Each year the Maldivian Manta Ray Project is joined by volunteers from around the world who participate in the research activities to gain valuable experience or to work towards a project of their own. This blog tells the story of one of our 2011 volunteers Emily Humble, a biology graduate from the UK:
Days after the final exam of my Biology degree, I was on a plane to the Maldives to join the Maldivian Manta Ray Project as a volunteer. Ever since I had heard about the work being done there, I was desperate to get out to gain some field research experience and lend a hand in data collection. After a night in the Maldivian capital and a seaplane journey of dreams, I arrived at the project base and finally met Katie, the Project Manager. From then on for three months it would be research boats, safari boats, free diving, photos, IDing, whale sharks, film crews and of course mantas, mantas and lots of mantas.
Mantas show strong sight fidelity in the Maldives and travel around the atolls in search of food. During my stay, the Maldives was entering the Southwest Monsoon that coincides with dense surface patches of plankton acting as a sort of fast food outlet for the planktivores. This happens quite elegantly in Hanifaru Bay MPA which is positioned so that the incoming lunar tide and prevailing monsoonal current cause plankton rich water to rush into and become trapped in the corner of the bay to such an extent that up to 200 mantas have seen fit to make a visit.
After learning the ropes, consistency was the key. Our primary aim was to take photos of the manta’s unique pigmentation pattern on their ventral surface so that individuals could be identified after comparison with a central database (now consisting of around 2000 individuals)! By establishing such records over long time scales, information about the behaviour, movements and population size of the Maldivian mantas can be deduced. As the winds, tides and ocean currents govern the magnificent feeding events, it was also necessary to make daily records of important environmental data to establish correlations between what the weather was doing and how the animals were responding.
Home to one of nature’s great events means that Hanifaru Bay is not only at the mercy of the winds and currents but as far as I saw, at the mercy of the hundreds of tourists that gather, hoping for a glimpse of the magic. A Management Plan is in place for the MPA and site use and tourism monitoring was a necessary daily task to determine the compliance by safari boats to the regulations. Bec, a student from the University of York, joined the team early on in the season to collect data for her Masters thesis on manta-human interactions – something that has never been quantified before and will hopefully shed light on the direct effects tourism might be having on the manta population.
Project Leader Guy Stevens soon joined us, just in time for peak viewing at Hanifaru, but all was not as expected, as food was not abundant in the bay and manta numbers were much lower than at similar times in previous years. This forced us to venture out to find more feeding sites and as a result, we discovered mantas never sighted before. Whilst it was thought that due to its extremely high number of manta visitors, Hanifaru was a good representation of the manta population in the Maldives, the disproportionate number of previously unsighted individuals that we were recording elsewhere could have exciting implications regarding the population size of the Maldivian mantas.
Although we were anxious that manta numbers still remained lower than usual, I couldn’t help but imagine the havoc that would play out if the animals were behaving themselves! Maybe they sensed the perpetual queue of safari boats, skulking around the bay. In actual fact, it seems that the strength of the monsoon winds were the limiting factor in the equation where weaker winds seem to correlate with lower manta sightings.
Nevertheless, the day of horror soon came when I found myself surrounded by 180 people, around 30 mantas and a whale shark just outside the bay area. The necessity of a fully functioning management plan became crystal clear. Following this eye-opener, I had many fantastic days where the mantas did not disappoint, including the New Moon in August and a day at a site North of Hanifaru with beautiful visibility and some very friendly mantas.
It was a race to keep on top of the records during the last few days but we managed it in the end and I left feeling completely satisfied. I had such a fantastic time in the Maldives and am looking forward to embarking on my own research into the genetics of manta populations worldwide.