Over the past few weeks we have been learning so much about the science behind all of our research, the culture and history of Isla Mujeres, and even just about how well we can adapt to eight women living in a two bedroom, one bathroom flat (which we are doing very successfully in case you were wondering!). This experience, though not over, has been eye-opening, information laden and question provoking for all of us - whether our background is in marine science or media - which has made selecting the top ten things we have learnt so far a difficult task; but here is my attempt:
1. Ecology and Behaviour
Firstly – and most obviously - we have become knowledgeable on at least the basic ecology and behavioural patterns of Manta Rays, and particularly the Mobula Birostris, which is the species we encounter in the Mexican Caribbean. These graceful giants have the largest brain to body mass ratio of any fish and we have seen them display a number of feeding strategies including somersault, surface, piggy-back and chain feeding. Their biggest defence against predators is their large size and their agility and although we have seen a number of individuals with shark bites, these bites tend not to be too debilitating. Additionally, we have come to understand why manta rays are on the IUCN Red List of Endangered species, particularly when combined with their late maturity age, long gestation periods and low birthing frequencies. Of course, we have all been absorbing as much as possible - both in the water and out (through articles and Karen and Annie) - and so I could go on, but what is clear is that everything that we continue to learn just enhances our desire to raise awareness in order to help conserve these gentle giants.
2. Collecting IDs – their importance and the skills required
On day one the project leaders, Karen and Annie, spoke about the importance of getting Manta IDs in order to gather data about the size of the population as well as information, the sex and maturity of the manta. Through analysis of IDs over time it is possible to gain insight into site fidelity, threats and behavioural patterns of individuals and populations. Each Manta Ray has a unique pattern of spots on their ventral side (belly) and this is the part that we need to capture. However, we soon learnt that this is easier said than done - it is a skill that requires freediving, good timing and, of course, a willing participant! Over the course of our field trips so far and after a few sessions practicing freediving away from the mantas we have definitely improved in all of the skills required to collect IDs.
*It is important to note that freediving in this area is illegal for tourists (we have a permit due to our research) but if you’re ever here on holiday – don’t freedive!
3. Code of Conduct
This brings me nicely on to the third point; the Manta Trust has created a research-backed ‘Code of Conduct’, which sets out guidelines on how to swim in the presence of Mantas. It advises on how to enter the water and indicates that the swimmer should remain at least 3m away from the manta. Additionally, do not approach from the back or front - approaching from the side ensures that you do not block their path ahead. If you ever find yourself lucky enough to be swimming with Manta Rays make sure you take a look at the full guide here: https://swimwithmantas.org.
We have been doing our best to abide by these guidelines whilst also avoiding whale sharks and capturing the ID shots. By observing uninformed tourists, it became clear how the manta will quickly avoid interactions if these guidelines aren’t followed.
4. Site Fidelity
Although we have not yet fully analysed our findings for this season, we have been finding that a number of the mantas that we successfully ID are already on the database, which suggests potential site fidelity as mantas are frequently seen in the same area. This area in particular attracts such a large number of manta and whale shark between the months of May to September due to the abundance of plankton and little tunny fish eggs. This area is one of the only areas in the world where you can see mantas and whale sharks in such large numbers in the same area.
5. The importance of eco-tourism
One thing that has resonated throughout our time on the island is the importance of eco-tourism. It has been interesting to hear from many accounts about how an island that relied so heavily on fishing has been transformed by eco-tourism. Indeed, its very name is indicative of the fact that it was a fishing community. In 1717 when Francisco Hernandez de Cordova sailed from Cuba to the island, he found only women on the island as all the men were fishing at sea - and so the island’s name was coined. Today there has been a shift away from commercial fishing towards more sustainable tourism to protect the area that is home to such biodiversity. Many whale shark guides inherited their boats from families who previously used them to fish and the director of the Tortugranja – a fisherman’s daughter, Deli Garcia – has made huge conservation inroads to a turtle sanctuary that previously had the purpose of farming turtle eggs for consumption. Of course, there are still improvements to be made and the eco-tourism here is not entirely without its limitations but it is clear to see what a big change has been made so far.
Sargassum is very topical in Mexico right now. It is a type of seaweed, that has been washing up on coasts in Mexico (and elsewhere in the Caribbean) in such quantities that is making certain beaches un-swimmable and affecting both tourism and ecosystems. It is brought in from the current and in particular abundance due to rising water temperature and agricultural run-off. This week Brittany went to the lab to start analysing the samples we have been collecting from the Manta Trawl. In her sample that contained a large mass of Sargassum she found 40 microfibers. Whilst we cannot draw any conclusions without obtaining more samples, we predict that these ‘floating rafts of Sargassum’ will attract micro-plastic and microfibers as well as marine life.
7. Using the field-gear
We all came into this project with different levels of scientific backgrounds but we have all learnt huge amounts especially with regard to data collection and the field-gear that we use. Each week we rotate responsibilities for operating the GPS, CTD, Plankton Trawl and Manta Trawl and so we are acquiring a solid understanding for how these operate, and most importantly why the data is collected and how it can be used to gather more information about Manta Ray ecology and behaviour. We have also been involved in other research techniques such as using a drone to measure the size of mantas, monitoring weather conditions and monitoring tourist operations and numbers. That’s not to say that we haven’t made a few mistakes along the way – a couple of incorrect GPS markings, the manta trawl net floating away, not hitting record on the drone – but all mistakes were easily recovered, didn’t inhibit the data collection and we have unquestionably learnt from them so that they haven’t been repeated!
8. Importance of community action
The more that we have been getting involved in other local initiatives such as Tortugranja, AccionIsla and Project Rescue, the clearer it becomes about the importance of collaboration and community engagement. It has been wonderful to see how many local initiates are working together for a cleaner, more sustainable future. This Saturday, we are hosting a fundraiser to raise awareness and funds for the MCMRP and are benefitting enormously from our connection with Kai at AccionIsla. We hope that by bringing different groups of the community together we will be able to increase local knowledge about their local manta ray populations and in turn help to protect them. Look out for our next blog to see how the fundraiser goes.
9. Benefits of Volunteer Diversity
We have found that one of our most valuable assets as a team of volunteers has been our diversity; not only have we gathered here from all over the world (Belgium, India, Italy, the Netherlands, the UK, the USA, Mexico), but we all have very different backgrounds, educations, careers and ages. This has proven to be beneficial to our multi-disciplinary approach of Manta conservation. Everyone has contributed significantly to different parts of the project, including through art, social media and communications knowledge, GIS knowledge, data capture and analysis and event planning. As a diverse group of women, we have been able to learn from each other, inspire each other and bounce ideas off of each other.
10. We have so much more to learn
Despite having learnt so much already, one of the biggest things to have come out from our time so far is that there is SO MUCH MORE to learn about these gentle giants. This reaffirms how important our research is and the need to raise awareness in order to continue gaining knowledge and understanding about how to protect them.