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Andreas: Queen of Mantas

Photo © Thomas P. Peschak, Chief Photographer, Save Our Seas Foundation

Dr. Andrea Marshall, manta ray researcher, SOSF project leader, and now star of new BBC documentary ‘Andrea: Queen of Mantas’ talks to us about the experience of producing a natural history documentary focused on her research and the species she has dedicated her life to.

Andrea, you’ve been based in Mozambique for many years now, researching manta rays as well as running conservation and education programs. You must have really fallen in love with the area as well as the species to commit so much of your life to it. What is it about manta rays and your study site that is so special to you?

When I first moved to Africa it seemed like such a harsh place, it was so full of contrasts and challenges that it was sometimes hard to see the beauty. But over time you come to love it so much that it just becomes impossible to leave. When I look at Mozambique now, through more experienced eyes, I see a place that is extremely raw and fragile. I see a place that needs protecting, a place where it is not yet too late to make a difference. Protecting the manta rays along this coastline has become my life’s mission.

I can’t say for sure when I fell in love with manta rays, but when I did, I fell hard. From a really young age I was obsessed with sharks. So much so, that it is still hard for me to believe that I ended up studying rays. But despite my continued passion for sharks, the mysteries surrounding manta rays have, for now, completely captivated me. I am driven by a need to answer the questions that we still do not know about these animals and to fight for their continued survival in the world’s oceans.

I imagine a normal work day for you entails spending lots of time in the water at your study site in Mozambique, the experience of producing a documentary must have been quite a change of pace. Did you enjoy the process?

Filming such a major documentary was a very unusual opportunity and I jumped at the chance to share what I know about mantas with such a large audience. However, the actual process of filming was like nothing that I could have ever expected. I have a lot of respect for people who do this for a living. To capture rare behaviour or the subtle nuances of an animal’s every day life is a monumental task. It initially seemed like something that would be easy, because I see manta rays every day, but it was actually incredibly challenging. I am so grateful that I had such a dedicated team of underwater cameramen.

In the end, I really wanted the film to capture the true nature of mantas. They are incredibly majestic and gentle creatures but they have a distinct curiosity that is absent in so many of the other sharks and rays. I wanted people to see how they engage divers underwater, how playful they can be. It was important for me to convey this to people who have never seen a manta ray, and I think the film really captured just how awe inspiring and unusual these animals really are. At the end of the day, I was just so pleased that I could share with everyone some of the special and life changing moments that I have had with them over the years. It was an experience that I will cherish forever.

Alongside film-making there are a number of methods that researchers can employ to disseminate their findings. Do you think in today’s web culture that it’s becoming easier for scientists to share their research and reach the general public, or are these developments more of a hindrance, creating extra work to sometimes already overburdened researchers?

That is such an interesting and relevant question. While this latest BBC film was a worthwhile endeavour, it was also very time consuming and demanded a lot of my attention over a significant period of time. I think that because of its enormous distribution it will be a very important and visually stunning educational tool. Scientists do not often have the opportunity to speak to such large audiences, so in this instance it was well worth the time and effort put in.

However, I am also keenly aware that the only reason I had this opportunity was because I had worked so hard for many years and during that time uncovered some interesting aspects about a highly charismatic species. As a relatively ambitious young researcher it is hard to find a balance between spending enough time participating in education based projects and films and doing the actual fieldwork necessary to continually make interesting and meaningful contributions to science.

Do you think that researchers have a responsibility to help disseminate information about their findings to the public, or should this responsibility lie with bloggers, the media, and film-makers?

I think that researchers definitely have a responsibility to be educators. We fall short of our duty if our work is never seen or never has an impact on the public. Publishing is one thing, but explaining to people the relevance of the findings is also important if we are to move beyond science for science and more towards science for conservation.

Plus, there is nothing like hearing information from the source or from those on the frontline. Data can get so mis-interpreted or overlooked if the topic is complicated. It is nice to involve researchers so that there is certain level of quality control and validation.

Still, sometimes it is hard for scientists to keep up with the media outlets available to us. It is not always easy keeping up with the latest technological trends. At the moment, aside from the various film projects and TV shows we are working on we try to keep in touch with the public on our Foundation’s Facebook page which allows our fans to follow the fieldwork that is currently underway and to get updates on our findings as we progress. It is also fun for us to actually take time out of our day to connect with people who are passionate about the animals we are researching.

Your research employs a number of methods, including in-water observation, satellite and acoustic tagging, and DNA analysis. How are emerging technologies forging the path for research, and how do you see these technologies developing and shaping research efforts in the future?

I think it is a really interesting time to be a field researcher. The advent of digital photography and video has certainly allowed for more in-depth studies on wild populations using non-intrusive methodologies. Our research centre, for one, depends strongly on these techniques as we work on large species of threatened megafauna that cannot be easily manipulated, captured, or controlled. I am particularly fond of these techniques because they allow you to build up a visual database overtime that can be mined for years to come. I, for one, would never give up this way of doing research. It is so intimate and hands-on, the more time you spend in the wild with an animal, the more you start to understand them.

However, equally, there are a lot of really advanced techniques that we have at our disposal today that scientists did not have access to in the past. These techniques, whether they may be emerging types of genetic analysis or cutting edge satellite telemetry, afford us scientists with the ability to pose and answer questions that would have been impossible to undertake in past decades. I think that having technology on your side is always helpful. Also, a great deal of the fun lies in the design and attempted execution of a project – asking the impossible and then to trying to figure out how to get an answer. You make a lot of mistakes, but you are constantly learning and having a good time. It is so nice to be able to collaborate with creative people and engineers that can make our job as scientists easier.

During your research and the production process for the film, you’ve traveled far and wide diving with and researching mantas. What’s your fondest memory of an in-water experience with manta rays?

While by far the most exciting dive I ever had with manta rays was in the Maldives with hundreds of manta barreling down at me during a feeding event, I actually prefer to be one on one with a manta in the water. When I am with a single individual, I can focus more on its behaviour and I often feel as if I can make a connection.

Some of my most memorable encounters have been with giant manta rays in Mexico and in Mozambique. To be mid-water with an enormous animal, like a Giant, and have them ‘play’ with you, is an extraordinary sensation. I also like the feeling I get when a manta actively looks for an encounter with me. They will approach you underwater from out of nowhere, interact with you for awhile and then without warning decide that they are finished. Sometimes I feel as if I am the one being examined.

What advice would you give to the average person on the street who just like yourself is crazy about mantas, and wants to find ways to help the species?

I think there are a number of things that people can do to support manta rays. The possibilities are endless really and depend on the extent that people are willing to go.

Signing petitions for starters is an easy and a free way to get involved in manta ray conservation initiatives. The public has been directly involved in passing bills that have lead to their protection in certain areas like Hawaii and the Maldives. As mantas are only protected in a handful of places across the world, these types of initiatives are sorely needed. In general, supporting the NGOs that run these campaigns is helpful too.

Another way to actively support research on mantas is to contribute to the programs themselves via initiatives like Adopt-A-Manta. Many of these programs are fun and educational while also enabling researchers to continue their work in remote parts of the world.

Also important is supporting eco-tourism operators that follow good codes of practice when diving or interacting with manta rays. This is an excellent way to encourage operators at other destinations to raise the bar, if not only for the mantas for their businesses. If the public demands it, you will start to see results. Another must is abstaining from purchasing or supporting organisations or companies that buy, distribute, or sell manta ray products.

Lastly, get directly involved with research efforts by sending photos of the natural spot patterns of mantas (belly shots) to local researchers or to global databases, via the web, when you return home from a trip (for more information see www.marinemegafauna.org). Or go one step further and volunteer for a research-oriented holiday. Really, it is about being pro-active and passionate about protecting the animals that you want to see around for generations to come.

Whats next? How are you moving forward with your research from here?

There is always room to grow and I am constantly looking at new research angles. With the tremendous support we have received from our major sponsors, like the Save Our Seas Foundation, we have been able to achieve so many things in the last few years. I recently received additional funding from SOSF that is allowing my team to conduct a preliminary worldwide study on the migratory behaviour of the newly discovered giant manta ray.

Together we are working very hard to increase our baseline information on this species so that we can better understand the threats they face and how we can protect them. We know so little about this giant species the next few years will be very exciting indeed. I will have more updates soon and will keep my SOSF blogs and Foundation Facebook page updated as news comes in, so watch this space!

So, is the future looking bright for manta rays now?

More than ever, I think there is a bright future for manta rays. Research projects are starting to pop up across the globe giving us a better idea of their global distributions and local population sizes.

Additionally locations with viable tourism industries are starting to protect their resources by proposing marine protect areas (MPAs), banning directed fishing and supporting research efforts. The more of this that can happen, the better, so show your support.

Education has also come a long way, with information now widely accessible over the internet and documentaries and TV shows now regularly featuring these magnificent rays. All in all, I think that a greater awareness is being built that will hopefully continue to strengthen over generations so that we can ensure that manta rays maintain their position as the gentle giants of the ocean.