Hello Cyclone family, we’re back again with more updates for you from our manta teams around the world.
This month we focus on two populations of oceanic mantas, but in very different parts of the world. First off, we have a video from Simon Hilbourne on the very exciting research that is being undertaken in Fuvahmulah atoll in the south of the Maldives. Only in the last couple of years has the oceanic manta population in Fuvahmulah started to gather attention and there’s still so much to learn!
Our ‘Meet the Team’ takes us across the oceans to New Zealand, one of the southern most locations mantas are found. Lydia Green fills us in on how Manta Watch New Zealand came to be, some of the challenges see faces.
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MALDIVES OCEANIC MANTA SEASON IN FULL SWING
Last month we gave you a quick indication that the oceanic manta season in the Maldives was heating up. We had just hit 400 oceanic mantas in the database. Well, things continued to get even better. The team encountered dozens of oceanic mantas and we have now added over 250 new individuals to the database this year. Watch the video below for a field update from Dr. Guy Stevens and Simon Hilbourne in Fuvahmulah.
Video by: Simon Hilbourne
MEET THE TEAM - MANTA WATCH NEW ZEALAND
Lydia Green set up and runs the Manta Watch New Zealand project. Start in 2017, it is a relatively new project but already has some exciting prospects. Here she gives us some insight into how the project came to fruition.
Tell us about your first manta ray encounter
I was volunteering for the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project in the Philippines in 2011. Everyday we would dive Monad Shoal, a sea mount off the coast of the small island of Malapascua, situated in the middle of the Visayan Sea. Monad Shoal is essentially one big cleaning station and one of the best places in the world to see Thresher Sharks. The Shoal sits between 20m-30m deep and often attracts other marine megafauna. On one particular dive we were photographing regenerating soft corals using an underwater quadrate when suddenly the sunlight from above was cut out and in its place hovered a gigantic oceanic manta ray. Time seemed to stop as she took a moment to circle above us all before cruising back over the shoal and into the deep blue. It was definitely a magical and very memorable encounter.
What was your journey that led you to set-up 'Manta Watch New Zealand'?
I have always been fascinated by sharks and rays, a passion that I have continued to pursue for the better part of my career in marine science and ecotourism. To date I have taken roles and opportunities that have allowed me to work closely with many of my favourite species, enabling me to learn more about them first hand. Having studied great white sharks, whale sharks and thresher sharks in their natural habitats, I was blown away by how interactive and inquisitive manta rays were by comparison.
I first properly encountered mantas when I was working in Fiji for 3 months. I was lucky enough to work alongside the Manta Trust’s Fiji field scientist “Manta Steve” who was researching a local population of reef mantas Mobula alfredi. I swam with the mantas every day and the more time I spent in the water with them the more captivated I became. A few years later I volunteered for the Manta Trust’s affiliate Mexican Caribbean Project, this time studying oceanic manta rays Mobula birostris. I learnt a lot from both projects, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking about the manta rays in New Zealand.
Having worked in and on the ocean in NZ for many years, I have seen oceanic manta rays several times. I’d also heard numerous accounts from fishermen about manta aggregations hundreds of nautical miles north of where I’d first sighted them. Then I got thinking, “Is anyone studying this population? Could we even have our own population?” It seemed that everyone I talked to had a story to tell about a manta encounter, but that’s as far as it went. No one was collating any of these sightings or trying to obtain or catalogue ID shots. I found a couple of research papers confirming oceanic manta rays Mobula birostris are found in NZ waters, but in terms of population size and distribution the general consensus was either “no data” or “data deficient”. So I decided to start my own project.
In setting up Manta Watch New Zealand, I wanted the project to be primarily citizen science focused and our collective discoveries be engaging, interactive and accessible to all. I’m eager for our progress to be shared and celebrated within our wider communities and for everyone to learn and be excited. The more we can promote education and awareness, the better our chances are of ensuring these incredible animals are protected.
What legacy would you like to leave in your field of research/conservation?
I would love to see more marine protected areas and marine reserves in NZ as a direct result of MWNZ research. At present, NZ’s protected waters account for only 10% of our territorial waters. Ultimately, I would like mobulids in NZ to receive greater acknowledgement, with the creation of mobulid sanctuaries or protected areas around known cleaning stations and key feeding sites. We know that mobulids, both oceanic mantas and spine tail devil rays Mobula mobular (the two confirmed species here in NZ) do have negative interactions with some offshore commercial fisheries; but at this stage little is known to what extent. So, it would be great to spearhead greater awareness around these issues backed up by proactive legislation supporting healthy marine ecosystems.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
The MWNZ project is still very much in the early stages. Our biggest challenge is the sheer scale of our search area coupled with the elusive nature of oceanic manta rays. Currently, we have identified numerous potential cleaning stations, but nothing confirmed as of yet. And to make things a little trickier the majority of these key areas are situated next to offshore islands, often a good hour or so’s steam from the mainland; so the logistics of getting out to conduct surveys in prime manta territory can be both logistically and financially challenging.
This really highlights the reasons that collaboration and engagement with tourism operators, recreational fisherman, dive clubs, other researchers is so important. The more eyes we have on the water the better.
What is the most surprising thing you have learnt about manta/devil rays?
I’m a big fan of how mantas use their cephalic fins when not feeding. I was surprised to witness how interactive and tactile they are; not only with each other but during encounters with humans.
The way they unfurl and seem to reach out to touch you is amazing. This behaviour really emphasises to me just how intelligent they are.
If you could ask people to do one thing to help - what would it be?
Spread the word!
We’re keen for the MWNZ project to be shared far and wide, throughout NZ and beyond. Join our Facebook and Instagram pages, share our discoveries and for folks in NZ we also have a dedicated Manta Ray Sightings FB Group that can be joined and sightings easily shared with the MWNZ Project.
Lydia Green - Manta Watch New Zealand