To bring you up to date on my adventures, since October I’ve been based on Athuruga Island in the Maldives, working as a representative/researcher for the Manta Trust! Manta Trust is a fantastic British charity whose goal is to raise awareness about the threats facing manta rays worldwide, whilst pushing for their international protection. This is achieved through researching the rays in order to understand their movements, population demographics and lifestyles, as well as through education outreach and helping to develop environmental legislation. It’s truly a great team to be part of, full of young enthusiastic researchers, photographers and passionate conservationists; I am so grateful to have been given this opportunity!
Athuruga island is home to an Italian-run resort, Diamonds, but we have a mixture of guests from all over Europe, so my language skills have been put to the test! Most people are very excited to come snorkelling with us and learn about the incredible diversity of life which tropical reefs have to offer. In the evenings they can also hopefully learn a little bit from my presentations on manta ray biology, ecology and our conservation efforts. It’s so satisfying to see the wonder on people’s faces when you start talking about dancing mantas, as nobody can resist being enchanted by these amazing creatures!
Christmas was a particularly exciting time here in Ari Atoll, with manta sightings going through the roof! As we are currently right in the middle of the North-East monsoon period, strong surface currents flowing down towards us have created huge plankton blooms on the western side of the atoll. This is great news for me on Athuruga Island and my colleague Nicola Bassett on Thudufushi, as no hungry manta can resist the epic “soupiness” of our water! Sure enough, over the past few weeks these gentle giants have been enticed away from the Manta Trust members in Baa atoll to the North (sorry guys!) and we are currently experiencing an extraordinary feeding frenzy. Our research over the years has revealed that the mantas follow these monsoonal winds, which dictate plankton availability throughout the Maldives. There’s still tons to be learnt about these elusive creatures however, and every survey presents a unique encounter!
Nicola and I regularly lead “Manta Safari” snorkelling excursions to Maavaru Falhu, a nearby lagoon located on the edge of the atoll, encircled by idyllic turquoise waters. Imagine your typical “tropical paradise” postcard; this is it. Not only is it a stunning place to visit by boat, but Maavaru also typically serves as the perfect plankton trap, attracting our majestic manta friends to feast within. These trips are a fantastic way for resort guests to witness the grace and agility of feeding mantas, but they also allow us to collect valuable identification data on the individual rays in the area. Recently however, there has been a lot of plankton on the deeper cleaning stations of the outer reef, so more often than not we’ve put away our snorkels, strapped on the scuba tanks and joined the dive team on their adventures.
The dive on Christmas Eve was one which none of us will ever forget. To start things off, as we dropped into the water two large mantas flew below us in mid-water, before the reef was even in sight! Upon reaching the cleaning station we were the only divers present, but the reef was buzzing with life and energy. Blue-striped snappers schooled in huge numbers over the coral, a spotted eagle ray cruised overhead and even a large grey reef shark had ascended from its usual depths to enjoy a “Christmas pampering” from the cleaner wrasse. After a few minutes of waiting the light suddenly dimmed, and just as we turned around to see what had happened, 3 male mantas slowly cruised in, inches over our heads. Monkeyface, Bon Amie and SoKeTo had made quite a dramatic entrance. They were soon joined by another 3 individuals, including a curious Mr. J who very helpfully posed for this festive photo with our Santa hat clad dive guide Mattia!
For over 45 minutes we enjoyed them elegantly cruising around us, as their annoying parasites were removed by cleaner fish, but just as we started to move to shallower waters there was a sudden tension on the reef. Fish scattered in all directions, diving down into the protective nooks and crannies of the coral. The grand finale of the dive had begun. Without warning, a large female white-tip reef shark swam up from the deep towards us, followed in hot pursuit by a train of 7 males! Similar to manta ray courtship events, a group of male sharks will chase the female to win the right to mate (although it’s a little rougher in the shark world). As soon as he was close enough, the lead male shark bit down onto the female’s pectoral fin and she entered into a trance-like state of immobility, drifting down to the reef. It was all over in a matter of seconds, with the female coming around and making a hasty escape! Such an event is extremely rare to witness and we couldn’t believe how lucky we were to receive such an exciting early Christmas present!
Back on land, the holiday period involved many seasonal children’s activities, including marine life gingerbread biscuit baking (and eating), “Manta Claus” colouring sessions and creating jellyfish tree decorations! The kids also enjoyed our regular Manta Ray Workshop, where we discover the incredible diversity of plankton under the microscope. Such weird and wonderful creatures can’t help but capture their creative imagination and also make very interesting drawing subjects! Reaching out to youngsters is such an important part of marine conservation, as one day they will hopefully be the next ocean guardians.
I will soon write a follow up blog post to this, explaining a bit about manta ray “fingerprints” so stay tuned! If you would like to learn a little more about mantas in the meanwhile, feel free to visit www.mantatrust.org.