Project Leader

Sarah Lewis

Sarah Lewis

Who I am

As a child I recall being asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Although manta ray scientist was not yet on my list (it would have been had I known that such a job existed), I knew that any career I followed would have to involve nature. I was passionate about the natural world; it both fascinated me and stirred a deep curiosity within me. Growing up in a UK woodland area, I spent countless hours exploring, turning over every rock to discover what may be lurking beneath it, or wading through ponds in search of newts and frogs. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but looking back now I realise there has always been a biologist within me. In the pursuit of my passion I learned a heartbreaking reality: many species and habitats are under immediate and severe threat around the world, and countless animals are suffering unnecessarily cruel treatment at the hands of human beings. My innocent mind couldn’t comprehend why other people didn’t share my connection with nature, a deep love and respect coupled with an intense desire to conserve it. Rather than closing my eyes to this painful reality, I was compelled to try to understand why this was happening and to do all I could to address it. I don’t believe I ‘became’ a conservation biologist, I believe it has always been with me – my calling. Nature has many wonders, but there is something mysterious about the ocean that has always fascinated me, constantly pulling me in and guiding my career choices. After graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University with a first class honours degree in ecology and conservation, I landed a position with the Maldivian Manta Ray Project funded by the Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF). My life as a manta ray scientist had begun! I found working with manta rays to be incredibly rewarding. For me, interacting with a manta is an experience beyond all others. These peaceful and gentle giants are extraordinarily intelligent, curious and trusting of humans (at times to a fault), and it was hard to comprehend that they are classified as fish. The inexplicable ‘knowing’ behind manta ray eyes caught my attention and I have been captivated from the first moment I experienced a manta observing me.

Where I work

I left the Maldives with a wealth of knowledge and experience and in 2010 I settled in Indonesia. Although the region has a large number of manta hotspots, very little information about Indonesian manta populations existed and there were no long-term research projects on the species in the country. Despite being one of the world’s top manta tourism destinations, Indonesia is also one of the largest manta fishing nations, fuelled primarily by a recent and growing demand in China for manta gill rakers, which are used as a pseudo-medicinal health tonic. I established the Indonesian Manta Project in response to this urgent need for further research into and protection for Indonesia’s manta rays, and to raise awareness of their plight. The people I meet and work with in the Indonesian communities constantly inspire me. Their hospitality is overwhelming – at the infamous Tanjung Luar shark and manta market I never expected to be invited into the home of a fisherman for coffee and cake! Many of these communities are very poor and fishing is the only livelihood they know. Yet as they witness their fish stocks becoming severely depleted, they are increasingly open to alternative, more sustainable employment opportunities. Indonesians have so many natural treasures to take pride in. For us, as outsiders looking in, there is an opening to empower the communities to celebrate and protect their natural environment while at the same time earning a livelihood in a sustainable way.

What I do

The objective of the Indonesian Manta Project is to create a nationwide knowledge base of manta ray distribution, population ecology and threats. This will provide data critical to encouraging and assisting with the successful implementation of conservation measures for the species. Among the research techniques we employ are photographic ID, acoustic and satellite tagging and genetic analysis. We also conduct interviews in the fishing communities and fishery and market surveys. The combination of these methods enables us to piece together key population data and ultimately fill in the gaps in our knowledge to create a complete picture. In conjunction with our research we are promoting awareness about the ecological and economic importance of protecting manta rays. To this end, we work with local communities to identify and develop sustainable tourism opportunities based on ‘their’ local manta populations. The alignment of the SOSF mission and vision with my research goals, coupled with the inspirational people associated with the foundation, compelled me to apply for a grant. Although I graduated only recently and have never set up or managed a research project before, SOSF took a chance on me, providing the critical financial support I needed to establish the Indonesian Manta Project. For this I am so grateful and now, just three years into the project, we have made significant progress in better understanding Indonesia’s manta ray populations, helping to conserve them, and inspiring communities to protect them. None of this could have been achieved without SOSF’s initial and continued support.

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