Hi everyone and welcome back! This month we are travelling to Ecuador’s rugged coastline and productive waters to learn more about the world’s largest known oceanic manta ray population.
As I write this the sun is shining through the windows of my London flat; a pleasant relief from the grey skies that usually dominate my home-city through the long winter months. But, as any Londoner will tell you, blue skies aren’t everything! The most amazing things can still happen on the greyest of days as Kanina Harty, our Central & South America Database Manager, recently discovered when she had a manta encounter in Ecuador that she will never forget.
Also included in this month’s post is a beautiful short-film provided by Proyecto Mantas Ecuador (PME) introducing their team, their work and of course their mantas! PME is based in Puerto Lopez, a small coastal fishing town, only a short boat ride from Isla de La Plata; a location that offers an unparalleled opportunity to study an iconic and typically elusive species.
In this ‘Meet the Team’ feature we hear from Michel Guerrero, Co-Founder of PME, owner of Exploramar Diving and (like me) a huge KISS fan! Michel has been diving at Isla de la Plata, along the coast of Ecuador and in the Galapagos Islands for the last 22 years. His project has played a key role in gaining national and international protection for oceanic manta rays but, despite this heightened protection, these gentle giants are still threatened by human activities. With artisanal fisheries remaining a particular challenge in Ecuador, PME continues its work to safeguard what Michel believes is one of the greatest manta ray hot-spots in the world.
Have you checked out our new range of Cyclone clothing yet? As a Cyclone Member you get access to a secret, members-only Manta Trust shop where you’ll find everything at a discounted price! Find the link on the Members’ Hub and here.
Finally, I would like to thank you for joining The Cyclone and becoming part of our manta family! Your support makes our work possible.
I hope you enjoy this month’s update!
Head of Fundraising & Communications
A Ray to remember
Sharing the water with a manta is always a special experience but, just as with people, sometimes you meet an individual that inspires you even more than the rest! Kanina Harty, Central and South America Database Manager for the Manta Trust, tells us about one such encounter she had whilst visiting Ecuador in 2018.
I was expecting the weather to be tropical as Ecuador is on the equator and I had left an unseasonably hot summer back in Europe, but it was cold, and the skies were a moody grey. These, however, are the ideal conditions for manta rays in the South American Pacific Ocean! Oceanic manta rays (Mobula birostris), otherwise known as giant mantas, make special visits to Isla de la Plata off the west coast of Ecuador each year during August and September. Despite the cold, the locals call it summer as it doesn’t rain as much as when the weather is warm. We’ll have to agree to disagree!
Michel Guerrero, founder of Proyecto Mantas Ecuador, has been diving off this coast for over 20 years and the first manta ID’s in this database date back to 2005. The colder water brings hundreds of manta rays to this small island for around six weeks each year, offering an incredible opportunity to study this iconic species. So, whilst I was there, I spent as much time as possible on the dive boats helping clients to collect manta ID’s, tissue samples and associated data relating to the presence of the mantas. Only by better understanding their behaviour and habitat use can we hope to adequately protect these gentle giants.
Each day we would travel to a dive site in Machalilla National Park, known to be a good spot for observing mantas. The hour-long boat ride, all wrapped up with a cup of tea to keep me warm, quickly became routine, but the excitement never wavered. The humpback whale encounters that were had on these journeys were second to none! I never tired of the breaching whale calves, travelling with their mothers to winter breeding grounds. They would come so close to the boat, sometimes spy-hopping to try and get a better look at us.
On one particular day, as we were preparing to go scuba diving, a manta came swimming towards the boat as if to tell us to come in. We all thought it was amazing as it was the first time a manta had come so close before we had even touched the water. Six of us carefully slipped into the water and sure enough, as soon as the last person reached the sea-bottom, this beautiful female manta swooped past us again. A few of the divers had only just qualified and this was one of their first dives, so they were completely in awe of the manta coming to look at us. She glided by again, this time slowing to really check us out and swim through our bubbles. It is not fully understood why manta rays like to do this. One theory is that the bubbles help to dislodge remora fish; hitchhikers that attach themselves to manta rays, reducing their swimming efficiency by creating extra drag and irritating the mantas’ skin, sometimes creating sores. This beautiful manta certainly had a lot of remoras in tow! The second theory is that they just really like the sensation of the bubbles on their belly.
Luckily it was a sandy bottom so we could easily sit still and wait for her to come back for more; but when we eventually decided to move on to the nearby cleaning station, our new dive companion chose to come with us. Cleaning stations are areas of reef that large marine creatures, like mantas, turtles and sharks, visit in order to get picked clean of dead skin and parasites by small fish and crustaceans. Throughout the dive we saw four other mantas that were swimming by, and our original manta companion stayed with us for the whole dive. She even came with us back to the boat and kept us company until it was time to get out of the water. We didn’t want to leave her! It was an experience I will never forget.
I never tire of the curiosity of some mantas that I encounter during research dives. Once you look into their eye it makes you feel like you have some sort of connection to them. I saw mantas on 39 out of 44 dives in the National Park! Ecuador’s waters are an important place for oceanic mantas, but the region is fraught with artisanal fishing pressure and rising human impacts. By working collaboratively with some incredible organisations in South America, including Proyecto Mantas Ecuador, the Manta Trust hopes to ensure that these waters are a safe habitat for the mantas to return year after year.
Proyecto Mantas Ecuador
Ecuador shares the largest known population of oceanic manta rays in the world, but it is still fraught with artisanal fishing pressure and rising human impacts, making it an ideal location to study this iconic species and focus efforts to protect them.
Proyecto Mantas Ecuador, one of the Manta Trust’s affiliate projects, was founded in 2010 to conduct focused research that can be used to assist in the conservation management of Ecuador's oceanic mantas.
MEET THE TEAM - MICHEL GUERRERO
We want to introduce you to the passionate people around the world that make up the Manta Team. For our latest edition, we interviewed Michel Guerrero, who heads-up the Proyecto Mantas Ecuador.
Tell us about your first manta/devil ray encounter.
It was amazing… It happened in September 1996, during my first-time diving at Isla de La Plata in Ecuador. Just as I was ready to enter the water, the captain of the boat shouted “shark!” and everybody on-board got worried. I stayed still, and then I saw a fin and this huge black shadow on the surface. I yelled back “manta ray!” and jumped immediately into the water! It was the first time I saw a manta and I totally fell in love with them.
What was your journey that led you to set-up 'Proyecto Mantas Ecuador’?
After this experience and working as a dive instructor, I founded Exploramar Diving, the only PADI 5-star IDC dive centre in Ecuador; located on the coast of Ecuador, close to the Machalilla National Park that includes Isla de La Plata. Between 1996 to 2006 I saw a lot of mantas and many questions began to arise about the presence of these individuals in our waters. So, I started to read about mantas on the internet and learned to take ID photos. In 2007 I decided to create a project in Ecuador to focus in the study of this manta population. By 2011 we had in our database about 700 different oceanic mantas recorded. In 2011 we created Proyecto Mantas Ecuador and now in 2019 we have around 2,500 individuals in our database; the largest aggregation of oceanic manta rays in the world!
What legacy would you like to leave in your field of research/conservation?
Our main goal is to study and get to know everything we can about this species, to make the world fall in love with the giant manta rays of Ecuador. We hope that thanks to science, we can protect, conserve and care for them.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
Travelling every day during the season (it takes almost two hours by boat to reach Isla de La Plata), enduring difficult conditions of the sea and weather, and diving in cold water and with strong currents, are all very challenging parts of my work. However, being able to work with these magnificent individuals is the best reward that one, as a researcher, can have.
What is the most surprising thing you have learnt about manta/devil rays?
Making eye contact with a giant manta ray is definitely the most wonderful and beautiful sensation that a human being can have. This impressive experience makes us realise that we are part of an incredible world and that we must learn to know and love all the individuals of this planet. Being close to a giant manta ray can easily change a person's life and encourage them to be a better human being.
If you could ask people to do one thing to help - what would it be?
People need to learn about these wonderful creatures! If you get the chance to experience being close to mantas, at least once in your life, you must take it because it is a life-changing experience! You can also help researchers and scientists with donations to help them continue conducting studies that can help protect these incredible marine animals.