Mantas chain-feeding on plankton at Harifaru Bay in the Maldives. Photo by Guy Stevens, the Manta Trust.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has a history dating back 2,000 years, but manta gill rakers (gill plates) have only been added to the ‘menu’ in the last few decades–touted for their supposed detoxifying and purifying properties. During that decade, fishing of mantas has increased many-fold, leading to a precipitous drop in the population of mantas and mobulas. In some areas, a 30-percent drop; in other areas, the drop is over 80 percent. Manta cartilage has also been substituted for shark cartilage in Chinese medicinal potions. Mantas are the latest casualty in the TCM rape of the sea: culling staggering amounts of sharks, sea-cucumbers, seahorses, and other marine life–usually added as key ingredients in TCM soup. These concoctions have, at best, hocus-pocus benefits, but are variously touted to have aphrodisiacal or circulatory enhancement properties–and even claimed to cure cancer and other serious ailments. For an aphrodisiac, the end-user would be much better off eating oysters. Or taking Viagra, which has been proven to work, and whose manufacture does not require the wholesale slaughter of sea life.
This is the tale of two marine environments at completely opposite ends of the spectrum. We embark on a trip with marine researchers in the Maldives, ensuring that mantas are carefully protected as a valuable resource for diving and snorkelling tourism. And in complete contrast, we take a trip to a fish-market in Sri Lanka, where fishermen bring slaughtered mantas and mobulas–that are chopped up for their gill rakers–which are dried out and sold for high prices to buyers in Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Taiwan. All in the interests of making TCM manta soup.
BaaAtoll, the Maldives
I am gazing in wonder at a flying carpet. Underwater. It’s a manta ray, winging along with the greatest of ease, keeping an eye on me. And I say “eye” singular because the each manta eye is positioned to either side of its front lobes, spaced well apart.
Correction. Make that two flying carpets. Right over the top of the first one comes another manta, flying straight toward me. I wanted to get close to mantas, but not this close. The manta has a huge wingspan–some 500 kilograms of flying carpet is set on a head-on collision course–and I have nowhere to go. I am in panic mode. But at the last moment, the manta nose-dives into the depths. Is this the manta ray’s idea of a joke?
The mantas wheel back–both of them. There is no doubt in my mind now that the mantas are eyeballing me with curiosity. They know exactly where I am, and are avoiding any collision course–despite a three-meter wingspan. They show off with a stunning underwater ballet, winging along effortlessly, doing the occasional pirouette. This undulating “choreography” goes on for several minutes–the maximum time that I can breath-hold underwater–but seems to last much longer. The mantas have let me into their world for an instant–an instant that is truly magical.
On board with Manta Researchers
More marine encounters over the course of the next week convince me that manta rays are truly bizarre creatures–charismatic, graceful, and gentle despite their size. I am on a vessel dedicated to tracking mantas–the Manta Trust research boat, patrolling Baa Atoll in the Maldives. In 2011, Baa Atoll was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve–largely due to its unique manta population, and due to the efforts of Guy Stevens, who heads the manta research project here. The Maldives hosts the world’s largest known population of reef manta rays, which Stevens estimates at over 6,000 resident rays.
Being on board this converted fishing vessel offers a glimpse into another world–the world of marine researchers, patiently probing the mysteries of mantas. How long do they live? How often do they reproduce? How do they avoid predators? Project manager Niv Froman is scanning the waters from the top deck, checking for mantas cruising near the surface, chasing plankton. Making spotting easy is a large manta that goes airborne–flying through the air near the boat in a spectacular display of breaching. Two volunteer research assistants get ready to freedive and ID the manta by photographing the distinctive spot-patterns on its underside–a pattern that never changes. Once in the research database, mantas are given nicknames like Rocket, Flappy Jack, and Bubbles (who likes bubbles from divers).
According to Guy Stevens, mantas have a high tolerance for “bubble creatures” entering their marine domain. Far higher than the bottlenosed dolphins we see playing in the bows of the boat: the dolphins will dive down to lose any snorkelers who enter the water close by. By contrast, mantas will actively interact with divers and snorkelers, most likely out of curiosity. In the early days of scuba-diving–back in the 1970s–mantas were real flying carpets: divers were known to hitch a ride by holding onto one.
Guy tells me that manta rays have the largest brain to body weight ratio of any living fish. Does that indicate higher intelligence? Quite possible, says Guy, if problem-solving is a parameter. Mantas are among the very few marine creatures that will actually seek out humans to solve problems–such as being half-strangled by a fishing net. A man-made problem requires a man-made solution. Numerous times, Guy says, he has been approached by mantas tangled with netting. After he cuts the manta loose, it follows him for some time in an apparent show of gratitude.
Mantas never sleep: from the moment they’re born, they’re on the move. How can they operate like this? “Well,” says Stevens, “it’s not sleep as we know it, but mantas have relaxation modes, rather like auto-pilot or cruise control–where they glide using very little energy.” Relaxation time includes visiting a “cleaning station”. About 50 manta cleaning-stations have been discovered around the Maldives. At these sites, mantas wait patiently in turn to hover in over a reef and have parasites removed by cleaner-fish. Rather like going to a car-wash or the hairdresser’s. Divers visit these sites too, hoping to see a manta line-up.
But the ultimate place to see manta line-ups is Hanifaru Bay. If conditions are ideal here, mantas aggregate to gorge on swarms of microscopic plankton trapped in the bay. At Hanifaru Bay, Stevens says researchers have counted aggregations of 50 mantas (and once counted 240 mantas) engaged in a feeding frenzy–gliding along with sometimes two or three stacked on top of each other. Other times, mantas curl up and perform loop-the-loop barreling maneuvers to gobble up more plankton.
Mantas on the menu
Mantas are filter-feeders: they use their feathery gill plates to strain out plankton after ingesting large volumes of seawater. This remarkable filtering ability has been touted as nothing short of miraculous by Chinese medicine vendors–who are promoting “health tonics”, brewed from dried manta gill plates. Chinese medicine vendors promote the belief that by eating a particular species, the consumer can acquire the super-powers associated with that species–which is a load of hogwash. Having depleted the world of sharks to make sharkfin soup, they are moving along to the next victim: manta rays.
Chinese medicine has a tradition dating back 2,000 years, but manta gill plates have only been added to the ‘menu’ in the last decade–touted for their supposed detoxifying and purifying properties. And during that decade, fishing of mantas has increased many-fold, leading to a precipitous drop in the population of mantas and mobulas. In some areas, a 30-percent drop; in other areas, the drop is over 80 percent. Manta cartilage has also been substituted for shark cartilage in Chinese medicinal potions.
Even in the Maldives, where mantas and sharks are fully protected species, rays are declining in number–perhaps due to climate-change factors such as weaker monsoons. In the Maldives, numerous Marine Protected Areas have been established where fishing is highly restricted. Getting these MPAs started has resulted from the efforts of researchers like Guy Stevens. Stevens is a British marine biologist who came to the Maldives to work as a guide with Four Seasons Resort. Fascinated by the mantas, he stayed on to establish a marine research center, with Four Seasons as the major patron.
Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru is a super-luxury resort with a difference–a deep commitment to the environment. Coral reefs in the Maldives were severely damaged by coral bleaching in the 1990s and were again hit by the tsunami of 2004. Four Seasons has pioneered a solution to the devastation–in the form of reefscaping. This means building reefs from scratch by attaching small pieces of coral on circular metal frames and then submerging the frames. Over time, the mini-reefs grow–and marine critters move into their shiny new coral homes. While I am at the Marine Discovery Centre, a Korean family purchases two big frames, and their kids tie on tiny pieces of coral. Their names are inscribed on a small plate attached. A new initiative here is the Fish Lab, where species like seahorses and Maldivian clownfish are propagated. This is a start-up for selling to aquariums, providing income for local communities–and preventing poaching of wild species.
Negombo Fish Market, Sri Lanka
This story has a grisly ending. On a stop-over in Sri Lanka, I witness the dark side of the manta life-cycle. Dark meaning the end of the world, as rays know it. Dark meaning horrific slaughter. Dark meaning before sunrise, when the fish markets in Negombo are at their busiest–unloading fresh catch. Actually, ‘bycatch’ would be closer–everything that vast nets haul up, useful or not. The haul includes hammerhead sharks, baby sharks torn from the bellies of their mothers, whole devil rays, and manta ray pieces. Mantas are too large and heavy to carry, so they are hacked into three or four pieces, often while still alive, to enable hauling along the docks with hooks. This is a morgue for mantas and mobulas.
Sri Lanka has emerged as the number one fishery of mantas and mobulas world-wide: their dried gill plates end up in Guangzhou, China. It is highly disturbing to see these magnificent creatures chopped into pieces. Mantas never harm humans, but humans slaughter mantas–to feed the whims of bogus Chinese medicine vendors. The fishing of mantas in Sri Lanka is mostly driven by the demand for dried gill plates in Chinese medicine, since manta meat is considered low-grade–and cannot compare to yellowfin tuna. A dead manta may sell for US$150 in Sri Lanka, but the same manta–alive–is worth exponentially more as a key draw for dive-tourism in places like the Maldives. A recent study of manta ray dive-tourism worldwide estimates it is worth US$140 million annually, compared with perhaps US$5 million annually for fisheries income. Mantas are a key draw for liveaboard dive-boats and for freediving snorkelers in the Maldives–and for numerous other sites around the world, from Mexico to Mozambique.
In September 2014, CITES announced a ban of international trade in specimens of five shark species and all manta ray species, including meat, gills and fins. Manta rays were added in 2013 to the CITES list (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). However, the ruling is not enforceable and the trade in manta gill-rakers for Traditional Chinese Medicine soups, potions and other absurd concoctions still goes on. The photos of butchered mantas at Negombo fishmarket in Sri Lanka seen in this article were taken in mid-2016, so it’s slaughter as usual in Sri Lanka, it appears. For more information about diving with mantas, and about the campaign to save them, see www.mantatrust.org/.
–Michael Buckley is author of a digital photobook, Ocean Blues, which is about the decimation of valuable marine species used in bogus Traditional Chinese Medicine practices. The photobook is available only on the Apple iBooks platform.