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A Chairman’s Holiday; meeting the Manta Trust

By Paul Jackson (Chairman of the Manta Trust Board of Trustees), 21st October 2019

I am coming to the end of another fantastic trip to the Maldives. As Chairman of the Manta Trust’s Board of Trustees, I try to use some of my annual holiday to make the trip to Baa Atoll to meet up with the charity’s team which are based here (and to see some manta rays as well of course☺). Each day during my visit I am lucky enough to go out with the team as they search for manta rays on board their research vessel. This year I was also able to attend the Annual Manta Festival organised by Flossy Barraud (the Manta Trust’s Education and Outreach Officer), where I had the pleasure of meeting the children from 14 local schools, 14 resorts, 15 environmental organisations and the Maldivian Vice President. Such events highlight the plight of the manta rays, as well as the work we are doing in the local area. I did not miss my opportunity to bend the ear of the Vice President when it came to marine conservation.

Paul Jackson swimming with a manta in Hanifaru. Photo © Danny Copeland

I first discovered my passion for the marine world during a gap year trip to Australia in 1989 when I dived on the Great Barrier Reef and was inspired to get my PADI qualification. Whilst my education (BA in Economics and Politics and MSc in Charity Finance) took me to London, where I became Group Chief Executive of The Hospital Saturday Fund (a charity), I spent each holiday exploring the reefs and oceans of the world. By 2011 I was desperate to dive with manta rays, but with a young family, I had to make a solo trip to the Maldives to do so. There, fate played a hand as I ended up meeting Guy Stevens (CEO and Founder of the Manta Trust) and spending my entire holiday on his research boat in Hanifaru Bay. A week of observing and snorkelling with mantas and whale sharks made up my mind; I was determined to use my knowledge of the charity sector to help these magnificent animals. In December 2011, I was appointed Chairman of the Manta Trust.

A whale shark at Hanifaru Bay, Baa Atoll, Maldives. Photo © Guy Stevens | Manta Trust

I have so many happy memories of my trips out to see the men and women who make up the Manta Trust.  In 2016, I met Niv Froman (Research Officer) and Tam Sawers (Maldives Project Leader) who were on the research boat. With their careful stewardship of the boat, we encountered a black morph oceanic manta, a whale shark and, my personal favourite, The Jackson 5; the five manta rays that followed me for an entire afternoon in the water. 2018 was a highlight for me in terms of sightings of manta rays, with over 200 of these magnificent creatures cyclone feeding in Hanifaru Bay. Cyclone feeding begins with a line of mantas that loop around to form a spiralling column of feeding individuals. This column creates its own current which pulls in plankton on which the mantas feed. This incredible feeding strategy has only ever been observed in the Maldives. The outfit in Baa Atoll is very impressive and is where it all began for the Manta Trust, but we must not forget that the Manta Trust now has a global network of projects in over 25 mobulid range states. On three occasions I have visited one of these fantastic affiliate projects, the Manta Caribbean Project which is based in Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

Reef manta ray mass feeding event at Hanifaru Bay. Photo © Guy Stevens | Manta Trust

None of this would be possible without the incredible support we receive from our supporters, and in the last nine years, we have grown from a small charity with an income of $20k per annum to a charity which now generates $500k a year. Some of this can be attributed to the increasing interest in ocean conservation, but much of that funding is as a direct result of active fundraising by the team themselves, and thanks to the crucial support of the Save our Seas Foundation.

Manta Trust founder and CEO Guy Stevens with Paul Jackson and members of the Maldivian Manta Ray Project at the 2019 Baa Atoll Manta Festival. Photo © Guy Stevens | Manta Trust

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