Ray of Hope for Mantas
Six enthusiastic citizen scientists returned from a trip to Lady Elliot Island in the Great Barrier Reef in June. The Earthwatch research team was involved in diving and snorkelling to photograph individual manta rays for identification as part of Project Manta. This trip identified 28 mantas, along with 3 possible new individuals, which will now be documented as part of the Manta Identification Database.
Earthwatch citizen scientists seeking manta rays at Lady Elliot Island in Australia for identification as part of Project Manta.
Project Manta, an Earthwatch and University of Queensland initiative created in 2007, is aimed at gathering much needed scientific knowledge about the ecology and habitat use of this important marine species. The project has successfully recorded over 700 manta ray, which will help significantly improve species and habitat management plans.
“Working as part of a team with such dedicated and enthusiastic researchers was invaluable and I came away with a much better understanding of this magnificent, but sadly threatened species,” said Rod Studholme, Earthwatch Project Manta participant.
Manta rays are the world's largest rays, reaching a disc width of 7 meters for Manta birostris and 5 meters for Manta alfredi. Yet, prior to this research, almost nothing was known about the east Australian population. This is a pressing issue as mantas are subjected to targeted fisheries around the world, caught for their meat, fins, liver and branchial filaments.
Kathy Townsend, Earthwatch lead scientist, explains “Mantas are particularly susceptible to practices that impact on its numbers, as they are considered to be a long-lived species with late maturity and very low reproduction rates. It is for this reason they are listed as Near Threatened in the ‘IUCN Red List for Threatened Animals’.”
It takes a team to make a difference
Kathy Townsend and Simon Reeves led the Earthwatch expedition from June 14th for 7 nights. During the week, participants become fully fledged scientific research assistants, diving to investigate the movement patterns, population levels, behaviors, food availability and the influence of oceanic features (including climate change) on manta populations.
Team of Earthwatch volunteers on Project Manta.
While the research focuses on mantas, participants leave with a myriad of unforgettable memories. “The most enjoyable part of the research for me was watching hours of footage from the go-pros that were filming underwater creatures. This was really exciting, as all kinds of creatures would show up unexpectedly” Sheryl Wright, Earthwatch Project Manta participant.
Snorkelers discover an unexpected guest
A juvenile humpback whale.
Amongst the abundance of marine and fish species that coexist in the Great Barrier Reef, there are a number of migratory species that travel through annually. The Earthwatch team was fortunate to experience this first hand, when a juvenile humpback whale swam right up to the team, taking the ‘highlight of the trip’ for many.
“My best experience was seeing a juvenile humpback whale swim five meters away from us while on our safety stop.” This trip has given me many new ideas and insights into the marine world which I can apply to my honors year in marine science that I will be commencing in July”. Katherine Bennett, Earthwatch Project Manta participant.
The blending of scientific research and data collection combined with amazing wildlife and nature experiences, sets Earthwatch apart. Experiential learning can have a profound impact on individuals and our plant. Sheryl Wright mentioned “I learnt a lot, but I also learnt there are a lot of unanswered questions as well. I will certainly look out for mantas in the future and be more knowledgeable in identifying and sexing them on dive trips in Australia and overseas.”
To date, the project has successfully created an identification database, confirmed the movement of animals between Lady Elliot and North Stradbroke Islands and to Byron Bay in NSW. They have deployed listening stations, acoustic tags and satellite tags to understand the mantas broad scale and small scale movement patterns and have begun to understand the relationship between feeding behavior and food availability.
More data and information is needed to ensure succinct sustainability management policies are implemented in Australia for the protection of this iconic species.
The next Project Manta team will hit the waters September 6, 2014.