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Isla Mujeres 2018: a story of women’s grit and love for Mantas

This year there are 8 of us joining the Manta Trust Mexico Caribe volunteering programme in Isla Mujeres. We gathered here from Belgium, India, Italy, the Netherlands, the UK, the USA, and of course from Mexico, where Karen Fuentes, alias Manza Mexicana, the founder and leader of the Mexico programme is from; 8 diverse and passionate women joined in Isla by the love for the ocean and the grit to work hard for Mantas.

The first week, unfortunately, has already flown by with a few great highlights to share.

Breathtaking encounters in Bluewater

By 7:30 am the boat leaves the flat water of the Marina heading toward Bluewater, amidst all the bumps through Beaufort 3 waves. The trip lasts over 50 minutes, across alternating winds, sun and even some rain. But we are getting close to Bluewater. On arrival, there are over 40 whale shark tourist boats at the destination. Despite the crowd, the atmosphere is surreal. It almost feels like a sacred place, a sanctuary where devotees gather for a great celebration in honor of marine gods. And the gods are in the water: over 20 majestic whale sharks keep on their feeding ritual dance, swimming every now and then at surface, their mouth open to swallow as much plankton as possible.

‘Mantarraya!!’ is the only loud scream that every now and then breaks in the sky, sparking our boat in to a frenzy for the ‘ID Team’ to jump into the water and swim as fast as we can.

We look for the Mantas: we are here to study their behaviour and to collect the pictures of their ventral side so to be able to record their IDs. Beyond swimming as fast as we can to reach them, we must freedive – fast – gain the right position matching the route of the Mantas and shoot the picture at the right time. It is exciting, frantic and challenging: in two separate field trip days we were lucky to see around 30 Mantas, and able to collect most of the IDs. While we are busy swimming, freediving and photographing, we must always watch our back: it is easy to end up in the way of some whale sharks busy in their feeding routine. Apparently they won’t deviate to skip you and its important not to touch them…

This is a very unique place, every year between May and September, mantas and whale sharks flow here in mass to feed from nutrient­-rich water full of plankton. There’s no other spot like this in the world. Increasing the understanding of manta ray populations and behaviors is among Mexican Caribbean Manta Ray Project (MCMRP) main goals, founded by Karen Fuentes in 2013.

The findings of the research aim to ensure manta and marine conservation and protection through a multidisciplinary approach. Therefore, beyond manta’s sighting and IDs collection, the field trips are the occasion for other key measurements. On our second field trip, working in couples we kept tracking the GPS details of every event, sighting, breaching, whale shark presence etc. At every manta sighting we deployed the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Density), which will give us details on the characteristics of the water for each encounter. And of course anthropogenic influences are among the top concerns, including the presence of plastic in the water. Hence, since 2017 MCMRP has been analyzing the presence of microplastics using the Manta Trawl. Brittanny, the young researcher from Tufts University, Boston, who joined the volunteer programme this year is focusing on the collection of microplastics resulting from the trawl and its analysis for her final degree thesis.

Stronger communities for healthier oceans

But no organization can be successful alone. Local community’s collaboration and support is crucial to developing a virtuous system able to exploit synergies and build on each other strengths.

For this reason, MCMRP is also keen on the engagement of Isla Mujeres’ locals and tourists, through a host of educational activities. The aim is to raise awareness about risks and impacts of human behaviours on the environment and on the fauna, as well as the economic value and potential of a healthy environment, starting from tourism.

The team brainstormed how to further raise awareness and engage the communities. A few exciting ideas are now in the development pipeline - stay tuned on Manta Trust social channels for updates soon.

Among the collaborations with other local organizations, MCMRP has been working for a long time with Tortugranja, Isla Mujeres’ Turtle Farm. The farm was established on the island 65 years ago and has been led by Deli Garcia for the past 3 years. The daughter of a fisherman from Isla Mujeres, Deli grew up with a deep love for the island and a desire to help her community to prosper and grow through the preservation of the unique, local ecosystem.

Every night during the season Deli and the Farm’s workers patrol the beaches of Isla searching for the turtles who come to deposit their eggs. They collect the eggs that are otherwise at risk of predators, ranging from iguanas to birds, dogs and…humans. Yes, turtle eggs and flesh are considered a delicacy and, although turtles are now protected, this still makes them a coveted prey. The eggs are then collected at the Farm and once they hatch the little turtles are released in the ocean. In 2017, over 116,000 eggs were collected, resulting in almost 95,000 turtles released. Unfortunately only 1 to 10% is the percentage of survival, which is progressively reducing due to the increase of anthropocentric factors, such as pollution and plastic trash. This means there’s still a long way to go for Deli, Karen and the environmental movements to elevate education and instill the right behaviours.

Our group of volunteers will join Deli’s team to collect eggs at night and release new born turtles in the ocean. I am really looking forward.

In the meantime, I feel blessed - thankful for life and to Manta Trust for their amazing job and this unique opportunity to contribute to their mission.

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