Living a Marine Biologists’ Dream
Local fishermen hold a huge bounty of historical data about various marine species. Whilst the Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP) has been collecting data for nearly 10 years, there is very little information about the manta ray population prior to 2005. Tam Sawers, a Masters student from the University of York, is hoping to address this huge gap, by using interviews and surveys to tap into this local knowledge. In this week’s blog, Tam describes her first manta experiences and the initial findings of her project.
The warm wind whipped past as we entered the turquoise waters of Hanifaru Bay. As the boat slowed down we sat up, stared and fixated on the water for a couple of seconds (I was still a bit unsure of what was going on but I followed suit). At first there was watchful silence and all that could be heard was the water lapping up against the boat. All of a sudden there was an immediate jolt of excitement that penetrated the atmosphere as the words “madi, madi, madi” were shouted by the boat captain, Naushad. Subsequent squeals of “koba- madi?” (where are the mantas?) and finally an Italian-inflected “ah, munta, munta, munta” proclaimed by Niv – the project manager of the team – sent a wave of energy throughout those on board the boat. Before I knew it everyone had their fins and masks on and we were in the water in a matter of seconds.
I admittedly had not yet seen the mantas from the surface, but once in the water this all changed. With frantic kicks I followed the bubbles of the manta research team in pursuit of mantas. I immediately responded to a high pitched underwater squeal and hand signals which motioned my attention towards a large black-cloaked “flying” underwater object. It took a split second or two for me to actually realise that what was swimming past was indeed a manta ray. As it graciously moved past me I lay still and motionless – in awe and almost in shock at what I had just seen. The pictures in books, online or on TV could never prepare me for the true majesty exhibited by these large underwater beauties. My first encounter with manta rays was most certainly a whirlwind of an experience and one I will never ever forget – before I knew it I was encircled by 30+ mantas! I didn’t know which direction to turn, where to look, or what to do next – I giggled, laughed and relished in the moment. I watched manta feeding chains swoop past me and other mantas doing intermittent somersaults en-route. The graceful acrobatic display was spectacular and imprinted in my mind forever! Even after three weeks of swimming with mantas, the elegant synchronised movements of such large, magnificent creatures never ceases to amaze me and I truly believe that with each manta encounter my wonder and admiration for them will only continue to grow.
As if the first engagement wasn’t enough, the days that followed were just an explosion of exhilaration and excitement. I encountered my first mass feeding amongst a 100+ mantas, and to top it all off, the very next ‘Hanifaru Day’ amongst another 100+ mantas we were graced with the presence of a WHALE SHARK! To sum it all up, I am most certainly living in a marine biologists’ dream world – every day is new, excitingly different and something I am extremely lucky to experience and enjoy.
I am currently studying for my Masters’ Degree through the University of York in the UK and have chosen to focus my research on the historical status of some of the charismatic species that frequent the Maldivian seas, with particular focus on manta rays. I have been afforded the privileged opportunity to work with the Manta Trust Team in the Maldives to fulfil the priorities of my research. Since 2005 the Manta Trust Team has been recording information on the Maldivian manta ray population. They have built up a sound database of manta behaviour, population dynamics, and movements throughout the region, but are unable to fully understand and interpret this information without considering how these movements may differ over a longer time frame. As such it has been suggested that it would be a valuable undertaking to attempt to capture the historical knowledge of local fishermen given that very little direct data exists pre-2005.
Through a series of interviews with local fishers my project aims to evaluate how manta ray abundances may have changed over time by drawing comparisons between the traditional knowledge and current day observations. The study aims to identify whether the changes in more recent years are likely to be a result of natural cycles, or a relatively new phenomenon, possibly connected to human influences. It is also hoped that this research would help identify current threats to manta populations in the Maldives and possibly provide some insight into ways in which management can improve the conservation of this charismatic and vulnerable species. The interviews are also designed to evaluate the local community’s perception of conservation projects and to assess the degree to which more community involvement may address current disparities in conservation efforts.
The project is currently underway with help from some of the Four Seasons’ staff and the Manta Trust Team and I have been able to conduct a number of Dhivehi translated interviews with local fisherman on four islands within Baa Atoll. So far the primary findings suggest that manta ray abundances have not changed dramatically since the 1970s. The interviewees do recognise the historical hunting of manta rays for their oil, skin and meat in the Maldives but make it very clear that today this is no longer practiced. They are aware of the illegality concerning the capture and export of manta rays in the Maldives and highlight that protection of this species not only boosts the economy of the Maldives through ecotourism but also benefits the fishers by assisting as an important identifier for bait fish. The interview respondents also describe how the unintentional capture of manta rays is very unlikely to occur due to the methods of fishing practiced today and, if they do happen to hook a manta accidentally, they will release it – it has no use and there is “no need for unintentional killings”.
Questions pertaining to any noticeable changes in other aquatic life have revealed that shark numbers have increased considerably and the numbers of reef fish, tuna and whale sharks have decreased. The surveys so far identified some resentment by local fishers following the establishment of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Hanifaru bay. They can no longer obtain a reliable source of bait fish from this region but they are in agreement that mantas and whale sharks need to be protected. However, they feel the designation of the MPA only benefits the tourists with no local community benefits. The fisherman also recognise the potential benefits of the biosphere reserve but feel to date that rules for the management of MPAs such as Hanifaru Bay have not been adequately enforced.
The local fisherman also appear to recognise the importance of conservation work here and are keen to learn more about projects and how they can help to develop better practices for conserving their natural resources. They also believe educating the younger generation about conservation is one way that local communities can benefit from the work done by scientists and conservationists in the Maldives.
So far the surveys have highlighted some important information that can help address future community involvement in conservation projects and they have also emphasised that the trends observed in manta ray abundances today are historically natural. This is only based on 16 interviews conducted thus far and with more accounted surveys these general observed trends may become more apparent or they could change all together. In the next few weeks I am hoping to conduct between 50-80 interviews, following which I will be able to analyse more solid results. I am excited about the prospects and believe this study could help provide an improved understanding of the trends observed in manta ray abundances and other charismatic species frequenting the Maldives. I also believe that the research findings will help identify areas for conservation direction in order to ensure improved communication with locals – thus facilitating a more holistic approach to the conservation efforts in the region.