When I closed my eyes I was flying out over the dramatic skyline of Cairo into the Egyptian desert… when I opened my eyes again, I was literally squinting into the blazing sun and I had to blink several times, unable to process what seemed to be an incredible mirage below me. The plane started to descend and I realized that this was not a figment of my imagination, this was Sharm El Sheikh, my destination, and we were fast approaching what could only be described as the Egyptian equivalent of Las Vegas.
Sharm El Sheikh is the epitome of a scuba diver’s paradise. Its close proximity to many parts of Europe, Asia and Africa makes the prospect of a hassle-free, quick holiday within reach. The crystal clear waters are teeming with fish life. Reefs drenched in soft coral of every conceivable colour and spectacular wrecks surrounded by clouds of game fish ensure that there is something for everyone.
The dives are easy, the water is always warm and the sun is forever shining. While some find the artificially created beaches, the all inclusive resorts, and the lack of culture a bit off-putting, surely divers agree that world class reefs like Shark & Yolanda and Jackson are well worth the trip, as are the rare glimpses of elusive marine life like oceanic white tips, hammerheads, and whale sharks.
Other types of marine megafauna in Egypt – a Humphead Wrasse!
But of course this is not what drew me to this destination…I was here for one animal and one animal alone…the elusive giant manta ray, Manta birostris. Since our team differentiated it from its smaller cousin the reef manta, Manta alfredi, in 2009, we have had our eye on this species. With next to nothing known about this giant ocean wanderer it became clear to us early on that more intensive monitoring would be necessary to learn about its habits and ascertain its conservation status.
Science aside, the giant manta ray has always held a special place in my heart. The first manta that I ever encountered was a giant, barreling down at me across another sandy desert, albeit an underwater one, off Cocos Island (Costa Rica). Almost two decades and one love affair with manta rays later, I am still as mesmerized with this giant animal as the first day that I laid eyes on one. These days, however, my interests in them have evolved.
To a certain extent I have outgrown my early obsession with various nuances of their biology and behaviour and now primarily focus on studies that assess their worldwide threats or that have some kind of management implication. The reason for this is simple… I can’t afford not to! Despite their recent recognition as a distinct species, we are already aware that these animals are slowly being pushed towards extinction. Provoking this decline? Humans. As ever, we are caught red-handed, fingers in the cookie jar, responsible for attempting (whether knowingly or not) to steal another irreplaceable species from the face of the planet.
So, at the very moment of what should be the most exciting time of my career (i.e. the blissful, drawn-out exploration of the ecology of this newly described species), I am rather forced to race against time to assess their conservation status. Why the massive rush? Well, sadly the giant manta ray appears to be bearing the brunt of our fishing pressure worldwide. Each year, more giant manta rays are landed as a result of both directed and indirect fisheries than the smaller reef manta, which enjoys protection in at least a few locations on the planet, including the Maldives, Yap, and Hawaii. The fishing pressure in some locations is so intense that it has lead to population crashes and regional depletions. Pretty serious stuff considering we know next to nothing about this animal!
So in an effort conduct a rapid assessment of their conservation status, explore their habitats and behaviour and track their migrations across the world’s oceans, the Save Our Seas Foundation has funded a three year study allowing our team to travel the globe in search of information that will bring a little clarity to the situation. It is our hope that the data collected will highlight the need for their immediate protection and enable us to manage populations at major aggregation sites and critical habitats.
This brings me back to Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. Having received photos of giant mantas from this region for years, I became curious about the sighting records of giant mantas along this small coastline. While registers of larger mature individuals exist from other parts of the Red Sea, I only ever came across images of small, immature individuals from this region. Intrigued by this fact and also by the absence of reports of Manta alfredi in the Sinai, I packed my bags and headed north to see if I could uncover more.
A juvenile, female whale shark. Photo © Andrea Marshall
People often make two incorrect assumptions about my job. It’s fun and it’s easy. Of course I would never pretend that I do not love my work and I acknowledge that my research takes me to some of the most amazing destinations to dive with one of the most intriguing animals in the ocean. That being said, my job is far from easy or hassle-free. Marine research, particularly on large pelagic animals is hard, hard work and it often uncomfortable, impossibly frustrating and disappointing. So, from the moment that I set my first bootie-covered toe in the 28˚C indigo coloured water off Sharm El Sheikh I knew something was amiss. Everything seemed too perfect and suspiciously trouble-free. My research endeavors never go this smoothly! From the five years of taxonomic agony that was ultimately necessary for the Manta species study to the two and a half year struggle to capture my research on film for BBC’s Manta Queen, I never seem to catch much of a break when the pressure is on.
The weather is typically against me, my equipment packs up at the most inopportune moment, and the animals invariably never show up. So you can imagine my surprise when I slipped into the warm, clear waters of the Red Sea and spotted a giant manta ray within the first 10 minutes of my dive. Where was the struggle? Where was the challenge? This is going to be a piece of cake (I foolishly thought).
Looking back, I should have realized that without an underwater piece of wood to knock on, I was headed for trouble, real trouble… And so, as the next three weeks unfolded, my research aspirations in Egypt slowly spiraled out of reach. First, after months of negotiation, the research permission needed to apply satellite tags on manta rays failed to eventuate (apparently getting permission from the Egyptian military is harder than it sounds and frankly, it sounds pretty hard to begin with).
Although, even if I had been able to secure my permits, my satellite tags were unexplainably malfunctioning, refusing to connect with the Argos satellite system. And to add insult to injury, after that first fateful sighting of a giant manta ray on my first dive, I never saw another one. I saw about every other type of ray on offer in the Red Sea and even had a magical encounter with a juvenile whale shark on scuba but the object of my desire was literally avoiding me. And, it was not like manta rays were not around either. In fact, literally every day manta rays were photographed at one of the dive sites or spotted off the shore by overjoyed vacationers just popping their heads beneath the surface while trying to cool themselves off. It was like everyone was seeing them EXCEPT me! Murphy’s Law! (by the way if anyone knows where I can find this guy let me know, I’d like 5 minutes alone with him at some point…) No, the Queen of Mantas had literally fallen out of favour with her subjects. A bit of a rough start to my four-month round the world study I would say!
Not wanting my frustration and disappointment to get the better of me I instead began scheming of ways to salvage my research goals in the region. For support I turned to the helpful staff at the local dive centers. Camel Divers, the hosts of my trip, amongst others offered up their support in the form of their clientele. I gave several public talks preaching about ‘Citizen Science’ and begging divers to get involved in research efforts in the region by taking ID photos and keeping detailed sighting records. Not surprisingly, the diving community in Sharm as well as tourists in the area responded with enthusiasm. Photos and videos began pouring in. Offers to collect data abounded. My optimism increased.
The resulting data far exceeded what I could have achieved on my own. From the images and video I learned that reef manta rays (Manta alfredi) indeed occur along the Sinai Peninsula, but that true to form, they appear to be segregated to a certain extent from the giant manta rays (Manta birostris). Like in most regions, these two species have allopatric distributions, with the reef mantas seeming to prefer the shallow waters of the western part of the peninsula and the giant mantas favouring the deep waters of the southern and eastern Sinai. As before, all of the images that I received were of small, immature individuals, less than 3 meters in disc width, with some individuals well under 2 meters. Interestingly, the only exceptions were a few images or videos of large mature females, a few of which were visibly pregnant! Aside from three individuals in my population in Mozambique, these photos are the first registers of pregnant Manta birostris in the world (to my knowledge at least!).
These data only added fuel to my original theory that this region of the Red Sea may be a pupping ground for Manta birostris. Additionally, the wealth of incoming photos failed to produce a register of a black manta ray, which was not overly surprising given their infrequent sightings in the western Indian Ocean. Lastly, and very significantly, several records (including the single manta that I encountered) were re-sightings from previous years, suggesting that individuals in this population show at least some residency or philopatry to the region.
Example of a re-sighted manta ray from the region. Photo © Carlotta Rio
All of these juicy details and bits of valuable information certainly made up for the early disappointments of the study and give me hope for continued work in the region. In šāʾ Allāh (a phrase I came to know well during my trip) we may still be able to put on a few satellite tags early next year. I really do not want to give up on this part of the study, as pupping grounds or nursery areas are critical habitats for any population. Learning more about how these small individuals use this coastline and where they travel to when they leave the Sharm El Sheikh coastline are both important pieces of the puzzle we are trying to fit together.
For the moment, I am left with the challenge of constructing a permanent Egyptian manta ray database and processing the sightings data being collected for me by the fabulous dive centers in Sharm. If anyone out there has any photos from the region with dates and locations, your contributions are welcome at any time. For those of you lucky enough to be going to the Sinai on a diving trip in the future…keep your eyes open and your cameras ready, you never know when you might capture a rare underwater photo of the elusive Egyptian flying carpet!