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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.