Hi Brooke! Thanks for talking about Mantas with me! First can you tell us about yourself and where you are and what you do?
I’d describe myself as your typical Aussie girl who loves the outdoors and basically anything involving animals. My parents particularly my dad used to take me very often to the beach and even taught me to sail. I remember going snorkelling for the first time when I was about 8 and seeing seahorses under a pier in Melbourne. But wasn’t until I was in Thailand 6 years ago that I actually discovered scuba while travelling with my sister. I was instantly hooked after doing my PADI Open Water course and haven’t stopped since! Now I’m an Instructor myself and am practically living everyones scuba dream bouncing from one tropical island to the next. Over the last 6 years I have been living on various Islands in Thailand, Australia and Indonesia. Originally I studied Graphic Design at university, which was quite a career change from design to diving. Bit of a shock to my parents I can tell you that. Currently I live on a small island next to Bali called Nusa Lembongan which hosts a thriving reef system and huge biodiversity of marine life. It was not long ago I also discovered a passion for underwater photography. So this is another thing that I spend much of my time doing whether it be photographing Mantas, Mola or seaslugs which are less than 1cm. I’m in my happy place. When I’m not photographing or teaching I am helping out as a research assistant in manta ray conservation with Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) on Nusa Lembongan.
So you're based in Nusa L, and diving everyday? Pretty sweet life. How often do you see the manta rays?
I’ve been living in Nusa Lembongan for the past 12 months and I dive a lot, say 6-7 days a week with about 2-3 dives per day. It certainly adds up and I definitely never get sick of it. I mean is that even possible? When your office is full of manta rays, turtles and an abundance of fish work is never really “work”. I’m lucky enough to dive with Manta Rays at least 3 or 4 days a week some times more. I never get bored of diving with them and I’d even say I am still as excited as my divers and students when one swims by. Manta Rays are just some of the most amazing and gentle animals to interact with. They are very intelligent with the largest brain to body ratio of any fish. Mantas are really just as curious about us as we are of them. I’ve been on a dive once with a student (her second dive ever) and we were circled by two large females for at least 5 mins. We were definitely being studied and you can see it in their eyes that someone is home. Its a very humbling experience. If you are lucky enough to see mantas on your training dives, you’re definitely starting at the top!
How many sites around there are known for Mantas? Like is there certain sites you take people who want to see them?
We have 2 popular Manta sites here close to Lembongan which are located on the southern coast of Penida Island (about 20-30mins boat ride). There is Manta Point which is very good for seeing fully grown adult Reef Mantas which congregate there. You can see Mantas there about 9 out of 10 dives I would say so a pretty good chance. The other site is called Manta Bay. This is a large area where we see a lot of juvenile Mantas hanging out. They can even be seen snorkelling as often they are at the surface feeding. I would say you have about 70% chance of encountering mantas at manta bay. They are also randomly seen at other sites around the islands such as Crystal Bay or the North Coast of Penida. But this is quite rare, they do tent to stick to the same area on the south coast. Although in saying that there are quite a few Manta Rays we know from here that travel between Penida and Komodo National Park on a regular basis. So they are actually migratory animals.
Are these sites cleaning stations? Or open water for feeding or what?
Yes exactly, so Manta Point is a cleaning station. Basically there is a huge rock at about 6m from the surface where the Mantas will visit to get a fully body scrub from the various fish that live there. The fish will clean their wounds, teeth and remove parasites. Mantas can spend up to 8hrs a day at the cleaning station so it’s a very important place for them. You can see anywhere between 1 and 20+ Mantas on a dive there. Its a pretty special place and I always look forward to visiting. Manta bay is quite different and it seems to be a nursery area for juvenile manta rays. There are some smaller cleaning stations in the bay there as well as a decent amounts of plankton which we often see the Mantas feeding on at the surface. This is quite nice because you can even spot them sometimes from the boat before you even get in the water.
Is there a season that's best for seeing Mantas?
Here we are very lucky to have Manta Rays all year around. Occasionally there will be a week here and there where you wont see them but that doesn’t last long and they always return. I hope that it stays this way and that as tourism increases these Manta Ray sites are protected and managed correctly so that in the years to come they will always be here for us to see.
So tell me about the foundation. What do they do there with mantas? What do you do with them?
So the MMF is a non for profit organisation which was established in Mozambique back in 2009 by Dr. Andrea Marshal (leading Manta Researcher) and Dr. Simon Pierce (whaleshark researcher). We focus on key species such as Mantas, Whalesharks and Turtles. In Lembongan our focus is on the Manta Ray population here around the islands. We aim to find the best ways to work with communities find ways to protect these animals. What I do mostly involves collecting data when I dive, uploading that information to our log and to Manta Matcher. But also every Tuesday I give free talks on ‘Weird and Wonderful Water Life’ which help us to raise money through donations and merchandise sales but also raise awareness for needs of conservation. Our lead researcher Elitza Germanov is currently studying the effects of micro plastic on ocean giants such as Mantas and Whalesharks. Which is i think a pretty key issue for the survival of these species after big threats such illegal fishing.
How many different mantas have they identified? They are IDed by their tummy markings right? Have you identified a new one yourself?
Marine Megafauna Foundation currently have exactly 666 Mantas in the Nusa Lembongan & Penida data base. When we have productive research dives new Mantas are being added every week which is very exciting. We can ID individuals by taking photos of their underbellies as each manta has a totally unique patterning. The spots on their bellies function like a finger print so we can use these to create our data base and match to existing photos. By doing this we can also take note of any injuries, whether they are pregnant or not but it also allows us to track their movements. Proving that they are migratory is very important in conservation efforts to protect them and the exact reason why they are now a protected species in Indonesia. When ever I dive Manta Point I always try to bring my camera to get some photos. I have so far found 1 new manta which is pretty special. If you ever manage to get a Manta Ray belly shot you can help us out too. All you need to do is upload it to www.mantamatcher.org and you can help contribute to our research!