Every year in the Maldives I see dozens of manta rays with injuries caused by fishing line entanglements. While the hooks, which often get stuck in the mantas mouth’s, rarely cause any long-term injuries, the trailing line itself is a real killer. Manta rays regularly feed by somersaulting in tight loops; this barrel rolling wraps the trailing line around their bodies where it then begins to cut deep into the animal’s skin, just like a cheese wire. The end result is often the loss of a cephalic fin, major scaring or, for the unlucky individuals which are unable to break free, death.
Watch the video of Guy talking about his amazing manta rescue.
I have heard many stories about entangled mantas approaching divers, circling them as if reaching out for help and then allowing themselves to be cut free, even though considerable pain must be endured by the manta in the process. Many of these stories appear genuine and, if true, the implications for such seemingly ‘clever’ thought processes on the mantas behalf makes you really start to think about the question-How intelligent are manta rays? I have spent hundreds of hours of my life in the water with manta rays and I have always felt there is more going on behind their eyes than is generally believed or known. When I watch a manta and wonder what it is thinking, I get the distinct impression that it is doing the same thing to me.
While I hate to see any animal in distress, especially when caused by humans, part of me has always wanted to experience such an encounter for myself. So, when diving amongst a mass feeding aggregation of about 100 manta rays, I noticed an individual that was trailing a mass of fishing line my mind immediately began to race. But before I could react the manta peeled away from the other feeding mantas in the water column and swam over to me, circling within inches of my head. The manta was a three metre female and as she moved closer I could see her injuries were severe. The line was completely wrapped around her body several times, slicing a wound about 30cm directly through her upper and lower jaw backwards into her head. The more she tried to open her mouth to breath and feed, the greater the line dug into her flesh.
My dive buddy had already surfaced; I was at 15 metres, I had almost run out of air and my dive knife was on the research boat anchored 100 metres away. What should I do? I decided to get my knife! I exchanged by empty tank for the only other one which had any air left, still only about a quarter full, and to make matters worse it was beginning to get dark. It took me 15 minutes to get back down to the feeding mantas and I was worried that I had missed my chance to help. But as soon as I descended the injured manta again approached and began to circle me. I swam closer and began to cut at the line wrapped around her body; it did not take much to remove it all, especially as she remained calm throughout. With all the line removed the manta continued to circle, but I had to leave. I was almost out of air and it was nearly dark, I quickly took some photos of her injuries and an ID shot so I could recognise her again if she survived, before heading back to the boat.
This encounter is one I will never forget, the connection and sense of achievement was amazing and extremely rewarding for me, I just hope the manta is able to recover. And, in fact I think she will, because on several occasions throughout the following months I was able to again dive with her and see her injuries start to heal. These encounters were even more intriguing for me because she again left the feeding group and came to circle above and around me. She did this for several minutes before returning to feed and I was the only diver she approached despite the presence of several other people. I don’t really know what to make of this behaviour, as a scientist I try to rationalize and explain it logically; maybe through association with divers at cleaning stations the mantas think we are able to act as a kind of giant cleaner fish, removing fishing line and later by helping to further clean the wound. But I can’t help but think it’s more than that, I think she recognized me and was curious to learn and interact more with this strange person who had helped to set her free. Either way, it made me want to learn even more about these amazing animals, and I hope that over the coming years this injured manta will be around to teach me about the fascinating and captivating world of manta rays.
Guy is featured in the BBC series Natural World on Wednesday 11 November 2009 (on BBC2 at 8pm, and afterwards online via BBC I-Player). Andrea: Queen of Mantas is about the revelatory manta research by SOSF-funded scientist Andrea Marshall.
For more information on the Manta Project’s work please visit our website at: www.maldivianmantas.com or email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org