Based at Landaa Giraavaru, The Maldivian Manta Ray Project (the founding project of The Manta Trust) has been going on since 2006. We caught up with its Founder, Dr Guy Stevens, and Project Leader, Tam Sawers, to get the lowdown on a record-breaking 2018 season.
Tam, we hear it’s been a record-breaking manta season in Baa Atoll. What have been the highlights?
It’s been one of our best research years to date with a record 4400-sightings between June and November (almost twice as many as last year), including visible baby bumps on familiar individuals like Turtle, Bongella, Spongecake and Ice, plus a record number of pup sightings. We’ve seen some incredible somersault shows and even a game of hide and seek with a whale shark disappearing behind and then reappearing in between 40-50 mantas. On one particular day we spotted 150+ cyclone-feeding mantas, three whale sharks, and a giant oceanic manta – all in Hanifaru Bay Marine Protected Area. I don’t think there was a single more spectacular moment of natural beauty witnessed anywhere else in the world’s oceans at that time. It really is #betterinbaa.
What new projects have you been working on?
This year we raised funds to create and deploy underwater cameras at select manta cleaning stations to enable uninterrupted, long-term monitoring of cleaning behaviour relating to time of day, tidal cycles, lunar phases etc. We have also started using a 3D stereo video system technique to measure manta body sizes more accurately.
Congratulations on hosting the first Baa Atoll Manta Festival in Dharavandoo too – how did it all go?
It was the first Manta Festival in the entire archipelago and involved 11 schools, 12 luxury tourist resorts, NGOs, environmental organisations and everything from interactive educational stalls to Maldivian celebrity performances. It was a huge success with over 1000 visitors, capped by the participating resorts donating snorkel equipment to all 11 schools in the Baa Atoll.
Guy, it must be amazing to see how far The Manta Trust has come. Can you share with us how it all started?
It began in 2003-5 while I was working as a Marine Biologist on Four Seasons Explorer. Guests often asked me about mantas. I realised that there was virtually no information available… and perhaps I could be the person to begin to answer some of the questions. The project officially launched with the opening of Landaa Giraavaru in 2006.
What were the expectations at the time?
Relatively small: I was hoping to undertake some preliminary research into population size and threats to the individuals that I was seeing. I never imagined we would get external funding and how it would all grow.
When and how did it evolve into The Manta Trust?
In 2007 I received my first funding for specific research activities, enabling me to work with other ‘manta’ colleagues: Dr Robert Rubin and Dr Tim Clark from the US. We collaborated, met up, and I expanded my research focus beyond the Maldives, visiting Sri Lanka where mantas were routinely fished. The time came for a more cohesive structure and conservation-based organisation under which we could all operate. That’s when I set out to register The Manta Trust as a charity in the UK in 2011.
What has the research highlighted so far?
For the Maldives, most importantly, it’s helped us understand key life history questions – life span, reproduction, sexual maturity and population size – that were the core focus for my PhD thesis. We are pretty confident that at any one time the population of reef manta rays in Maldives is around 4000 individuals; that females give birth on average to one pup every 5 years; that males mature at 10-11 years old and females at 15-16 years; and that they live to around 40. It takes mantas a long time to reach an age when they can reproduce, making them very vulnerable to threats. Information like this can be applied to the entire global manta ray population to help us understand how to effectively manage it and safeguard it for the future.
What’s the most unusual thing you have discovered?
We believe that manta rays may be using vibrations in the ocean (underwater sound waves) to communicate. We think they do this by jumping out of the water, creating a ‘radiating’ splash to signal a feeding opportunity, like ringing a dinner bell! We are also working on a theory that females breach (jump out of the water) to let males know they are available for mating.
Any special encounters?
There’s one particular event that I describe in detail in my book Manta: Secret Life of Devil Rays that will stay with me forever. There was a wounded individual in clear distress, heavily entangled in fishing line. I was able to cut the line wrapped around its body and free it, but the really fascinating thing for me was seeing the animal, in subsequent days, and witnessing the way it behaved towards me: it would come over and interact with me – whereas it wasn’t doing the same with other divers in the vicinity at the time. It was able to seemingly acknowledge that I, the giant cleaner fish-man, was the individual who had cut it free. We know that mantas have the largest brains of all fish and that their curiosity and social behaviour are all indications of intelligence but that experience made me feel they are able to recognise human beings individually, and perceive things around them to a much greater degree than we think.
To help Guy, Tam and the team with their essential research, join us for the 2019 Manta Season in Landaa Giraavaru and on our next Manta Trust Expeditions aboard Four Seasons Explorer from 29 August – 5 September or from 12-19 September 2019.
More posts from December 2018