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Southern Maldives Expedition 3

By Guy Stevens, 21st February 2013

Historically, humans have exploited marine megafauna for centuries, whether it be for their skins, blubber, oils or meat, but always primarily for consumptive use. In recent decades, our appreciation of wildlife for economic, social and ecological reasons has led to a shift in attitudes towards protection of some of our seas most charismatic species. And not a moment too soon…..

With dramatic reductions in the numbers of whales, sharks, dolphins, turtles, manta rays and other large, enigmatic species observed the world over, the burgeoning eco-tourism industry appeared to be a positive alternative to the problem of our over exploitation of species. For manta rays, a charismatic, inquisitive, placid species, getting humans into close contact with them has gradually become quicker and easier with the discovery of their regional aggregation sites and habitual tendencies. One such site, Hanifaru Bay in the Maldives, has received a flurry of international media attention in recent years after hundreds of mantas were recorded feeding here, unsurprisingly attracting divers, snorkelers and avid wildlife fans from around the world to this unique site. Now, the value of direct manta ray tourism in the Maldives is currently estimated at $8.1 million annually with as many as 3,000 people entering the water at Hanifaru in peak months and tens of thousands visiting the other manta ray feeding and cleaning aggregation sites within this small island nation.

If this conjures up images of chaos, a sea of boats all in close proximity each dispatching tens of passengers kicking and splashing around individual manta rays, then you’d be right. While tourism contributes significantly to the local Maldivian economy there hangs a question over the sustainability of its tourism operations. The impact these hordes of tourists are having on the Baa Atoll population was what I set out to analyse for myself last summer for my Master’s thesis. Our ultimate aim was to develop a scientifically supported code of conduct to be used globally by operators encouraging sustainable interactions with manta rays having minimal impact on their natural behaviour.

Three months of filming in the field and many hours of video analysis later, the results concluded that broadly speaking tourists acted responsibly and appropriately in the water with the manta rays and that natural manta behaviour went largely undisturbed. In part, the regulations imposed that same year by the Maldivian government restricting the number of boats and people in the bay at any one time have undoubtedly improved the interactions between mantas and humans. But this is a trend that we want to continue and only by responsibly managing tourism operations can we hope to negate the impacts of our behaviour.

Although the mantas visiting Baa Atoll are primarily reef mantas, the odd oceanic manta could be seen cruising within the atoll at a cleaning station, complete with giant brown remora attached. After observing a tourist reach out for the oceanic manta, almost touching it, I was surprised to see no reaction from the manta ray, unlike the flight or flinching usually exhibited by the reef mantas. Back at the office, this observation provoked a line of thought regarding the differences between the two species in their behaviour to human contact. Trawling through hundreds of online videos of interactions between people and oceanic mantas, even without analysis a clearly higher tolerance threshold for human contact could be seen in the oceanic’s. Several months later, I’m now exploring this hypothesis further through the collection of video footage of divers and oceanic mantas.

Being on board the Southern Maldives Expedition has allowed me the opportunity not only to collect more in-water footage but also discuss the data with Guy and finalise a Code of Conduct. With an audience keen to learn, I jumped at the chance to present my findings to our guests and answer any questions with the hope of making everyone think carefully about their own experiences with marine life. With a substantial dataset now underway, we plan to publish the results along with the Manta Trust Code of Conduct for interactions with manta rays.

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