Deep below the surface of Manta Alley, amid the racing currents and clear blue waters of Komodo National Park, underwater photographers and divers twist and spin, jockeying for the perfect shot. Fifteen meters above, a bevy of rhythmic mantas, boasting three-meter wingspans, put on a three-ring performance, effortlessly swooping and whirling past awestruck admirers.
But the photographers aren’t after graceful manta photos, bound for Facebook pages and screen savers. These enthusiastic shutterbugs are hunting for shots of the underside of individual mantas, as unique as a tiger’s stripes, which researchers will later cross-reference in an effort to better understand Indonesia’s illustrious sea creature.
Recently, a team of dedicated scientists, dive operators and dedicated tourists have taken up an innovative and collaborative approach to manta ray conservation through “ID shot” photography, to help track and monitor the gentle giants.
Aquatic Alliance, a Bali-based team of enthusiastic conservationists from around the globe, has partnered with Dive Komodo in an effort to track mantas cruising the waters between Nusa Penida and Komodo along a migration route that passes south east of Lombok, all in East Nusa Tenggara. Also passed is the infamous Tanjung Luar fish market, one of Indonesia’s most aggressive and merciless manta ray and shark fisheries.
“Knowing whether the mantas are resident to a certain area is just one of the important observations marine biologists look at,” said Helen Mitchell, the director of Aquatic Alliance. “But being able to prove the full extent of a population’s range is vital when it comes to getting the right protection and conservation measures put in place.”
Greg Heighes, the owner and operator of Dive Komodo, equates says that, like with the Balinese and Javanese tigers, knowing the population of mantas is vital.
“If we’d known how many were left we would not have killed the last few, which ended up wiping out the entire species [and] effectively ending a unique Indonesian icon.”
Mitchell and passionate conservation tourists alike hope the ID Manta project can help usher in the introduction of more comprehensive protective initiatives, pushing the Indonesian government to support its claim for a new “blue economy” to save these magnificent mantas.
Elitza Germanov, a divemaster at Dive Komodo and the regional coordinator for Manta Watch, points out that using a mathematical algorithm and photos snapped by divers across Indonesia and beyond, marine biologists can track mantas, which travel large distances across international borders.
“Manta rays exhibit very individual markings in the form of spots and patterns on their underside,” explained Germanov. “A photograph of the underside area constitutes what scientists refer to as the “ID shot,” and is functionally a manta ray fingerprint. Scientist can then use ID shots to get population estimates, maturity levels, reproduction levels, life expectancy and migration patterns.”
A recent report by the Aquatic Alliance, by Helen Mitchell and Peter Bassett, further described how these natural ventral markings stay constant for up to 30 year periods.
“We are so lucky that these mantas have unique spots that we can use to identify them as individuals because in reality we can only observe them for brief periods in very specific spots,” said Nick Longfellow, a resident dive instructor at Dive Komodo.
Longfellow said the manta rays are mysterious to tourists and expert divers alike, because “we cannot monitor them like we could with any other land animal. We effectively know nothing about what they do when we are not diving with them, where they go, or what they do there.”
The highlight for Germanov and other volunteers was discovering the incredible journey of one female dubbed “Dr. Evil.”
First sighted in 2008, off Nusa Penida, Dr. Evil was spotted once again in April this year an extraordinary 450 kilometers away in the waters of Karang Makassar in Komodo National Park. This find would have not been possible if it were not for Elitza’s compilation of 60 detailed “ID shots,” contributed by staff and customers alike at Dive Komodo.
“This is very exciting news, and it proves that we don’t need expensive, specialized equipment, or highly trained scientists in order to make discoveries,” Germanov said.
“Passionate individuals willing to donate their photos and information on marine encounters, and dedicated citizen scientists who work together cooperatively for the cause, were enough for this important discovery.”
Mitchell points to a recent study conducted by Mary P. O’Malley of the Manta Trust and Shark Savers and published by PlosOne that showed that manta ray tourism brings in over $15 million for Indonesia while the total annual income from manta ray fisheries in Indonesia sits at just $442,000.
“Manta rays are currently listed on the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] Red List as vulnerable to extinction. Numbers are dwindling and some localized populations are under threat of extinction as the fishing pressure is so unsustainable,” Mitchell said.
“Now that Cites [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] has finally listed both species of manta ray, it is definitely time for Indonesia to not only protect but celebrate these amazingly beautiful and very valuable animals.”
Regardless of the photography campaign’s success, mantas are still widely sought due to great demand in the Chinese medicinal market.
Once caught, manta meat can be treated, salted and dried for human consumption while their cartilage is used as filler in shark fin soup. This niche trade market of manta ray gill rakers is estimated at $11.3 million, causing manta ray populations worldwide to decline to the point of urgency.
Many choose to turn a blind eye to manta harvesting, including the governments of Mexico and the Philippines, who revoked their manta bans and now have reported their manta populations as “near threatened.”
But rather than dwell on the negative, Aquatic Alliance’s Mitchell explained that by using tourists to identify individual animals, researchers can then monitor them over seasons, years and lifetimes.
Meanwhile, mantas, which do not reach maturity until eight years of age, only give birth to one pup every two to five years, resulting in very low population numbers. This extremely low rate of reproduction, coupled with the long gestation period, late maturity age and small litter size, makes manta rays very vulnerable to extinction.
These underwater giants have much to be proud of besides a wide wingspan. The manta ray, along with the mobula, a genus of ray, has revealed a high degree of cognitive ability, despite its large body mass, according to Guy Stevens, a manta researcher based in the Maldives.
Intelligence aside, the manta ray is extremely economically valuable for dive companies in Bali as revenues from manta tourism reached an estimated $3.5 million in Nusa Penida and Lembongan alone.
West Papua’s Raja Ampat is leading the way in Indonesian manta ray conservation. In February this year, the Raja Ampat government officially declared its 46,000 square kilometers of marine waters to be a shark and manta ray sanctuary, the first established in Indonesia and the Coral Triangle.
“We applaud the Raja Ampat government’s breakthrough in policy for having the vision to lead the way in shark and manta ray protection that supports the maritime regency’s commitments to enhance tourism and sustainable fisheries,” said Rizal Algamar, the Nature Conservancy-Indonesia country director.
“Scientific evidence states that the value of live sharks and manta rays far outweighs the one-time profit of dead sharks and manta rays, benefiting a growing world-class and increasingly popular marine tourism and dive destination.”
With dive operators and tourists alike recognizing the potential of the “blue economy,” it is only a matter of time before the government steps up and stops the harvesting of mantas in Indonesian waters.
Manta-ray spotting boosts local tourism In the waters of Bali, Nusa Penida and Komodo. Conservationists are looking to preserve the creatures through a photo project.
[Correction on Tuesday, Sep. 3, 2013: The original version of this article misstated that Dr. Evil was spotted in April this year in Karang, South Sulawesi. The actual location should be Karang Makassar in Komodo National Park. The Jakarta Globe regrets the error].