There are certain events that happen in our lives that mark them for all of our limited sense of eternity, thoughts and memories that stay with us for the rest of our lives. Our short time on this planet is punctuated by events, so called rites of passage, birth, adolescence, falling in love, marriage, death. They affect us in such meaningful ways, but they affect only us personally and the handful of the people we surround ourselves with.
It is not often that we get to be involved in a moment in history that will be remembered for the rest of human time; recorded in Natural History Museum displays and vaults for the benefit of all of our descendants to come. Today I was involved in such an event, and as much as an encounter with a manta ray is always profoundly special to me, our encounter with this particular one will stay with me, and will be significant for the rest of the manta birostris species for time eternal.
The very distinct markings help researchers to identify individual manta rays. Photo © Mark Harding
Five years ago I encountered my first manta ray at Isla de la Plata, and since then I have done what little I can to bring some sense of importance to the species in this area, and hopefully repay those magnificent rays with whatever I could to do help them enjoy a long and sustainable existence in the Pacific Ocean that they call home.
My interest in them soon had me taking handfuls of identification shots but it wasn’t until 2009 when I brought my first volunteer researchers to Ecuador that the significance of this population became apparent. Unbeknown to me I had opened a chapter in someone else’s life all the way over in Mozambique; Dr. Andrea Marshall soon got to hear about this population through my work, not too long a grapevine considering the tiny world of manta research.
With the support of the Save our Seas foundation, Andrea had embarked on a global manta ray satellite tagging program, and I myself had been awarded a Save Our Seas grant to continue my research here. By late 2009 it was almost inevitable that we were looking at making the first ever satellite tagging event in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
My work however was only based on four or five months work spread over five years, and given the fickle nature of the natural world, let alone the unpredictability and small population sizes of Manta birostris in pretty much all the places they are found, even up until the last minute, the whole project seemed it could easily fall into the category of “An Impossible Gamble”. Close to Andrea’s visit date though, manta numbers seemed good, and despite challenging visibility and strong currents, we were getting regular sightings.
Our first dive was, for me, disappointing, a low amount of mantas seemed in a fickle mood and were navigating nonchalantly past us, cephalic fins tightly rolled, and it wasn’t until later in the dive when we had all run out of air, that a relaxed, circling manta was spotted.
On our second dive to the same location, we were quickly into a more relaxed number of rays, but the visibility looked somewhat reduced compared to the previous dive. I watched Andrea ready herself above one moderately sized male, and in a flurry of hand signals and fin strokes the manta decided he would disappear into the enclosing gloom. Not two seconds later then another unmistakable shape appeared. It all seemed good. We were on a rock wall sitting above 100 metres of dark Pacific Ocean. The heavy plankton bloom fell around us like snow. Our limited range of viz made it feel like we were inside some kind of winter bound amphitheatre. All other divers had melted away into the darkness and it was just me, the queen of mantas, and…a manta. Heaven.
Andrea tagging a manta ray. Photo © Mark Harding
After diving with many very inspiring watermen (and women!) over my short underwater career, it takes a pretty special kind of diver to impress me, but the way Andrea handles all her tagging and camera and sampling equipment underwater is, well, impressive. With the blink of an eye the tag was in, and Andrea had changed tactics, now looking to photograph the tag to see if it had set properly. The manta received the tag with a movement that can only be described as just having had her bum slapped. Other than that she just resumed her nonchalant swim over the wall area, and disappeared as fast as she had arrived.
Andrea disappeared with her and for that moment I thought it was all over. I hung on the top of the wall in the current, breathing heavily after all the effort, looking down into the black deep listening to the strained wheeze of my regulator. I looked up to make my way back to the pinnacle to safety stop my way out of the site and nearly bumped my head on a large speckled belly sitting only ten centimetres above my head. At first I wasn’t surprised as it wasn’t unusual to see mantas do that here, they love hanging in the current with an annoyingly relaxed look on their face whilst us stupid and inefficient humans battle in our little plastic fins. As she gently slid back to come for another look at me, she dipped below the wall and I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. There she was, the first ever manta to be tagged in the South American Pacific, hanging in front of me, studying me with her wide set, trusting and beautiful eyes. What she was doing there, why she came back to me, why she stayed with me for those eternal minutes effortlessly floating in the whistling current I will never know. I can only guess, hope, that she understood all the intense effort that is going on above her wide ocean waves to save her and the rest of her kind from what us humans know is happening to them.
Today was a special day, not only for me, but for mantas and manta lovers everywhere. I want here to publicly and warmly thank Andrea Marshall for her sincere effort directed towards a greater understanding of these magnificent ocean giants, and I would like to also thank her on a more personal level for affording me the undeniable privilege of being present when the first tag here went on.
A successfully tagged manta ray. Photo © Mark Harding
This tagging program will enable us to learn a little more about this population and will give me a valuable insight to their lifestyle. I can then use that information to develop more in-depth studies to gain further knowledge that will be valuable in our wider understanding of the species, both on a local and international level.