After many frustrating months of field research in Mozambique, Team Manta were treated to an extraordinary week up in the Greater Bazaruto Area in late June/early July. After a tipoff from MMF’s pilot, Janneman Conradie, who spotted reef mantas during several consecutive days of his regular patrolling for the EWT, we quickly packed our gear and headed up to Vilanculos. Our mission? To track down reef mantas and deploy the first satellite tags on this species in African history!
PhD candidate Daniel van Duinkerken has been eagerly awaiting the moment he could get these highly advanced pop-up archival tags on reef mantas, a technology that will allow him to better understand where these rays travel to when they are absent from this coastline and the extent of their home range in the region. With reef manta rays being so scarce these days, this information is more important than ever.
But our team was also looking forward to getting more acoustic tags on reef mantas in the north as well. Since expanding our listing station array up the coast earlier this year, we now have stations extending over a 300 km area, giving us more comprehensive coverage of their inshore critical habitats than ever before! MMF researchers are particularly eager to compare the habitat use and residency patterns of reef mantas in these pristine northern areas, which are relatively unaffected by dive tourism.
So off we went… But despite our initial enthusiasm as we headed to Vilanculos, our team was bombarded by challenges in the first few days. Rapidly falling tides marooned our boat on sand banks within our first few hours of navigation within the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park. Just when we had given up hope though, over 20 smiling Mozambicans came to our rescue pushing the research boat out over the tidal flats and into deeper water! Ironically, after saving us they got stuck themselves and it was up to us to return the favor, towing their massively overloaded boat to safety before resuming our course to the north!
Back on schedule, we traveled up the coast to the most northern end of Bazaruto Island. Along the way we noticed that our boat was taking on water and a quick investigation revealed that part of our boat’s pontoon had pulled away from the hull. Too far to turn back now we pressed on and eventually we reached our destination. Hosted by the kind folks at Pestana Resort, Team Manta, including special guest, manta researcher Fabrice Jaine, spent several days diving a new set of reefs to the north of the island. We had come a long way and over the next few days we were blissfully rewarded with many sightings of reef mantas, half a dozen at once on some dives. With aerial support from the microlight we honed in on the areas with the most manta rays. A total of 28 individual mantas were recorded during our five-day fieldtrip. Twenty-four individuals were new to our database, bringing the total up to an unbelievable 973 individuals. Amazingly, two of the identified mantas were ‘known’ individuals, having been previously identified in Tofo Beach, representing the farthest northern matches in our database to date.
The diving that week was incredible and our team had countless encounters with bull sharks, giant guitarfish, eagle rays, and even a black marlin! To say that Bazaruto peaks in the winter months is an understatement to say the least!!! My favorite moment of the week, and perhaps the most ironic, was when Daan the researcher realized that he had in fact encountered and photographed his namesake (Daan the manta #845) during a dive to a particularly lovely site called Spaghetti Reef, without even knowing it at the time! Daan did not name this manta nor had he ever seen it previously, so it was a shame indeed that moment went unnoticed that day! Better luck next time buddy!
With some of the most beautiful weather conditions and visibility that we have seen in Mozambique in a while, the team collectively decided to extend our trip and visit the other side of the archipelago. The San Sebastian peninsula is known for its pristine deep reefs and incredible fish life. This small stretch of coast is a favorite amongst locals and is always a pleasure to explore. This visit was no exception and our team was treated to sightings of reef mantas, white tip reef sharks, green turtles and blotched fantail rays. The humpback whales had also arrived in full force and we had incredible whale encounters around our boat. A huge thanks to Vilanculos Beach Lodge for hosting us for the day!
The cherry on top? Well, over the course of the week we managed to do more fieldwork on reef manta rays than we had done all year back in Tofo. Ultimately Daan managed to place on the first five satellite tags for his PhD study, officially launching the first satellite tagging study on this species on the continent! Not one to be overshadowed, I matched him by placing on 5 acoustic tags to assist with our on-going efforts to understand the regional movements and daily in-shore behaviour of these resident rays. Amazingly this brings the total count of acoustically tagged mantas over the last 9 years up to 47 individuals! The results of this long-term effort are sure to be exciting.
I could not be more proud of my team or of Daan for his persistence in the face of incredible adversity. Reef manta rays have been scarce for years in Mozambique. One of MMF’s recent papers, lead authored by our very first PhD student (now Dr. Chris Rohner), reported on a swift and severe (up to 88%) decline in the observational sightings records of reef mantas in our region over the last decade. With reef manta rays becoming more and more difficult to find, Daan has really had to work hard to complete his fieldwork. While this can be terribly frustrating for him, like all of us here at MMF, he knows these efforts are more important than ever before. It is our responsibility to protect the remaining populations of manta rays in this country and faster we learn about their habits and home ranges the more effectively we can manage them.
As field researchers you periodically need to be inspired, to have things come together, to be reminded that the impossible might still be within our grasp. I could not have asked for a better week in the field or for a better group of people to share this experience with. To have deployed 10 tags in 4 days was a startling record for us, and we now look forward to these tags gathering and producing data for months and even years to come.
But despite all of the successes we experienced on this trip, all of us were reminded that we work in one of most challenging areas in the world. On some days it took over 8 hours to get the research boat back to the resort after our dives, fighting falling tides and short daylight hours. The boat took a battering on the long journey north and the growing leaks and tears threatened to halt our efforts all together. But in the end it was nothing that a little glue and duct tape could not sort out temporarily and like most things here in Africa we ‘made a plan’ and soldiered though. I learned a long time ago that in this place you are only as good as the friends that you have and the people that support you. A huge thank you is due to Pestana Resort and Big Blue for tirelessly helping us to navigate through these logistical disasters.
Even as we headed home from this tremendous adventure, triumphant and beaming with pride, we were forced to check our egos as we got repeatedly stuck on remote sand banks as we chased the setting sun back to the mainland. A single false move in this place and the game is over…it is a constant reminder that you can never get too comfortable in Africa. Even so, nothing could defeat our spirits and as we de-kitted our gear, literally shaking with cold and exhaustion.
I realized then and there that it is this sense of accomplishment that every adventurer, every explorer, strives for. Having only recently arrived home from National Geographic’s 125th anniversary celebration, I recalled a blatantly accurate statement made by Felix Baumgartner, “If it was easy,” he said… “everyone would do it.” I filled with pride thinking how relevant this statement was at this particular moment for this particular team. Overcoming obstacles and pushing boundaries is not something to be trivialized. Sometimes we focus too much on the defeats, without properly celebrating the victories, we beat ourselves up for what we have NOT accomplished, rather than savoring the milestones we have achieved. Well, not this time. As principal scientist for MMF’s manta ray program globally I want to recognize the tireless efforts of my team in Mozambique, who continue to push the envelop, test their personal limits and put it all on the line for the love of these animals. Daan, Fabrice, Janneman, Libby, Ando, Chris, Simon, Lauren, Clare, Nina, Tom, Jess and those that have come before you. You guys make this the most inspiring and rewarding job in the world!