Mantas upside down September 22, 2015
Manta rays are some of the largest animals in the oceans. There are two known different species, reef mantas (manta alfredi) and oceanic or giant mantas (manta birostris). Giant manta rays can weigh as much as 1,350 kg and have wingspans of up to 7 m. They are migratory animals and constantly have to swim to have fresh water flush over their gills. Despite their enormous size, mantas feed on tiny zooplankton that they filter out of the water.
Meeting these gentle giants in their element is undoubtedly one of the greatest experiences scuba divers or snorkelers can have. Mantas are known to have large brains relative to their size and are very curious and social animals. Most of them are not afraid of divers, and when you keep calm and stay close to the bottom, they circle around you and come closer and closer with every round.
Manta ray cruising through the waters of Komodo
You can have encounters with mantas in many areas throughout tropical and subtropical oceans, like for example Yap or Palau, Micronesia, Hawaii, Mexico. We first saw them on Maldives, where they seasonally gather in large schools to feed and mate. Another great place to see manta rays is Indonesia, with manta hot spots in Bali, Komodo or Raja Ampat. Indonesia is also known for its black mantas, which are a genetic variation, so called “melanistic” colour morphs.
Manta rays have a predominantly black topside with light patches particularly around the upper back. Melanistic mantas are all black on their topside and mainly all black on their underside. There are also white mantas with reduced pigmentation – the name for this colour morph is “leucistic” (real albinos have no pigmentation at all).
Black manta ray in Indonesia
What all mantas have in common is their spotted underside. It can be mainly white or mainly black, but it always shows a number of spots in different shapes and sizes.
The spot pattern on a manta ray’s belly can be used to distinguish between individuals like a fingerprint
Researchers worldwide are using these natural markings to identify individuals, keep track of different populations, estimate population sizes and study their movements around the world.
Marine biologists are quite obsessed with manta bellies, as you can imagine. And this is why they ask for our, the diver community’s, help. The organization “MantaMatcher – The wild book for manta rays” has set up a global database where we can become “Citizen Scientists” and contribute directly to manta ray research, just by uploading our manta belly photos and reporting our encounters.
Manta rays circling in shallow water
Scientists will use a sophisticated algorithm to match identification photos automatically. They check if a manta ray is already known and part of the database or if it is a new individual. On our latest trip to Komodo National Park, we managed to get 25 manta ray ID shots – and 10 of them were formerly unknown, “new” individuals! This is a really valuable addition to the database. We are very proud that we were able to contribute all these images and directly help researchers worldwide to better understand and protect these amazing animals!
After reporting encounters and adding ID photos of manta rays, you will receive further information about the animals you have seen, about their sex and maybe even find out if they are pregnant! Speaking of pregnancy, did you know that manta rays give birth to live young? Usually, every five or six years, female mantas give birth to one pup after just more than a year of pregnancy. Because of the manta’s anatomical disposition, the fully developed baby manta is being born all rolled up, its pectoral flippers wrapped around its body!
The MantaMatcher database will also automatically notify you if your individual manta is reported or re-sighted again.
How to take manta ID shots
(partly from MantaMatcher.org)
Divers or snorkelers with a camera can take these important ID shots, although it is probably easiest during a scuba dive. If you spot a manta ray on a dive, you should always foremost enjoy the encounter with these amazing creatures and follow the regional code of conduct.
Never approach or swim towards a manta ray, this may scare them away from you. Try to remain stationary – depending on the dive site, you can kneel down on a sandy or rocky patch where you don’t damage any corals or other marine life. If you remain stationary, mantas will often approach you and may even pass overhead. By positioning yourself below the manta during the encounter, you are already set up to take the perfect ID shot or video footage you can extract stills from later. Try holding your breath if it looks like the manta might swim over you. Some mantas enjoy the tickle of the bubbles, but most don’t and this could chase them away. As the manta passes overhead, try to get the entire underside in frame. Take as many pictures as possible, as there might be remoras or other fish (cleaning the manta) concealing the ID area.
Area for a good manta ray belly ID shot
The more pictures the better, but even one single good image of the ID area on the underside of the animal is enough for an identification. You can upload your manta photos or screen grabs directly to the MantaMatcher’s website and add further information about the encounter, such as location, time, sex of the manta ray and if it had any deformities, distinguishing marks (e.g. abrasions from fishing nets, hooks or boat strikes), or scars (e.g. shark bites).
It doesn’t matter if you took the photos on a recent trip or if your pictures date back a few years. Every contribution is extremely important to enhance the knowledge about these mysterious animals.
Identifying mantas helps to enforce better protection
Through matching belly ID shots from the MantaMatcher database, scientists were able to prove that mantas in Indonesia actually travel back and forth between Bali and Komodo, a distance of approx. 400 km. Manta rays were already a protected species in Komodo, but not in Bali or the islands in between, where they were hunted by fisherman.
Unfortunately, Manta ray populations are vulnerable in all oceans nowadays. The major threats to their numbers are being general ocean pollution and by-catch in fishing nets, but in the last years, they became more and more directly targeted. In a big money business that compares to the shark fin mafia or the trade of protected species, manta and mobula rays (their smaller cousins) are being hunted and killed mainly for their gill rakers. These are used in the “new traditional Chinese medicine”, that is notorious for being often senseless and environmentally destructive. Manta ray gills are supposed to “enhance” the immune system or “detox” the body.
Curious manty ray in a really close approach
Since September 2014, all manta and mobula ray (the smaller cousin) species are protected under Appendix II of CITES. This gives them better protection by regulating the worldwide trade of manta/mobula products and banning all exports/re-exports without a verification of the sustainability and legality of the trade.
Data from MantaMatcher were also used as scientific justification for the Convention on Migratory Species listing of reef mantas (Manta alfredi) in November 2014.
Following all these positive developments and recognizing the economic effects of manta ray tourism, Indonesia announced itself a manta sanctuary in 2014 and started to prosecute manta ray traders. There are other countries that strictly protect manta rays, but the ban of all fishing for manta rays within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (stretching for almost 6 million km2) makes it the world’s largest protected area for these migratory animals.
Manta rays circling around a cleaning station in Komodo
All the protection measures come in time for manta rays. Illegal trade continues, but governments worldwide start to understand the value of live manta rays for the tourism industry. Studies in Micronesia and the Maldives estimate that one single manta ray individual can raise between 100.000 and 1 million US dollars over its lifetime in tourism-related revenues.
Encounters with these gentle giants definitely belong to the most amazing experiences divers and snorkelers can have. We strongly encourage you to travel to a place where you can meet these amazing creatures. If you are lucky, they will curiously dance around you in large circles and watch you, just like you watch them. Maybe you even have a camera with you to capture the unforgettable moments… and if you then happen to find some pictures of manta belly spot patterns, upload them!