JAKARTA—Indonesia recently enshrined the world’s largest manta ray sanctuary within its 2.3-million square mile border, but conservationists and environmentally-minded dive resorts say they’ve long been leading their own initiatives to protect the threatened marine creatures.
Papua Diving, which has two resorts in Kri Island, part of the Raja Ampat island cluster in far-flung eastern Indonesia, says it keeps a close watch on manta sites and reports any activity that could harm the marine life to authorities.
Its dive guides and boat crew are former fishermen who once used dynamite to kill their catch but have become what marketing manager Steve Brumby calls “passionate about conservation” since learning of the damage it does to the marine ecosystem.
In this handout photograph from Conservation International taken on Nov. 23, divers swim with manta rays in the waters of Raja Ampat located in eastern Indonesia’s remote Papua province.
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
The Indonesian government outlawed bomb fishing in 1980, but it remains in use particularly in remote areas where there is little monitoring by marine authorities.
Papua Diving also collects donations and hands over 10% of its profits each year to various conservation organizations and a local marine park protection fund. In 1993 it established the Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Center, an initiative for introducing conservation and community related projects in Raja Ampat.
Nearby Misool Eco Resort has also been promoting conservation by trying to steer legislation. In October 2010 its founder, Andrew Miners, started a petition to make the marine area around Raja Ampat a manta and shark sanctuary.  It garnered more than 8,000 signatures and helped bring the need for conservation to the attention of local lawmakers. In late 2010, the district administration passed a regulation that bans the fishing of sharks, mantas, dugongs and other aquarium fish.
Mr. Miners says his resort is also involved in a reef restoration project that involves several different methods for restoring reefs that have been damaged and supports an active team of marine park rangers – all of them from the surrounding community – to prevent manta and shark fishing.
Indonesia’s Institute of Science estimates that roughly 17,000 reef and oceanic manta rays are currently live in the waters surrounding Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago.
One of the world’s largest fish, manta rays can span seven meters from wingtip to wingtip. They are classified as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in part because their habitats often overlap with fisheries.
In Indonesia, they are often found off the islands around Bali, as well as the islands of Komodo, Sangalaki in Borneo and Raja Ampat.
“They’re elegant, sophisticated, and very beautiful,” says Raditya Kosasih, a 27-year-old member of a diver community called Banyu Biru Explorers.
Mr. Kosasih has gone diving with mantas seven times – in Bali, Komodo and Raja Ampat – and says he is still “stunned” when he sees the giant sea rays.
The Indonesian government is currently working to better develop manta tourism since passing an environmental regulation earlier this year that bans manta fishing within the country’s exclusive economic zone. Officials say the regulation is an attempt to cash in on a creature capable of drawing thousands of marine tourists to the country.

It also comes as demand grows for manta gills, often sold for a high price as dried food to Chinese buyers who consider them a cure for various illnesses, ranging from chicken pox to cancer.
The government regulation will help prevent commercial fishermen from targeting the mantas, but alternative livelihoods are also needed to ensure local seafarers give up the trade, say conservationists.
Mr. Brumby says he’s already seen the benefits from increased tourism related to manta protection. Papua Diving employs more than 20 locals, while Misool provides jobs for more than 115 community residents.
“As the reefs around our resort are protected, the number of fish, sharks and mantas increases,” said Mr. Miners. “This, of course, means guests are very happy, and more people want to visit the resort.”
Many local dive shop owners also say they support the government’s new regulation and hope the government is tough in cracking down on violators.
“If the mantas are gone, our livelihoods would be threatened,” said Romi, from the Waiwo Dive Resort in Raja Ampat.