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Working with the MMRP: Bec Atkins MSc

By Guy Stevens, 30th January 2012

Over the years the MMRP have formed a close relationship with the University of York offering a placement for a master’s student to work alongside our main projects and take on a project of their own. The work done by these students is an important element of the work the MMRP does and this year we were lucky to be joined by Bec Atkins who conducted a study into the impacts of tourist interaction with manta rays. As well as this vital work Bec achieved a fantastic result in her project achieving distinctions for both this placement and her whole masters , well done from all at the MMRP Bec, you very much deserved it!

It was July 2011 and I was nearing the end of a year-long Masters degree in Marine Environmental Management at the University of York. As part of the course I was to undertake an independent research project of my choice, and had been lucky enough to get a placement with the Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP), based at the Four Seasons Resort in Landaa Giraavaru, Baa Atoll. It seemed the perfect way to end an already incredible year.

I had encountered manta rays on the west coast of Australia some years beforehand, it was an experience that had made a big impression. I arrived in the Maldives with the manta season already underway and was looking forward to two months in the water with these incredible animals. I settled into my staff quarters and got to know the other members of the MMRP team and the wider marine biology and dive staff at Landaa Giraavaru, all of whom were to make both my research project and my stay on the island so memorable. My first tasks were to get to know these magnificent creatures better and decide on the particular focus of the research project.

Because mantas are known to actively seek and aggregate in areas of high zooplankton abundance, which is strongly associated with seasonal monsoonal conditions, the predictability of certain feeding aggregations in the Maldives, combined with the largest population of Manta alfredi in the world and an approachable, sometimes inquisitive character, has allowed the development of a significant manta ray tourism industry worth an estimated US$8.1 million per year. While in an area for feeding, mantas will also visit nearby cleaning stations – small areas of coral reef, home to cleaner wrasse who provide a vital ‘wash and go’ service to rid them of parasites. These cleaning stations are also perfect viewing opportunities for divers.

Five of the 32 marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Maldives exist because of the seasonal presence of manta rays, including Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll, which has become one of the best known and must see tourist destinations for manta encounters. A management plan now exists for Hanifaru Bay, and as such, manta rays and whale sharks visiting the bay should be afforded a high level of protection in relation to tourism pressures. However, this level of protection does not currently extend to human-manta interactions elsewhere in Baa Atoll, a recently declared UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in recognition of its globally significant biodiversity. The Maldivian Government recognises that the continuing growth of tourist activities within Hanifaru Bay MPA threatens the sustainability of this unique site and therefore requires very careful management, including codes of practice in respect of the animals. The Atoll Ecosystem Conservation Project also identified disturbance to mantas as a direct threat to the Baa Atoll ecosystem and its biodiversity.

There is little doubt that encounters with marine animals provide tourists with a unique and memorable wildlife experience and can make considerable economic contributions to local communities. However, previous observations of tourism impacts on mantas in the Maldives by the MMRP and former York MSc students have highlighted issues of concern, with deterioration in behaviour observed when large numbers of people encounter mantas, and there is evidence that tourism pressure on the resident manta ray population is increasing. At the end of 2009, there were 97 exclusive island resorts and 145 registered live-aboard vessels operating throughout the Maldives, all of which could offer tourists the chance of a manta ray encounter while they visit feeding sites or cleaning stations. Furthermore, there was a 158% increase in the average number of tourists, and an 82% increase in the number of boats visiting Hanifaru Bay in 2010 compared to 2009.

As the popularity of interacting with marine animals in the wild grows, there is increasing concern over the negative impacts which the target species is subjected to due to the potential short-term and longer term impacts which could affect an individual’s behaviour, reproductive success and fitness. Individuals subject to human disturbance may spend less time in critical behaviours such as feeding, cleaning or resting, and divert their energies to avoidance behaviours, which may ultimately reduce their chances of long-term survival, or alternatively, force them to move to less productive feeding grounds.
It is imperative that any disturbance to wildlife due to interactions with people is acceptable in terms of the overall health of individuals and the population. One method of regulating human behaviours which have the potential to negatively impact mantas during encounters is the implementation of a Code of Conduct, which have been implemented for other marine encounters, such as whale shark encounters in Western Australia. However, there is a lack of research on the impacts of tourism on manta behaviour, which I aimed to address. I decided to focus on the following:
• Assess interaction types and human behaviours when snorkelers and divers encounter mantas.
• Assess manta behaviours in response to encounters with people, including avoidance and flight responses.
• Assess overall levels of disturbance to mantas during encounters with people.

So I set about compiling the first formal description of manta behaviour in a tourism context and collecting and analysing data of snorkelers and divers interacting with manta rays at six feeding aggregation sites, and divers interacting with manta rays at six cleaning stations within Baa Atoll. Each day started with a final check of the tide chart (and the all-important packed lunch!) before setting out on the research boat. Days were spent in and out of the water observing and videoing human-manta interactions while tourists enjoyed their manta encounters. Some days involved long waits and a bit of time to reflect (and pinch myself) on the incredible and privileged experience I was having.

I was pleasantly surprised by the results, which showed that the majority of participants in manta ray tourism in Baa Atoll behaved in a responsible manner, and the majority of interactions did not result in manta disturbance. Most tourists were happy to observe mantas from an appropriate distance, where they got the most out of their magical and relaxed experience. There were, however, exceptions and behaviours prone to causing disturbance, such as chasing, obstruction and diving under or near mantas were also observed. The study aimed to inform management actions in relation to the growing manta tourism industry in Baa Atoll, providing the first evidence-based recommendations for a Code of Conduct for manta tourism and during the course of the 2 month study enough data was collected to be able to do this. Not only is this information vital in the Maldives, but findings of this study could be applied to other manta tourism hotspots globally.

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