Who I am
I was clinging to a rock 15 metres below the ocean’s surface and the current’s surge seemed determined to wrench me from my precarious hold. Visibility was less than five metres, but through the gloomy waters a massive bird-like fish glided gracefully into view, passing just inches above my head, with its ‘wings’ on either side of my body. This first encounter with a manta ray was an experience I will never forget!
Sri Lanka is a small island nation in the Indian Ocean and I was born and grew up right in the middle of it, miles away from the ocean. My passion for the underwater realm only got going when I started snorkelling at the age of 10 and then later when I got the opportunity to learn scuba diving. It was then, during an advanced open-water dive in the Maldives, that I first encountered manta rays. After briefly contemplating dropping out of university to become a scuba instructor, I realised (and was convinced by my parents) that I could have a much greater impact on the marine environment if I had an academic background. So I switched from my undergraduate degree in biomedical science to a Masters in marine resources management.
After my studies I briefly pursued research on the whales off the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. On a return trip to the Maldives, however, I rediscovered the manta rays and reignited my desire to learn more about them. After hearing of the large-scale fisheries around the world for manta rays and their smaller cousins, the mobula rays, I decided to get involved in the research and conservation of all mobulid species. It is not just the fact that they are highly threatened, but also that these iconic creatures help draw attention to the destructive fishing techniques employed around the world that endanger many other marine species.
Where I work
My project is not confined to one geographical region but, due to the global distribution of manta and mobula rays, is spread all around the world and is undertaken with the assistance of several international collaborators. Primary study locations include Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, Chagos, Malaysia, Pakistan, West Africa, Gaza, Mexico and the Caribbean. This global coverage enables us to collect data on all nine mobula and two manta species.
I spend a lot of time at early morning fish markets, and one thing that always strikes me is that although cultures vary greatly from one country to the next, the similarities between fish markets in tropical regions can be astounding. The noise, chaos and bustle, and the unique smell, are not something you easily forget! Additionally, the friendships I make are special; without the support of the fishermen and traders I meet, most of my work would not be possible.
Fortunately it is not always about dead fish. I get opportunities to swim with mantas and mobulas in stunning locations like the Maldives and Malaysian Borneo because I need images of living rays too. These are the moments that make it all worthwhile, as I realise that projects such as mine will help these graceful species to continue swimming in the world’s oceans.
What I do
The ocean, the final frontier. We know so little about it, yet depend so heavily upon it. This reliance has led to over-ambitious exploitation of the ocean, with no thought given to the consequences that future generations will inherit.
Indiscriminate fishing techniques such as gill nets endanger manta and mobula ray populations around the world. An even greater threat is the target fisheries for rays in several countries, which find a market in the global trade in dried mobulid gill plates – also known as gill rakers, the cartilaginous structures that enable rays to filter plankton from the water column. Since rays grow extremely slowly (mantas can live longer than 50 years), mature late and have a low reproduction rate, commercial targeted fisheries will inevitably result in a decline in their global population.
Very little biological or ecological information about rays is currently available because the 11 species look alike and are not easily identified. This makes protecting them very difficult, as any declaration of their threatened status needs to be backed up by in-depth and solid scientific evidence.
My project aims to develop the first global and comprehensive identification guide and genetic kit for all 11 mobulid species and make it accessible to scientists, field researchers, conservation policy makers and, of course, ray enthusiasts. To create the guide, I have been cataloguing all data currently available, identifying gaps in the information and then heading out to fish markets in a bid to fill the gaps. Since data and genetic samples are required from all parts of the world, I am also collaborating with other organisations and individuals who are already collecting information from living populations and from fisheries.
All the data will be compiled into a guide book. The samples will be used to develop a genetic identification kit for tissue and gills – a crucial component in the monitoring and control of the international trade in mobulid ray parts. Ultimately the guide and the genetic kit will enable a larger number of people to identify each ray to species level and thus increase the data collected for each species. This in turn will lead to improved conservation measures for rays, a key aim of the Save Our Seas Foundation.
If you would like to learn more about mobulid fisheries, the global trade in gill plates and my main study location in Sri Lanka, please watch Diminishing Ray of Hope, a short documentary filmed and produced by Al Jazeera.