.

    and even in previous forums about Hanifaru bay there were issues about the marine biologists who work in the area were riding the whale sharks and mantas so there is no one among you who can point out the finger to one another.

    every one of you are the same the resorts, the safaris as well as the people who study them.

    the government seriously needs to step in and guide them through about all the MPA's not only Hanifaru is there in the Maldives.

  12. I agree with "pis, piss" Don't blame each other, just use your right to use that place for your business, but with in the law. Help each other and try to help government or force government to regulate that place.


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