I’ve been diving for years and thought that I could survive by going on dive trips to wonderful places, on my holidays. Six years ago I realised that this just wouldn’t cut it and I wanted to dedicate my time to marine conservation.
I’ve had opportunities to work in amazing places, such as Peru, Maldives and Mexico. For my Masters in Marine Environmental Management I completed a work placement that included research into whale shark tourism in the Mexican Caribbean.
In 2017 I was asked to return as a Trainer to help look after and advise a group of volunteers for the Mexican Caribbean Manta Ray Project in collaboration with the Manta Trust. This project was based on an island, off the coast of Cancun, called Isla Mujeres. It has a lot less tourists than Cancun and has more of a small island, local feel with a beautiful beach ideal for relaxing all day or a sunset swim.
My main reason for spending two months on this amazing island was to be in a location closer to the wonderful nature and marine life that this area has to offer. There are national parks that house nesting seabirds, great scuba diving sites and once we even saw wild flamingos flying across the sea!! The purpose of the project was to conduct studies investigating the resident manta ray population. These mantas are seen year round but little is known about them. They are also thought to be a third manta species as they don’t completely have characteristics of the giant (oceanic) mantas or the smaller reef mantas found elsewhere. This has baffled scientists for years.
During the months of July and August one of the largest collections of whale sharks in the world are found in the waters off the coast of Isla Mujeres. Some days over a hundred whale sharks, measuring approx. 3-7 metres long, can be found gulping up the plankton concentrated in this area. During this season hundreds of boats go out each day, taking tourists to swim with the whale sharks. Mantas are also attracted by the huge amount of food and can often be spotted swimming alongside the sharks.
We went out on research boats to gain a greater understanding of the mantas in this area. It was so exciting to see that tell-tale fin or fins peeping out of the water. When we spotted mantas we took GPS locations and ID photos of the spot pattern on their bellies as each one is like their own thumb print. This meant getting to spend time in the water with these amazing animals. Extraordinary interactions that will be difficult to beat. In one instance, as we were snorkelling on the surface one manta seemed to approach us, check us out and show us her belly for an ID, making our job much easier! We didn’t even have to move. Such beautiful, graceful creatures.
Before going to the Mexican Caribbean to study these special mantas, I had read about the experience of snorkelling with the whale sharks there. Not many things can prepare you when you are trying to get an ID photo of a manta and a whale shark just casually pops up to photobomb science!!! They seem so docile and not bothered by your presence as they give you a little look as they float by sucking up food like mega vacuum cleaners.
There are many regulations to protect the whale sharks, the environment and the workers that take part in marine tourism. Such as, only snorkelling is permitted with the sharks, always staying five metres away from the animal, no freediving, no touching, to name a few. The rules are easy to follow but historically not everyone has followed them. Currently there are no regulations for manta ray tourism so it is not yet permitted but our research and experience will be used to draft new regulations and encourage safe practices for mantas and people that want to have this experience.
It is always important to ensure that the project you’re involved in is sustainable and incorporates the local community. We made it our purpose to encourage local incentives by going to schools and talking to local children about taking care of their ocean and not littering; getting involved with the local community to collect rubbish that was clogging the local mangroves, that are such an important part of the island; drafting regulations for proposed manta tourism with the government; and having the volunteers help at the turtle sanctuary with newly laid eggs, hatchlings and educating visitors. This is so important for the future of the project and the longevity of the manta rays and marine species in east Mexico.