Island of the Whale Shark Hunters
Manta rays and whale sharks have been somewhat scarce at Hanifaru for the last 10 days, with a combination of rough seas, low plankton concentrations and neap tides the likely culprits for their absence. After a few weeks of thick clouds and torrential rain, the sun is finally beginning to grace the skies again and has kick started the famed productivity for which these seas are known. Across much of the atoll the visibility has dropped to less than 7 m and the water’s greenish tinge indicates it is already dense with phytoplankton. Zooplankton armies are already on the march to feast on the phytoplankton and form the foundations of the manta ray and whale shark food web. In a few days time around the full moon another bout of spectacular mass feeding should be upon us. In the meantime I took advantage of these manta-less days and visited Dhonfanu, a Small Island situated less then 1 km from Hanifaru Bay. Dhonfanu is one of the only two communities in Baa Atoll that has a long history of hunting whale sharks and manta rays. Whale sharks were always the preferred prize with the up to 200 liters of oil in their livers used by the island’s boat builders to seal the hulls of fishing boats (dhonies) from the elements. Manta rays were only targeted when whale sharks were scarce as their livers held far less oil. There is also talk that the leathery skin of manta rays was used to cover Bodu Beru drums, an important centerpiece in many Maldivian celebrations and rituals. The hides of stingrays were definitely a staple, but my hunt for an actual manta ray skin drum or definitive oral evidence still continuous.
The end of August marks the beginning of Ramadan, the holy month during which the Maldives Muslim population observes a sunrise to sunset fast. I arrived on Dhonfanu when the sun was still a few hours from the horizon, traditionally the hardest time of the fast. Yet despite having gone without food or water since sunrise I was greeted with great warmth and hospitality. My interest in whale sharks and manta rays was met with the island elders promising to show me the implements they used during the hunts. It took some searching through various sheds and coral brick outhouses, but it was not long before they produced a whale shark and manta ray hunter’s tools of the trade. Much to my relief they were blunt and rusty, indicating that no hunt had taken place for a very long time. Armed to the teeth with hooks, knifes and harpoons we headed down to a small beach where two wooden boats, their days of seaworthiness long past, were decaying at the edge of the sea. It was hard to believe that these skeletons of wood and nails were once the platforms for hunting the ocean’s largest fish and ray. The elders then re-enacted a whale shark hunt for me on the beach. The harpooner balancing precariously on the boat of the boat drives a detachable spearhead tied to the boat deep into the whale shark. With the whale shark in tow the boat crew would then try to tire the fish out by rowing as fast as they could to a sandbank at the edge of Hanifaru Bay. They would also insert sharp hooks into the mouth and gills to further slow the shark down. Once exhausted and trapped in the shallows they would begin to butcher the shark with machetes. I was told that they only used the oil, but maybe something got lost in the translation for I would be surprised if the meat went to waste. When whale sharks were caught large tiger sharks also assembled around the sandbank and gorged themselves on the leftovers.
In 1992 it became illegal to kills whale sharks in the Maldives and apart from one instance where 4 sharks were reputed to have been killed at Hanifaru in 2002, the old hunters of Dhonfanu have transformed into the some of the staunchest marine conservationist in Baa atoll. In fact a recent socio-economic study by IUCN has shown that this island is amongst the most environmental aware and pro active in the Maldives. In fact some of the old hunters are today making a good living from the tourists that visit Hanifaru to experience the manta ray and whale shark feeding aggregations. One of the most persistent hunters of old is today the owner of a boat that is leased to the Four Seasons Resorts to take guests on manta ray and whale shark safaris, with the boat crew also made up of former hunters. Today for the inhabitants of Dhonfau, whale sharks are worth significantly more alive then dead and the recent proclamation of the Hanifaru marine protected area is sure to result in further economic benefits to the islanders.
UPDATE: The manta rays have returned to Hanifaru so keep a eye out for my next blog update on the forthcoming full moon feeding aggregation.