Project Leader

Alicia Rodríguez Juncá

Alicia Rodríguez Juncá

Who I am

I grew up in Madrid, Spain, far from the ocean. In summer, I was lucky enough to go on holiday with my family to the beach and I would often scan the horizon in the hope of seeing a whale blow. I always knew I wanted to dedicate my life to the study of the ocean, to explore and conserve it. I studied biology in Madrid, followed by an MSc in biodiversity and conservation at the University of Leeds in the UK. Here I discovered my passion for research, when I monitored the impact of a planned offshore wind farm on the colony of northern gannets at Bass Rock in Scotland. After this experience, I knew I had to take the step and go live near the sea.

That’s how I came to the Canary Islands in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. Now it’s part of my job is to search the horizon looking for whales, as I am a member of the cetacean research group at the University of La Laguna and am analysing interactions between protected megafauna species and the fisheries and tourism sectors. While studying cetaceans, I have got to know the underwater richness of the archipelago and have increased my knowledge of the other group of animals that fascinates me: elasmobranchs. Several species of manta and devil rays are seen in these waters, but there is little information about them. I contacted Manta Catalog Azores looking for advice and guidance and with its help I started an initiative that aims to fill this gap in research. What will the Canary Islands reveal to us about these animals?

Where I work

The Canary Islands, a volcanic archipelago of eight islands, is an area of high productivity in the vast Atlantic Ocean. Geological processes have shaped unique environmental conditions that allow marine biodiversity to thrive. Marine megafauna is notably represented within its waters, using them as permanent homes or as a stopover for foraging during their migrations. Here we can find Europe’s most diverse cetacean community and about 60 species of elasmobranchs. Nevertheless, pelagic elasmobranchs, especially manta and devil rays, are poorly studied in the region. In the archipelago, manta and devil rays are known as maromas. Three species are officially cited: the sicklefin devil ray Mobula tarapacana, the oceanic manta ray M. birostris and the giant devil ray M. mobular. At El Hierro island, sightings of big groups of devil rays are well known within the diving community. Among the rest of the islands sightings are scarce, although they have been very interesting. The fishermen tend to see the rays far from the coast and both fear and admire them.

What I do

The present project is based on citizen science. Manta and devil rays are elusive animals and studying them is logistically and financially difficult for researchers. Without the collaboration of dive centres, underwater photographers and the general public, research into rays could not exist. Sightings of manta and devil rays are recorded from all the islands of the archipelago. Divers are asked to fill in a form that includes information on the dive parameters, such as depth, temperature and current. Photos and videos are a valuable resource. Photo identification is a research tool used to track movements and learn more about the rays’ migration patterns, population size, reproductive activity and the like. All this crucial information helps to make informed management decisions for the conservation of these majestic animals. Sicklefin devil rays and oceanic manta rays have ventral markings that are unique to each individual. Taking a picture of the ventral side of a ray is tricky, as these animals are sometimes shy. But when an encounter with a curious individual occurs, normally if it approaches to play with a diver’s bubbles, the goal can be achieved. These images are used to create the first photo-identification catalogue for these two species in the Canary Islands.

My project

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