A Decade of Studying Maldivian Mantas
– by Niv Froman & Guy Stevens
This month we celebrate ten years since the Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP) was formed; ten years that have seen a great deal of achievements, challenges, people, important discoveries, and unforgettable moments.
When the project started in 2005 very little was known about the Maldivian manta ray population, but it was clear that the country hosted an exceptional concentration of these enigmatic creatures, and that it was an ideal study location to unravel some of the mysteries on the biology and ecology of these charismatic species. The fundamental aim behind the creation of the MMRP however was not the science, but the conservation of these species and their habitat. Today the work of the MMRP focuses as much on education project and raising awareness, as it does on direct manta science. Working with local communities and the Maldivian government to ensure that everyone benefits from the protection of these rays and their habitats.
Initially based at the Four Seasons Resorts in North Malé and Baa Atolls, the main focus of the MMRP’s work initially centred on the regional population of mantas in these two central atolls. In particular, one special site became the focal study location – a unique small cul-de-sac of reef which forms a small enclosed area the size of a football pitch. This location is now known globally by manta lovers as Hanifaru Bay. Every individual manta ray can be identified using the unique pattern of black spots on its belly. The mantas are born with these patterns, which do not change throughout their lives, enabling scientists to record each individual in the population and follow their lives through repeated underwater sightings over time. Using this photo-ID technique, the uniqueness of Hanifaru Bay quickly became evident. During peak encounters, over 200 individuals can be recorded visiting the bay in a single day, and almost 1,000 mantas visit the site each year, making Hanifaru Bay the place with the highest known density of these animals on earth. These spectacular aggregations quickly caught the attention of the rest of the world, leading to significant increases in tourism activity at this site. One of the first successes of the MMRP came in 2009 when the Maldivian Government declared Hanifaru Bay a Marine Protected Area (MPA). Government regulations and a management for the MPA followed in 2010/11, and today direct supervision by a team of Rangers enforces these regulations. These measures now make Hanifaru Bay an example of a well-managed and sustainable MPA in the Maldives; protecting the iconic species tourists pay large sums of money to come and see, while ensuring the negative impacts to this site are minimised. A further success came about in 2011, when the entirety of Baa Atoll was declared UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the first, and to-date only, such reserve of the country. Finally, in 2014 manta rays, and all other ray species, where listed as protected species in the Maldives.
Manta rays are regularly sighted throughout all of the Maldivian archipelago year round, therefore, in order to shed a light on the migratory patterns, reproductive cycle and population estimates of the whole Maldives population it was necessary to gather data throughout the country. With about 100 tourist resorts scattered throughout the Maldives, the best way to gather data was through a citizen science programme, utilizing local divers, marine biologists and tourists to collect photo-ID sightings and send them to the MMRP. After many years of building collaborations and relationships with a dedicated group of citizen scientists throughout the Maldives, the MMRP has developed a fantastic network of supporters and data submitters (dive guides, marine biologists, etc.). Today the MMRP’s citizen science programme is the most efficient and recognised in the country, with over 300 manta ray photo-ID encounters being submitted monthly, from almost all of the Maldives’ 26 coral atolls.
After a decade of data collection the MMRP manta database is now by far the largest of its kind in the world, with over 3,900 individuals identified from more than 32,000 recorded sightings. Gathering such a large amount of data has enabled us to answer some of our initial questions about the Maldivian manta population. We can now confidently estimate the population of reef manta rays (Manta alfredi) to be about 5-6000 individuals, a significant number of individuals when compared to reef manta populations of other regions globally, which mostly number in the hundreds. Initially thought to be relatively philopatric animals, we now know that the Maldivian reef manta rays regularly undertake fairly long seasonal migrations between foraging sites. Twenty percent of the recorded individuals in the Maldives database have been observed visiting multiple atolls, with some individuals travelling between five or more different atolls, often hundreds of kilometres apart. In 2013 we documented the longest distance covered by any reef manta in the world; Ewok (MV-MA-1068), an immature female, swam over 700 km as the crow flies, or manta swims, from Baa Atoll in the north of the country, all the way down to Addu Atoll, the southernmost atoll in the archipelago.
We can also now estimate that Maldivian reef mantas live for at least 30 years, although continued data collection is still necessary before we can confidently say what the upper age limit of this species is. We also now have a pretty good idea of their age at maturity, which is at about 8-10 years for males and at least ten years, probably more likely fifteen years, for females.
Although the Maldives has no history of a targeted manta fisheries, intense and unsustainable tourist activities are likely to have a detrimental impact on the mantas if they are not managed and regulated. Much of the MMRP’s efforts have been directed towards understanding the impacts of the tourism industry upon these species, while at the same time evaluating the economic value of manta rays which can be used to drive better conservation legislation. Manta ray tourism in the Maldives generates over 8 million US$ annually through direct activities, such as snorkelling and diving tours. An encounter with a manta ray is a “must see” experience for almost every diver, and manta excursions are therefore offered by almost all tourist operators which have manta ray aggregation sites within reach. For the past five years MMRP scientists have been collecting data on tourist presence and interactions, culminating in the creation of manta ray “Best Practise Code of Conduct” guidelines. These guidelines have now successfully been adopted by many resorts and dive operators in the country.
Successful conservation cannot be achieved without an educational and awareness component. Especially in a country like the Maldives which relies entirely on the ocean and its resources it is crucial to educate the local communities about the fragility of our planet, the importance of sustainability and of environmental conservation. Over the past decade the work of the MMRP has reached over 500 million people globally through documentaries, popular articles, and scientific publications. The mantas of the Maldives and the conservation effort of the MMRP has been featured by important channels such as National Geographic, BBC, China’s CCTV, Discovery Channel, Al Jazeera, and many, many more. Alongside a global awareness programme the MMRP developed a local educational programme specifically designed to target the Maldivian population, and the younger generation in particular. Understanding the importance of local participation in environmental initiatives is key for the long term success of marine conservation plans. Team members of the MMRP have visited various local islands, educated thousands of young Maldivian students throughout the archipelago, and established important collaborations with local environmental parties and NGOs to educate and aware the local population.
The research and conservation effort of the MMRP goes beyond the Maldives alone, feeding into the wider efforts of the Manta Trust to raise awareness, educate, and ultimately preserve manta rays and their marine world globally.
It is a hard task trying to surmise in a few hundred words an entire decade of activities, challenges, and achievements, and there would be much more to add, but what is important is that the MMRP has been, and still is, a successful reality in the Maldives. As a decade passes we now look forward to the next 10 years, for which the MMRP still has many goals and objectives in mind. Scientists and conservationists will keep monitoring and studying the Maldivian manta population, aiming to unravel some of the still unanswered mysteries that surround the life of these majestic creatures, while continuing to raise awareness and educate both the general public and the local community about the importance and beauty of a healthy marine environment.
None of what has been achieved by the MMRP would have been possible without the generous and continuous support of the Save Our Seas Foundation and the Four Seasons Resorts. The MMRP would thus like to end this short article by expressing our deepest gratitude to both of these organisations, and to every individual, organisation, and government department, which has supported the Maldivian Manta Ray Project’s cause over the years. Quite simply, without your support this project would never have been possible. Thank You!!