Wanted: Undersea Explorers to Track Australia’s Manta Rays
Dr. Kathy Townsend, the lead scientist on Earthwatch’s Project Manta expedition, is urging Australians to do more than just enjoy the ocean this summer (December through February in the Southern Hemisphere). She has asked divers and snorkelers along Australia’s east and west coasts to photograph the undersides of manta rays, each of which has unique markings on its belly, so scientists can identify and protect more of these threatened creatures.
A diver prepares to photograph a manta ray.
Time Is Running Out for Rays
Dr. Townsend’s call to action coincides with a new report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which states that 25 percent of the world’s shark and ray species face extinction. The organization’s fish experts conclude that “large-bodied, shallow-water species are at greatest risk and five out of the seven most threatened families are rays.”
The species at risk include the two types of manta ray that frequent Australian waters—Manta birostris and Manta alfredi—which the IUCN classifies as vulnerable. Like other sharks and rays, manta populations suffer from overfishing and illegal trade (the gill arches of manta rays are sought by some practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine). Despite these threats, Australian law does not fully protect mantas rays.
They’re certainly worthy of protection. These two species grow to be the world’s biggest rays, ocean giants that can reach up to seven meters across and weigh up to two tons. They are harmless to humans, since they have no stinging barbs or teeth. Dr. Townsend, a researcher at the University of Queensland’s Moreton Bay Research Station, says that mantas follow warm water currents and are most abundant in areas with plentiful supplies of plankton, their main food source.
Dr. Kathy Townsend
Building a Manta Photo Collection
With the help of Earthwatch volunteers, Dr. Townsend has created a database with photos of more than 1,500 individual manta rays on Australia’s east and west coasts. She aims to counter the lack of scientific data on Australia’s manta ray populations; without more information, it’s difficult to devise better plans to conserve these vulnerable creatures.
Dr. Townsend has asked for the help of recreational snorkelers and divers to broaden the manta database, which in turn helps scientists ensure this threatened species is better understood and protected. “We need underbelly photos of these animals if we can get them, because the spot and dot patterns on their undersides are unique to each individual; it’s like a fingerprint.”
She advises photographers to approach manta rays from below, preferably by kneeling on the sand, to get photos of their flat bellies as they swim overhead: “Just stay nice and calm and make sure you’re lower than they are and wait for them to swim above you." Other advice: "It’s also important not to blow bubbles at the mantas. You need to inhale as they pass over you, for if you blow bubbles at them, that can scare them off and they’ll move away. You don’t want to be chasing after them either, as they will just swim away.”
Dr. Townsend says that these creatures are a pleasure to share the water with: “Manta rays are really gentle creatures, and they are often very curious.”
Earthwatch’s Project Manta provides divers with an opportunity to immerse themselves in manta research.
To submit a photo of manta ray from Australia’s east or west coast, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also upload it to the Project Manta Facebook page.
Each submission should include the date the photo was taken, the location, and the photographer’s name. If it’s a new animal that hasn’t yet been documented, the lucky photographer will get to name it!