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A Day in the Life of a Manta Researcher

Angela Warrior is currently working for the Manta Trust's Maldivian Manta project. Here is a day in here life!

It’s 8 am, the air is still, the sky above the ocean stretches as far as the eye can see in a dome of cocktail blue. The ocean looks like glass, reflecting the world around it. The boat lurches forward into gear as we pull off from the dock, people chattering excitedly about the mantas they hope to see, smiles as bright as the sun. There are 19 people on the manta safari snorkeling trip today, nobody has seen a manta before, and everyone including me is hoping that these majestic creatures will grace us with their appearance. I explain to the manta enthusiasts that they are wild animals, and nature can not be predicted, there is a brief lull in the excitement as the guests contemplate this fact, but then I mention I have seen them every time I have been to this site and their smiles return swiftly.

Today we are going to Rasfari North, a cleaning station, a location where mantas come to get their skin, gills and teeth cleaned by a variety of small cleaner wrasse. The mantas hover over a rock outcrop and allow the fish to clean their bodies, picking off pieces of algae, small parasites and clean wounds of any necrotic or dead material. Bodies still, the mantas spend hours getting cleaned, waiting patiently in line until the turn is theirs. Before the snorkelers are allowed in the water, I give a detailed briefing on the mantas and their behavior, what Manta Trust are trying to achieve and how the guests should interact with the mantas. I explain that mantas are naturally curious, but we should always respect their need for space. It is important to keep a 3 meter distance at all times. I explain that Mantas have good front and side vision but have blind spots directly behind them. It is very important not approach the manta from the back because this may frighten the animal. Approaching them from the side gives them the opportunity to see you first and maintain a clear path of travel ahead. We enter the water quietly and see four mantas straight away. We approach slowly from the side. Mantas sweep past the excited crowd, people watch in awe as the mantas drift into the distance before turning and coming back, one then another and another and another. The mantas dance around one another whilst waiting for their turn to be cleaned. Their mouths are wide open as if to signal that they want their teeth cleaned. We watch as some fish begin feeding around the mouth and gills slits, whilst others focus on the mantas skin. This mutually beneficial relationship for mantas and cleaner wrasse is a spectacular underwater experience for the snorkelers. Watching the mantas hover over the reef and enjoy the free spa treatment is really an amazing encounter and one that the guests will not forget in a hurry.

Whilst the guests watch the mantas I quickly free dive down to take my ID shots. Mantas are born with unique spot patterns on their belly that can be used to identify individuals. This is similar to a human fingerprint. I take the photo as the manta passes over me, that way I am not scaring the manta and I get a good enough shot to identify them using our data base. There are currently over 4,300 individuals on the Maldivian Manta Ray data base and this information is being used to track the mantas and examine their distribution around the Maldives. I also take a picture of their genitals in order to identify sex, and any scars they may have. Some of the mantas have mating scars (photo of dorsal side) and some have shark bite wounds (photo of ventral side). I keep a record of how many people and boats are in the area, plus other environmental information such as current strength and direction, plankton density, visibility, and any other information I think is relevant. This information is used to help us understand why the mantas are using these sites. Once I have collected all my photos and data, it is time to board the boat once again. The boat trip back to the resort takes two hours, we stop for a snorkel on the way back to look for nurse sharks. Lazy Nurse sharks are often found asleep between the rocks during the day, coming alive at night in order to hunt. Before we jump into the water, I give a short briefing about the nurse shark, their biology and behavior. Some of the guest appear to be uncomfortable with the idea of snorkeling with sharks, and although to some people (not me) the nurse shark has a menacing appearance, they do not pose a threat to humans. I explain this to the guests and that unlike some other shark species, nursies tend to spend their days peacefully lounging around on the sea floor. A little more relaxed, the guests step into the water and we swim slowly towards the reef. As we approached the reef, in the plankton-dense water we could see a large shark, about 2.5 meters, swimming towards a crevice. It’s body is dark and it swims in a fluid, wave like motion. The snorkelers hang by the crevice, mesmerized as the beautiful shark finds a place to rest her body. We watch this sluggish lady get comfortable in her corner and lay down her head to rest. As I look around the group, I did not see faces of fear but faces of joy, wonder and sheer gratitude for being part of this truly wonderful experience.

Once we arrived back to the boat, there were a hundred questions about the nurse sharks and mantas. Every one had enjoyed this very intimate experience and wanted to know more about the sharks in Meeru. This for me is what I am hoping to achieve through my role as project manager here. There are still many people out there who believe that ‘the only good shark is a dead shark’ regardless of science, statistics and conservation status of the animals. Direct shark ‘population control methods’, due to the perceived risk to humans, has led to the severe declines in many species, some as much as 90%. Sharks play a vital role in the ocean. Sitting at the top of the food pyramid, they regulate all marine life. They hunt the old, sick and weak animals, they keep the populations healthy and strong. This enables naturally fit animals to reproduce, passing on healthy genes. Nobody knows what will happen if sharks are removed from the ocean, and I hope with all my heart that I will never find out.

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