It’s not easy keeping your cool as giant mantas circle you slowly, their intelligent, friendly eyes fixed on you. The heart thuds not from fear, but from the sheer awe of being in the presence of these giant rays. Despite having dived with them hundreds of times, interacting with my favourite marine animal never gets old.
I am at Lady Elliot Island, an island on the southern tip of the famed Great Barrier Reef of Australia, volunteering with Project Manta, a research program based at The University of Queensland, Brisbane. It was founded in 2007 to find out more about the population of manta rays along the east coast of Australia, because despite the interest in manta rays from divers, very little was known about them.
I first got involved with Project Manta in 2011 as an Earthwatch volunteer. At that time, I had never dived with mantas before and was attracted to the prospect of diving with and contributing to research about them at the same time. On the trip, I helped take identification photos (on scuba as I hadn’t started freediving then), record data on sea/weather conditions and manta behaviour, and collect plankton for studies on their feeding behaviour. Through the research it does, the project has built up a database of individual manta rays of over 1000 animals on both the west and east coast and has gained valuable insight on their feeding ecology and migratory movements. This information is extremely important for conservation efforts (mantas are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List).
After the Earthwatch experience, I was hooked! When I got the opportunity to, I did my own research project on manta rays and got involved with Project Manta again. I have continued to volunteer with them since then, assisting by taking photo ID shots on breath hold (freedivers are particularly useful during surface feeding events and moving in between cleaning stations) - an experience I greatly value. Each trip brings remarkable memories - a feeding chain of 70+ manta rays, tiger shark encounters, swimming with a whale, rescuing a manta which had fishing line entangled in its gills slits. In 2016, we brought a small group of Zenners here to help with photo ID work and were treated to an incredible dolphin encounter.
I do hope that one day you will be able to share similar wondrous encounters with manta rays or other marine life and be inspired to help with conservation like I was… The world needs it!