How to Perform Citizen Science with Manta Rays!

citizen science, diving, scuba, mantas, manta rays

I never get tired of seeing and photographing mantas! Here I am at a Manta Cleaning Station!

There are few things in this world I enjoy more than scuba diving, and when I can combine my love of the ocean and its creatures with performing citizen science, I feel like I am doing something to contribute in a positive way to help our environment. I love to travel with my friend, Dr Andrea Marshall, the co-founder of Marine Megafauna Foundation, and principal Manta Ray scientist for the foundation. She was the first person to do a PhD on Manta Rays, and identified two separate species. Her citizen science expeditions are called Ray of Hope, and the trips are always thrilling and informative. Andrea’s love and passion for Mantas is infectious, and I have absolutely caught her enthusiasm for the species.

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With Andrea Marshall on the Arenui Boutique Liveaboard.

My first introduction to Manta Rays was off the coast of Ft Lauderdale, Florida, when I was a little girl. They could be seen on the surface during the month of June. Nothing was known about these animals so we were called out of the water so the “devil fish” wouldn’t eat us. My dad always had binoculars with him, and he and I would take turns looking at them from the beach, and from our 5th story hotel room. They looked like they were flying in the water. Until Andrea Marshall (aka Queen of Mantas) began to study them for her PhD in Mozambique, very little was known about them. In a little more than a decade, much has been learned about Manta Rays, thanks to Andrea. She identified two species of Manta in 2008, and this was the first major species to have been discovered by a scientist in 50 years!

I met Andrea when I was in Mozambique in 2012 volunteering in a program to photograph and identify Whale Sharks and to count reef fish. Since that time, I have traveled with Andrea to participate in citizen science in Ecuador, the Yucatan, Komodo National Park, and most recently, on this trip to Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Whenever I travel and have the opportunity to see Manta Rays, I photograph them and upload their photos to Manta Matcher, a global identification software to track Mantas and their movements all over the world.

citizen science, diving, scuba, mantas, manta rays

A beautiful Alfredi, or Reef, Manta heading for a cleaning station.

citizen science, diving, scuba, mantas, manta rays

Melanistic Mantas have more pigment and are black except on their bellies where their unique identification markings are.

citizen science, diving, scuba, mantas, manta rays

An Identification photograph of a Reef Manta. Each Manta has a unique pattern, like a fingerprint.

I am fascinated by the ocean, and by everything that lives in it, but Mantas are the most thrilling animal for me. I will go just about anywhere to see them. Both species are large, an Alfredi’s wingspan average is about 3 or 3.5 meters (12 feet or so) while a Biostris (Giant) Manta’s wingspan can be up to 7 meters (over 20 feet!). In Raja Ampat, our research targets were both Alfredi and Biostris.

The particular dive site we went to is known only to a few people, so I will not name it here. I will say that it is a very pretty site, with stag corals and small cleaner fish. Blue spotted rays were also all over the site. One of the major activities of a Manta’s day is visiting a “cleaning station”, a spot where numerous reef cleaner fish live, waiting to eat the parasites, dead skin, bacteria, and other good stuff from large pelagic (deep ocean) animals. Cleaning is vital to a Manta’s health. By removing harmful detritus from the Manta, the reef fish get food, and the Manta is kept infection free (and wounds are picked clean, allowing them to heal.) Witnessing the cleaning station is a magical experience. The Manta slows down (Mantas always must swim or move through water, it can never rest), hovers over the “station” which is usually a coral head or rock, and the reef fish swoop in for the cleaning. They make several very slow passes over the reef, allowing the fish to do their work. Their mouths are a bit open to allow the fish into the mouth and gill plates (Mantas are filter feeders, eating krill and plankton, the smallest creatures on the planet), and the Manta unwinds its cephalic fins, allowing them to be picked clean as well. It is a ritualistic and beautiful process.

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Two black, or melanistic, alfredi mantas at a cleaning station.

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The cleaners wait for their customers in stag coral.

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Taking turns!


citizen science, diving, scuba, mantas, manta rays

A beautiful manta coming off a cleaning station. She took a good look at us as she went! They were curious, but didn’t want to get too close.

What part do I play when I go on these trips? I get photo identifications of the animals. Manta Matcher takes these ID photos and matches them with others to see if the animal has been seen before, and where. Behavior is important to note, as is the physical condition of the ray. One of the mantas we saw on these dives was missing the tip of her wing. It looked like a clean cut, but I didn’t get a photo, though I did get film.

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Such a rush to come face to face, eye to eye!

Also on this day, we snorkeled with the Mantas. ID shots are a goal when snorkeling, but watching behavior and just the sheer joy of being in the water with them are paramount. Manta Rays are gentle creatures, and are endangered. Indonesia in particular is being fierce regarding their protection. Their economic value far outweighs fishing them for their gill plates for Chinese medicine. Manta Rays are endangered, but not every country protects them. For instance, Mozambique has lost 90% of their population over the last twelve years, and that is beginning to be felt economically. Divers who went to Mozambique to see Mantas are now heading to Indonesia and the Maldives where they are more plentiful.

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Zooplankton, krill, jellies and fish eggs are among the Manta’s favorite snacks.

mantas, raja ampat, citizen science, scuba

Manta’s love to snack on the surface. See how they filter feed, mouth open with gill plates showing!

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They are so beautiful!

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So lovely to watch! We stayed in the water for hours.

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I hope you enjoyed a little citizen science trip with these magnificent creatures! I’m headed to the Yucatan to look for them soon, then off to the Revillagigedos Archipelago, where encounters are very special.


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About the Author ()

I am an avid scuba diver, underwater photographer, amateur historian; interested in all people and cultures. For me, the unexpected is usually the norm! My motto? I am an Empty Nester who likes to Renew, Revamp, and Reinvent Life!
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Comments (36)

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  1. I love to see rays when I dive or snorkel! There’s something incredibly elegant about how they move through the water.
    Rachel Heller recently posted…Be kind to your flight attendant: an experimentMy Profile

  2. Wow, that’s a quite experience! I am not into scuba but I really love snorkeling and I am so fascinated by the underwater life. Swimming with mantas would be a dream come true. I’m sure you will never forget this.

  3. These pictures are absolutely stunning! I love mantas… and seing them ‘fly’ underwater is an experience not to be missed!

  4. That is one of the most interesting blog post I have read in a while. I have learned so much. So cool that you are friends with this expert and very cool the site to identify and track the mantas.

  5. I bet my son would love to do this – I’m going to share your piece with him. I had no idea Manta Rays were endangered. Thank you for trying to help them – and for your gorgeous photos.

    • Tam Warner says:

      Oh my goodness, yes, yes they are endangered. They are gentle, and curious, and that makes them easy to kill, sadly. They are killed for their fins (faked as shark fins) and their gill rakers which are used in Chinese medicine. Mantas are truly magnificent! Yes, tell your son!

  6. You’re so lucky to be able to go to these amazing places. I wanted to be a marine biologist for a while when I was young. Love the manta rays. They are so majestic.
    Rebecca Forstadt Olkowski recently posted…5 Unusual Villages of India That Will Amaze and Surprise YouMy Profile

  7. I am so in awe of your photos and all you do. A fascinating post. I remember them being called devil’s too. I was born and lived in Florida when I was a kid. They are magnificent.

  8. We have Manta Rays off the coast here in sub-tropical Queensland, Australia – There’s a well known dive site just 10 mins out called Manta Ray Bommie which is a cleaning station for males as they migrate up the coast!
    I keep thinking I should simply learn to dive and reading this is spurring me on 😉
    Linda Fairbairn recently posted…A Map of Mordor and a Map of Central Australia – Where’s the Connection?My Profile

  9. Carol Colborn says:

    I am so afraid of water that I don’t scuba, snorkel or swim. Such a pity to miss on these wonderful creatures of the sea!

  10. barbara free says:

    I love Manta Rays, and diving with them is on my bucket list. I’m so happy you get to dive with them, and then share your experience and photo’s with us. Such a treat. Dive on my friend !!

  11. Francesca says:

    This is absolutely fascinating. I’ve learned so much about manta rays! How sad, though, that their numbers are declining due to demands for use in Chinese medicine. Hopefully you and Dr. Marshall can raise enough awareness to improve the plight of the mantas.
    Francesca recently posted…Family travel to Overland Park, Kansas: It will surprise you!My Profile

  12. Great article Tam! I do love Mantas. They are like watching a ballet performance.

  13. Your pictures are amazing. I’ve never gone scuba diving. You are very brave!

  14. I agree. Mantas are such majestic creatures! I remember the time I saw one in Hawaii and I was completely mesmerized.
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted…women’s cocoa cooperatives of the Dominican RepublicMy Profile

  15. What an adventurer you are! I really enjoyed reading about the mantas and your photos are awesome!!
    Marilyn Jones recently posted…Finding the right packing accessories to fit your next AdventureMy Profile

  16. I’m not sure how my latest blog link ended up in my comment…just delete…sorry!

  17. Suzanne says:

    As always, I love your photos! I admire your passion for the ocean and all the animals of the globe! I especially loved the photos of the mantas eating with their mouths so open at the surface. Super cool!

  18. I’ve seen manta rays twice, while diving and snorkeling. What an amazing sight it was!

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