Manta rays are incredible creatures, and it is always a magical experience when you get to see one underwater and up close.
They are also fantastic photo subjects for us underwater photographers. As with any animal, we should respect them. That is why when you are in the water with manta rays, there are a few rules that you should follow to ensure their safety. In this article, you will learn more about the gentle giants, but also get tips on how you can best photograph them and even find out how your manta photos can help conservation efforts.
But let’s get one thing clear first: is it “manta ray” or “mobula ray”? Are they the same?
Manta ray or mobula ray?
Manta rays are rays and belong to the family Mobulidae and to the genus Mobula (a few years ago, they were still classified in the Manta genus). And most people still call them manta rays.
So technically, every manta is a mobula, not every mobula is a manta.
The larger oceanic mantas (Mobula birostris) can reach a wingspan of up to 7 meters in width, while the smaller reef manta ray (Mobula alfredi) still reaches up to 5.5 meters.
Both species are pelagic, which means they live in the pelagic zone of the ocean. However, Reef manta rays tend to be more resident and you can often find them closer to coastal areas. Oceanic Manta rays migrate great distances across the open ocean.
How to dive with Manta rays
The oceanic manta has become the first manta ray to be listed as an endangered species. But also the reef manta ray is currently listed as vulnerable.
As with any wild animal, we want to respect and protect them to ensure the animal’s safety and well-being.
The Manta Trust (who is also one of our conservation partners) has developed a “code of conduct”, guidelines to ensure sustainable manta ray interactions in the water.
So, how should we behave when we are swimming or diving with manta rays?
As with any animal in the wild, please don’t chase them.
Watch for signs of distress in the animal. It is better to not take the picture than distressing or even harming the animal just for a good shot!
Many times when we encounter mantas, they are on a cleaning station. Cleaning stations are important sites for manta rays.
Please remain at the side of the cleaning station and do NOT swim onto the main cleaning area.
Please keep low and hover close to the ocean floor, but always watch out and be careful not to damage the reef beneath you.
Remember that ideally you never want to lie down on the seabed, but hover slightly above it. Good buoyancy skills are key to starting underwater photography.
Depending on the dive site you are diving in, there might be a special area designated for divers. Please follow the instructions of your dive guide and stay in those areas.
When a manta swims towards you, do NOT block their path as they swim overhead. Rather stay low and stay where you are.
In addition, please inform yourself about any local rules and regulations with your dive operator and follow these. 🙂
How to photograph mantas
Now let’s talk about the photography aspect. Manta rays are fantastic photo subjects, and let’s be honest: who doesn’t want to freeze this magical moment when you get to be in the water with such a fascinating creature?
As we already learned, we want to make sure that we are not blocking the way of the manta ray: You can position yourself to the side of a manta ray.
When you are photographing mantas from the side, pay attention to your composition: it is always nicer to leave your subject “space to swim into”, rather than “cutting off their way”.
Manta rays are naturally very curious animals. Be patient, and wait until the manta ray comes to you. This will not only be more enjoyable for you and the animal, but it will also help create better images.
Try to get the whole animal in your shot, or focus on details. Which option you are going for will depend on the situation, but also your lens, position, and distance to the manta rays.
Extra Tip: Try to create a dynamic with their wing movement. Having an interesting wing movement in your frame will create a more interesting shot than a picture taken when they are “flat”.
Many times, you will see more than one individual together.
If you can get more than one manta in your image, that’s great! Interaction of several individuals can make for stunning pictures.
If you want to learn more about composing images, lighting underwater, settings to use, and how to tell a story with your photography, I invite you to check out my online course “The Secrets of Underwater Photography”, where we cover those aspects and many more in-depth.
Especially when photographing without strobes or an external light source, turning your image into black & white can be a good choice. If you want to learn more about how to photograph underwater without strobes, go ahead and read this article where I’m sharing tips on how to create underwater pictures without strobes.
How your manta photos can help protect them
Creating amazing pictures of your manta encounters is fun, but did you know that your photography can also help protect manta rays?
How so? Let’s have a look!
Manta rays have unique belly patterns. The spot patterns on their ventral (under) side, are just like a fingerprint! They remain mostly unchanged during their whole life and can help identify the individual mantas.
Photo ID is a non-invasive method that helps in building a database of all mantas within a population. This, in turn, enables researchers to estimate the size of the population and also document seasonal and geographic movement patterns.
Conducting this kind of research is crucial if we want to protect manta rays. It allows researchers and scientists to identify feeding and reproduction sites, as well as migrational patterns.
So, if you have photographed manta rays anywhere around the world, you can help support research and global conservation efforts by submitting your manta images to the IDtheManta database by Manta Trust.
I hope you are now all set up and excited about your next dives! Fingers crossed for many happy manta encounters!
Do you have other tips on photographing manta rays? Where have you been able to see them so far? Let us know in the comments below!