I recently watched a brilliantly filmed documentary called “Racing Extinction” which details the loss of habitat and exploitation of wildlife due to trafficking around the globe. The film casts light on the grim statistic that half of the world’s population of species are imperiled and face extinction. A number that’s really hard to wrap your mind around, no matter how well versed you are in wildlife management or environmental preservation.
One of the animals featured in this documentary as being very vulnerable is the Manta Ray. I had no idea all of the challenges the Mantas face, especially their exploitation for use in eastern medicine. The Mantas have been harvested in mass for their gills which are then dried and sold for their alleged mythical medicinal qualities. Fortunately through a labor of love, documentation and scientific data, these gentles giants are now protected under the CITES international treaty as of September 2014.
Living in Maui, where our beautiful waters are protected as a marine sanctuary, it’s so hard to wrap my mind around the idea that these same graceful and peaceful creatures have been hunted and exploited in other countries to the point of threatening the survival of their species. I try to spend as much time on the water as my schedule and the weather permits – which fortunately is quite a lot. But even with all those hours logged on the water, finding rays is still a fairly rare occurrence. Finding them close to shore seems to coincide with lots of different factors – moon cycle, plankton boom, presence of jellyfish, water temperature and countless other things.
I felt so lucky that just two days ago, as I arrived at my favorite bay and hopped on my paddle board to head out and look for whales, I stumbled across three mantas calmly grazing at the surface. Other than one manta I spent some quality time with a few weeks ago, I haven’t seen these beauties in several months. Mantas seem to vary in personality, but are thought to be quite intelligent. I never know when I find them if they will be willing to interact or not when I slide down into the water with them. I can routinely get close on my board to film them swimming from above, but once I breach that boundary and enter their personal space they can become a bit shy and keep an eye on me from a distance.
The one behavior that is an absolutely constant, is that they hate to be chased. Without fail, every single time I see someone get over excited and charge into the water only to swim after the mantas, they will immediately take off like a shot. I always feel bad for them, to be harassed so pointlessly. If you just sit and wait, curiosity will get the better of them, and they’ll always come over to pay you a visit. Even if it’s just a brief one.
Lucky for me, this particular morning one of the trio was extremely friendly and inquisitive. After I’d dropped into the water and float steadily beside my board, it would swim by frequently while feeding to look me over and give a good show. It even seemed to calm down its two manta friends because after some time went by I’d find myself focused on the friendly ray, filming and shooting still images, when from the corner of my eye I’d see its buddy swimming up behind me to pay a surprise visit.
I spent a solid two hours swimming alongside them before finally calling it a day and heading in. I’d been stung by jellies more times than I can count and was freezing cold, but so excited for all the photos and videos I’d managed to get and especially looking forward to sharing them with everyone who hasn’t been able to have the experience themselves.
I’m always so grateful for these special days in the water. I’m also keeping fingers crossed that with the relatively new protection from CITES as well as spreading awareness of their vulnerability, that the mantas will be flourishing sooner rather than later and their presence will be a much more regular one in our Hawaiian waters and beyond.