Meeting Manta Rays

Explained by Andrea Marshall, marine biologist

Manta rays are curious, friendly, and swim up to Andrea Marshall to see what she’s up to. Some of them may even recognize her as she’s been researching them for 20 years. Unfortunately, these remarkable creatures are under threat from hunting and pollution, which is why Milkywire is so proud to have Andrea's organization on the platform to help them.

Andrea is a marine biologist behind the discovery of two species of manta ray. She has almost two decades of manta research behind her and she was the first person in the world to earn a Ph.D. on manta rays. Her organization, the Marine Megafauna Foundation, is considered a world-leading authority on many marine megafauna species, particularly whale sharks and manta rays.

Andrea's story:

I’ve been passionate about the ocean ever since I was a little girl, and I studied marine science in school. I was a born explorer, always seeking a little more adventure, and didn’t really fit into the mold in school.

I wanted to contribute to projects in faraway places concerning really threatened species, so I found my way to Africa to do research as a marine biologist. While there, I had this lightbulb moment; I wanted to be a conservation biologist. I didn’t want to write reports that might be published in a scientific journal only to sit on a shelf in some library. I wanted to take the information that I gained from fieldwork and put it towards actually helping a species and the environment. I realized that I needed to incorporate a lot more conservation into my agenda to do that.

I was in South Africa studying white sharks, but I kept hearing about this beautiful country, Mozambique. So a team of us got together and decided to do a first exploratory dive along Mozambique’s coastline. It was an adventure, diving in areas where no one had dived before. It was such a fragile and pristine coastline that desperately needed some attention, so I told my team to just leave me there. Everyone else went home, but I stayed. I built a little hut on the beach and applied for my Ph.D. I was 23 years old at the time.

When I first approached the university to apply for a Ph.D., I got a flat-out no. They had no interest in funding a 23-year-old girl, researching a species with no prior studies, in a country that had just come out of a civil war, where there were still landmines in the ground. So to get the project started, I had to sell all my stuff, furniture, and car back in Australia. I was self-financing the project for about 18 months. My only hope was to make some sort of discovery that was interesting enough for the university to want to pick up. And luckily for me, not only did I collect lots of valuable information on manta rays, but I also provided evidence of a new species of mantas. At the time, this was one of the largest species discoveries in the last 50 years.

Eventually, the university picked me up as a student, and I received a scholarship for my whole Ph.D. So I kept researching and applied that money to my work. I was just scraping by, and honestly, it’s not entirely different from what I’m doing now. I kind of just scrape by every year because I’m so passionate about what I do.

Andrea Marshall

Marine Biologist

I got into manta rays was through my work with sharks. I joined the IUCN shark specialist group, and we were trying to assess the conservation status of all these different species for the first time back in the early 2000s. I was given a bunch of different species to assess, and one of them was manta rays. As I went through the little literature there was about mantas, there was nothing I could use to assess their conservation status. So I had to list them as data deficient, which really stuck with me. How come no one had studied these amazing animals?

As demand for manta ray products has increased in Asia, we’ve seen about 95–98 % decline in some of the manta populations we work with. It’s emotional for me because I receive awards for being a conservation hero, and people want to make documentaries about my work, but sometimes I feel like I am failing the populations I am working on. I identify with some of these mantas here in Mozambique as my children. I’ve seen some of the same individuals for 17 years now and have seen them have their first babies. I’ve seen them live through shark attacks and heal themselves. I’ve disentangled them from nets and pulled spearguns out of them and seen them live on. I’ve also found them dead on the beach and realized that it’s an individual I’ve been tracking for 15 years. In those moments, it’s hard not to break down and cry. I try to use those moments to give me renewed momentum to go on.

Our organization Marine Megafauna Foundation, which I co-founded almost a decade ago, is still field-based. The fieldwork is also a part of what keeps me motivated; to be out in the field and collect data is my forte. Because we are always challenged in terms of funding, we spend a lot of time applying for grants or reaching out to potential donors.

A lot of the work we do is photography-based, and we also use satellite tags to tell us things about their movement and habits that we can’t observe. Another part of the work is describing the species, so I do all kinds of biopsy tests and collect parasites and other things from their bodies. We also do behavioral studies where we use camera traps to see them in an environment where they aren’t influenced by human interaction in any way. Mantas have the largest brain of any marine fish. They are incredibly social, and everything we learn about them is just record-breaking. They are the deepest diving rays in the ocean, and they travel some of the longest distances. They seem incredibly resilient; the way their wounds heal and how they bounce back from shark attacks is just extraordinary.

Donate now to save species

With your help, Andrea can expand protected areas to save manta rays in one of the most biodiverse areas of marine megafauna in all of Africa. Find out more on Andrea's impacter page.

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