While no one actually knows for sure where Robert Louis Stevensons’s famed Treasure Island really is, I am pretty sure that I have now found mine. The scenery on land may not be as bold or dramatic as some of the descriptions of the real Treasure Island, but Isla de la Plata has far more to offer than a rusty box of old doubloons. This tiny gem of an island, nestled along the coast of Ecuador, is a veritable diamond in the rough. And as sure as “X marks the spot”, buried just beneath the spray of bluish grey waves, Project Elasmo’s captain, Mark Harding, stealthily lead the way to my bountiful treasure…
Photo (Right): Dozens of giant manta rays were flying over head!
I could not have been more surprised or thrilled with my first diving experience in Ecuador. With so many manta rays to choose from, I was like a pirate in a peg-leg store, I just didn’t know where to start. Within minutes I was surrounded by giant mantas (although Mark later told me that he considered this a slow day at the office) and I was grinning from ear to ear. The water was cloudy with plankton and the mantas drifted slowly in and out of our range of vision. Confident that I could successfully satellite tag Ecuador’s first manta ray I prepared my tagging equipment and eagerly jumped back in to the murky water for a second dive.
The mantas seemed to gain confidence as the day progressed, lingering closer to us than on the previous dive. After an initial attempt on a somewhat suspicious male ray, I found my manta. It was a giant female and she was a queen amongst males (at this stage she was the only female that I had seen on either dive!). She was just beautiful. As she approached, I locked eyes with her and I knew that she was the one.
Me and Mark Harding (Project Elasmo) in the field!
The tag went in easily and she barely reacted, hovering almost motionless in front of me for what seemed like an eternity. The tag looked secure and the location was perfect. In the hopes that she, like many of the other giant mantas, would not only be a great ocean explorer but would also venture into the unknown depths of the Pacific, I christened her Silvia, after the beloved Dr. Silva Earle (who’s repeated and record-breaking exploratory adventures to the depths of the world’s oceans earned her the title of “Her Deepness”). And just like that, we made history again, and another milestone in this expedition was reached. As Silvia caught a draft and coasted over the edge of a deep wall, I gave her a little wave, knowing that it would probably be 160 days before I heard from her again.
Tagging Silvia! Photo © Mark Harding
Our luck only continued the following day as the coastline was teeming with mantas. Like the first day, males dominated the scene, so to be fair, I singled out one of the boys for the next tag. I decided on a friendly mature male with dramatic colouration, including uniquely punctuated trailing edge markings. In honour of both the great ocean explorer and the predominating current in the region, we named him Humboldt. Not wanting all my good news at once, I programmed this tag to release in 150 days. After examining me for a few moments, all the while giving me a knowing look (a bit like “I know you just did something to me”), Humboldt seemed to conclude that he was fine and with a flap of his massive pectoral fins, he was on his way.
Humboldt with the second satellite tag attached
After a few days of communing in peace with the mantas, we were ready to put on a third satellite tag. This one was programmed to come off first, in only 4 months. We could not have picked a more perfect day if we had tried. Diving at Isla de la Plata is by no means for beginners. The currents alone are enough to keep some well-seasoned divers from jumping in, but there is also surge, deep walls, and low visibility to deal with as well.
Having not only a large underwater camera system to carry but satellite tagging equipment as well, this location has certainly been challenging for me. However, on my fifth day to the island the sun was uncharacteristically shinning, the sea was flat, and the water was blue. As we entered the water and sank slowly towards the pinnacles below, I was shocked to find that there was almost no current at all. I kept looking around, stunned at the amazing visibility. Then, before I could even hatch a plan to find a manta to tag, one found me! There I was, just sitting around taking in the amazing scenery, when a large male manta approached and literally stopped just above Mark Harding’s head. He seemed to be enjoying the sensation of the SCUBA bubbles on his stomach, his massive pectoral fins shuddering in pleasure from the tactile stimulation.
The first genetics sample from an Ecuadorian manta ray!
He repeatedly made passes in large circles around us and I figured this manta was up for the job. On one of his passes I slipped the tag in and much to my delight he reacted very little to the intrusion. While it was obvious that he could feel the foreign object on his back, he did not seem stressed and he continued to circle us for the rest of the dive, continually coming in close to inspect our faces and swim through our streams of bubbles. On an impulse, I named him Darwin (one of my personal heroes and one of the greatest explorers of all time, land or sea). I am not sure, but somehow I think he approved.
As he continued to make passes around us, I became more and more frustrated by the obvious net entanglement injuries that he had, many of which looked reasonably fresh. A high percentage of the mantas that I have encountered so far at this location have suffered some type of entanglement in their lives. In only a few days of diving, I saw three mantas still bearing rusty hooks, most with long barnacle laden monofilament line trailing from the ends of them, which were cutting deep into the manta’s flesh.
Darwin playing with me (note the entanglement injuries on his face!)
The first day that I arrived, some of the members of Project Elasmo cut a large mass of fishing line off of an injured manta. Unbelievably the following day, the crew of Exploramar Diving (our hosts in the region) helped us pulled up easily over 500 pounds of ghost net that had been discarded on the reef by lazy fishermen.
The huge ghost net that was pulled up off the reef by Project Elasmo
This net had been laying over the rocks at the dive site killing reef fish, including species of cleaner fish responsible for attending to the mantas. These ghost nets are to blame for countless incidental kills when they are carelessly abandoned at sea by fishermen. Like walls of death, they trap and kill everything from small fish and invertebrates to sea turtles, sharks and rays. Even large and stealthy marine mammals often fall victim to these indiscriminant killers.
Manta rays often remind me of the incredible impact that we are having on the ocean. Wandering the seas for decades and decades, the individuals that survive almost always bear the scars of their ‘contact with the human world’. If we are not actively hunting them we are accidentally catching them in our nets, entangling them in our fishing gear or hitting them with our boats.
The guilt that I feel when manta rays, like Darwin, approach me, without even a trace of fear, and stare straight into my soul, is almost unbearable. After all that we have done to them and their world, they are still so friendly, so curious, and to their own demise, so trusting. We should be appalled at ourselves.
Countless mantas and mobula are currently landed by fishermen in Ecuador.
But there is some hope on the horizon. Two days before my arrival, Ecuador miraculously became one of only a handful of locations worldwide to officially protect manta rays (and mobulid rays). The new law bans the directed fishing of these animals or their use in anyway (consumption or trade), even if they are taken as by-catch. With fishing camps along the coastline bringing in records catches of elasmobranches each day, this new legislation could not have come at a better time.
While this was truly a massive achievement, there are still many questions to answer and problems to solve. Amongst them, we must find out where this particular population travels to when it leaves Isla de la Plata and how far these individuals go during their yearly migrations. We must also find out where all of the females are, and perhaps more importantly, where they are mating and giving birth to their even more vulnerable young. Determining how we can best manage critical habitats like Isla de la Plata and how the government can best enforce this new fishing ban along their coastline is of paramount importance.
As Silvia Earle might herself say, this region is prime habitat for a “hope spot”. It is a region with incredible beauty and biodiversity, with critical habitats for fragile ocean giants and nursery areas for pelagics that help stock the Pacific Ocean. It is an area, like the Galapagos, that should be protected against all odds.
As a sit and reflect on the time I have spent over the last four months, I am struck by a sense of deep privilege. To be able to select ambassadors (both in the water and out) for our “Ray of Hope” conservation mission is a distinct privilege. The few mantas chosen will be representatives for this giant species worldwide, helping us to understand more about how they spend their days and nights and showing us the routes they take during their endless oceanic wanderings. On land, I have helped to teach and more importantly connect passionate people wanting to help with research and conservation efforts. At the end of the day, this is probably the most important step, as the task at hand is so massive and it will call upon us all to collaborate in unique and unprecedented ways.
A giant black manta ray, the stealth bomber of the sea, staring straight into my eyes!
With only a week left on this leg of my worldwide expedition, I look forward to spending as much time underwater as I possibly can. I have fallen in love with giant mantas all over again. To me they will always be one of the most noble and elegant creatures in the sea. To be able to find them on a daily basis with such ease is not something that I have encountered often and this remote location is destined to become a major site for research in the future. It is so rare that we are granted a window into to their world and it is always a joy to find a new destination to appreciate and interact with them. While this is my first trip to Isla de la Plata, it will certainly not be my last. I want to say a final thank you all of the passionate people in the region that have made this trip possible for me. Without all of your hard work and organization, this research would never have been possible. Thank you for your generosity and for your continued commitment to manta conservation.
Read Mark Harding’s account of diving with Andrea in Ecuador: One Manta In Time.