on 23 Feb 2023
UK-based Manta Trust works with yacht owners to create tailor-made expeditions to the best places to swim with and study manta rays
If you’ve ever relaxed on the deck of your superyacht with a cocktail and thought to yourself: “Is this all there is?” you’re in luck. The Manta Trust, a UK charity that coordinates global research and conservation efforts for manta rays, is looking for yachts and yacht owners to help support their research.
The Manta Trust lets interested yacht owners participate in manta research by pairing a yacht with a researcher or team of researchers. Owners and their families and guests are encouraged to participate.
Niv Froman, a research officer with the Manta Trust, says that Manta Trust can work with almost any size of yacht or superyacht, provided there’s an extra bunk for at least one researcher. The Manta Trust has partnered with some well-known explorer superyachts that frequent the Indian Ocean to provide guided expertise on visiting far-flung places where Mantas are known to gather. At the same time, owners and guests can help with tasks such as doing underwater counts for Manta Rays. For kids and grown-ups, it’s a great way to experience ocean life while learning more about one of the least understood large ocean mammals.
“Yachts can provide a platform for us to conduct our research, and sometimes we need to get to areas which are not easily accessible for us… (yacht) owners can provide that,” Froman says, describing such partnerships as “win-win situations”. Owners can explore extraordinary places in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and enjoy close interaction with Mantas while giving researchers a chance to work in remote locations.
Manta Trust will work with a yacht owner to tailor research expeditions based on where a yacht is and the space available for researchers to join, whether it is a yacht big enough for a team or just a spare berth or two.
“By hosting our researchers, owners get the chance to interact with scientists, swim with mantas and give us the opportunity to conduct research in areas we can’t often access,” says Froman. He adds that one superyacht spent time in the south Maldives hosting Manta Trust researchers, allowing them to collect a lot of data that might otherwise not have happened.
The great expedition sites of the Indo-Pacific for manta rays
Some of the best places to see and research Manta Rays are also some of the best places to explore underwater in the Asia-Pacific. There are remote islands in Indonesia, the Philippines, Fiji, the Chagos archipelago and the Maldives that researchers want to access that might only be possible onboard a private yacht. “This is where superyacht owners can play an important role,” Froman says, noting that even dive boat operators may not go where researchers want to go, such as the areas north of the famed Raja Ampat.
Rebecca Carter, Manta Trust’s director of operations, says the trust is keen to get its researchers out to the Lau Group of islands in Fiji. Carter explains it can be very expensive to get researchers to those locations, where there is a large population of oceanic manta rays. Carter says that manta rays have only been studied for about 20 years or so, leaving huge gaps in understanding about the basics of their population and behaviour.
“We still don’t know anything about the distribution, the population sizes, the connectivity between them (groups of oceanic mantas),” Carter says. “We’ve only discovered in the last few years that there is a population of oceanic mantas in Fiji. Because we have research projects at different locations who are collaborating and communicating, we’ve been able to figure out that some of these oceanic mantas are travelling between Fiji and New Zealand.”
To properly protect the species, researchers need to know their numbers, how they migrate and where they live. “There are big, big gaps in our data,” says Carter. Helping researchers photograph individual mantas (each manta’s underside has unique identifying marks) to track movement and population numbers is one activity that a yacht owner and guests can join. Operating drones to do aerial observation is another.
Teaching young people has become a key focal point for the Manta Trust, which makes partnerships with yachts friendly and fun for kids. They have even developed an online education portal for kids of all ages and hired an education manager.
Join a dive boat manta ray expedition
If you don’t have a superyacht, or even a large yacht, but the thought of diving with and playing a part in the research work on manta rays sounds exciting, Manta Trust also works with selected dive boat operators to arrange for research-guided expeditions. One such trip is coming up this April in Thailand, which is a new hotspot for manta research.
Manta Trust will partner with a dive boat operator to create a specific expedition itinerary that the operator can then sell to guests. Manta Trust provides the researchers and the experience, and the operator gets everyone to and from the research site.
The upcoming expedition in Thailand is being led by a local representative of the Manta Trust and is to visit the Similan Islands, about 80nm northwest of Phuket. There are two seamounts that attract oceanic manta rays, which can be difficult for researchers to get to and collect data. Manta Trust welcomes yacht owners with boats based in Phuket who are interested in creating an expedition.
The need for knowledge
Manta ray populations are declining, and the culprits include illegal fishing and bycatch, trade in manta ray gills, or habitat destruction. With growing scientific interest, knowledge of these creatures is growing quickly. A recent 15-year study found the largest population of oceanic manta rays, about 22,000, off the coast of Ecuador.
Of the two species, oceanic manta rays and reef mantas, much less is known about oceanic manta rays due to their migration patterns. A third species, a cross between the two, is thought to exist in the Caribbean sea. Froman, an expert in manta ray reproduction, says that it is now known that mantas reproduce even more slowly than previously thought, adding to the threat of extinction and making nursery sites even more critical. The data gathered by Manta Trust expeditions can ultimately help inform policymakers on protection measures.
It may be marine tourism that provides the best protection. The more yacht owners and tourists want to swim with manta rays, the more local protection they may get. Carter points to a 2013 study that estimated the value of manta tourism to be worth US$140 million, counting only dive boat operators and not including peripheral activity.
A new study on the financial benefits of manta tourism is due soon, and Carter and Froman expect the new number to be much higher.
For the yacht and superyacht partnerships, the Manta Trust eagerly welcomes any potential participants.
“The idea is that you don’t just dive and see what’s on the water. You learn something about what you see, and you also contribute something to preserving the ocean,” says Froman, who recalls a two-week expedition to the south Maldives on a superyacht. “I was onboard and gave some presentations to the family about the research that we were doing, the biology of the wildlife that we were encountering. It’s the added value of learning something while experiencing the beauty of the underwater world wherever you go.”
All photos courtesy of the Manta Trust