Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Adventures of Team Manta

"I'm going to swim underneath Manta rays and photograph them."

A manta ray, seen from below
When Laura Cummings presented her project to the Stanford @ SEA class during the shore component, I think everyone felt she was a little delusional. "It's not the easiest thing to swim under a 14 foot Manta in a deep channel," warned professor Barbara Block, "You might not want to base an entire project on your ability to do something so difficult." Laura was unphased, and we would all soon find out why.

I offered to help Laura with her project because I was intrigued by 1) the confidence behind her audacious claim and 2) the obsession this girl has with sharks and mantas.  Laura often came to class sporting manta ray earrings and toting a laptop adorned by a large vinyl whale shark. I was far from convinced that she would be able to photograph the underside of one giant manta (much less enough of them to draw comparisons for her research), and I didn't necessarily share her enthusiasm for rays at the time.  But I did admire her passion. One can't help but admire such conviction. In retrospect, I'm sure glad that this crazy project idea did draw my interest, because it led to some amazing moments in the channel of Palmyra that I will not soon forget.


Laura's side of the story:

I would first like to preface this story by saying that I am and have always been a little bit of a fish nerd.  As a child I traded good grades for trips to Sea World and constantly practiced my dolphin moves at home in the pool until I was sure I was becoming a fish myself (likely the impetus behind joining the swim team later in life).  But while most little girls may favor the bright fish of the tropics, I always held a soft place in my heart for sharks and rays.  By far my favorite exhibit at Sea World was the touch tank with stingrays, where I could sit for hours and excitedly inform anyone within earshot about their mucus coated skin (snot, cool!) or the optimal way to get them to approach you (always remain calm).

So a few years later when I heard about the existence of giant swimming rays, I knew I had found the love of my life.  With wingspans over 7 meters and incredibly curious and peaceful personalities, manta rays are the most beautiful and dynamic creatures of the sea (in my unbiased opinion, of course).  In planning for this trip, I knew I had to seize the incredible opportunity to better understand their relatively unknown life history.  While some doubted the possibility of capturing individual mantas on film to get an idea for population size, my heart told me otherwise.  I had perseverance and a love for mantas on my side, and there was no way I was going to give up.

The Adventures of Team Manta

The day we arrived at Palmyra atoll, excitement abounded on the Robert Seamans.  Those with island-based projects checked through their equipment for the umpteenth time, preparing themselves for the unknown wonders soon to be discovered.  After lunch, Team Manta gathered and went over the strategy for the mission before loading up into the rescue boat-turned-science vessel and heading out into the channel.  Skepticism was still on the minds of all but the mission leader Laura.  As soon as we entered the channel, the first manta appeared.  Laura was immediately in the water, and with adrenaline pumping she swiftly approached her idol, filming from above, before diving down to capture the underside, just as she said she would.  From that point on, all doubt was thrown out the window and over the following four days, Team Manta went on to photograph over 30 mantas, planting satellite tags on 2 of them!

However, the success of the missions cannot be attributed solely to the data brought back to the shore.  By far the proudest moments came from the seamless use of teamwork, honed through the course of our time on Palmyra.  With Austin at the helm and Barb spotting with her magic "manta glasses", students trolling from the side of the boat could be expertly guided to a manta, at which point a complex water ballet ensued involving Julie as manta herder, Laura as photographer, and Nick on shark watch and back-up camera.  Even the most accomplished of sports teams would have been impressed by our synchronization.

By the end of our days at Palmyra we had sighted over 70 mantas, including a feeding aggregation of over 25 at once (Unfortunately no photographs of this experience were captured, as all in the water were a little too stunned to function) and an extended play session with one curious manta who was especially interested in what we were doing.

As we write this blog, the ship has returned to its swaying momentum on its way for Christmas Island. Although our manta time at Palmyra is over for this trip, the memories of seeing and swimming so closely by such magnificent creatures remain fresh as ever in our minds.  I think I speak for the entire team when saying cannot wait to return someday to finish what we started.

-Laura "Manta Lady" Cummings and Nick "Converted Manta Devotee" Mendoza

Ps.  I would also like to make a quick shout out to Mary, Phil, and Austin for their expert driving; Julie, Julia, Sarah, Caleb, Rick, and Nick for their invaluable assistance in the field; and of course Barb Block for sticking with me throughout the project even when she thought it may be an impossible task.  You guys rock!


Maya the Aggie said...

We used to see Manta's "flying" on high tide surf in El Salvador when we lived there in 1970-1976. Beautiful!

Maya the Aggie said...

We used to see Manta's "flying" on high tide surf in El Salvador when we lived there in 1970-1976. Beautiful!

Fabulous pictures... Thanks

altawine said...

Dive shop Jack's Diving Locker in Kona HI offers night diving w/ manta's. We thoroughly enjoyed our dive at night as the manta's swooped in to feed on the plankton concentrated in the beams. One of the dive masters there has become a manta researcher and started a non-profit. They have done some migratory/territorial research. You should check them out..