Having grown up in rural Western Australia, I have always been surrounded by wildlife and I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t in awe of the natural world. My passion for the ocean and marine life was sparked when I was five years old and my family took the first of many trips to the Ningaloo Reef. I could not get enough of snorkelling the reefs and exploring the intertidal pools to see what new creatures I could discover. It wasn’t long before everyone knew the response they would get when they asked me, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up, Lauren?’ ‘A marine biologist!’ I would say, with the biggest grin on my face.
My fascination with the world around me drove me to complete my Bachelor’s degree in 2011 at the University of Western Australia, where I majored in zoology and chemistry. It was in 2012, while completing my Honours research into the visual system of the Port Jackson shark, that I discovered my love for all things elasmobranch. I knew then that I wanted to make a career out of studying these incredible animals and promoting their conservation through education.
Since completing my undergraduate studies, I have been fortunate enough to work with a diverse array of marine life in Australia and South Africa alongside many incredible marine scientists. I have assisted with sea turtle research in the remote north-west of Australia and for two years I held the position of field specialist for a marine research organisation in South Africa, where I was able to contribute to research projects that focused on everything from intertidal invertebrate communities to dolphin, whale and white shark biology. These experiences have enabled me to refine my interests towards research projects that endeavour to expand our knowledge of the population dynamics, trophic role, movement patterns and ecology of sharks and rays in order to promote the development of scientifically informed management directives and the improved design of marine protected areas.
The stunning D’Arros Island and St Joseph Atoll belong to the Outer Islands group of the Republic of Seychelles in the Western Indian Ocean and their waters boast a diverse array of marine life. Depending on the season, you can observe turtles, stingrays, sharks and even manta rays in the turquoise blue waters of the lagoon or across the reefs and sea-grass beds surrounding the islands. The remote and sheltered nature of D’Arros Island and St Joseph Atoll contributes greatly to their beauty – and their importance as a research site. As human-driven impacts upon the marine ecosystems and native fauna in the area are greatly restricted because of the limited public access to the islands, studies of animal movement patterns and biology can be conducted with the knowledge that the animals’ behaviour is completely natural and not being influenced by human activities in any way. This pristine opportunity is rarely found in the modern age of global travel and is one of the many reasons why the Save Our Seas Foundation’s D’Arros Research Centre is such an incredible place to work from.
When people think of manta rays, they think of graceful and harmless giants that leave people in awe of their beauty and charisma. Diving with these animals is at the top of many people’s bucket-lists and global manta ray ecotourism ventures have been valued at more than US$ 50-million. Despite this, manta ray populations around the world are currently in a state of decline. In the past 75 years, manta numbers have decreased globally by about 30% and losses of up to 80% have been witnessed in some areas. These population declines are driven largely by demand from the traditional Chinese medicine market for manta gill plates, as well as for food in smaller fishing villages. The rays are also taken as by-catch in fishing nets and on long lines. As the majority of the fisheries around the world that target these animals are artisanal and small-scale, it is difficult to decrease the mortality of manta rays using traditional approaches to fisheries management, such as bag limits. In these circumstances we turn to marine protected areas as a means to manage and conserve manta ray populations.
Through the Seychelles Manta Ray Project (SMRP), we aim to investigate the movement patterns, feeding ecology and population dynamics of reef manta rays Manta alfredi within the waters of D’Arros Island and St Joseph Atoll. This research will enable us to gain a better understanding of the health and size of the local manta population, as well as where, how and why these animals move through the various habitats available to them. The information collected will not only provide us with a broader knowledge of manta ray biology, but also enable us to better understand the conservation needs of this species in terms of calculating home-range sizes and identifying areas of critical habitat. We also hope to use our findings to assess the effectiveness of using marine protected areas as a way to conserve manta ray populations both in the Seychelles and across the Indian Ocean, as well as to improve the design and implementation of such protective strategies in the future.