Manta ray research in the Maldives

Encounters with a manta ray for the first or hundredth time is still a magical occasion. Luckily for us, Maldives is home to an estimated 5000 reef manta rays. They become highly visible during April to November when they return to the atolls to feed on plankton driven in by swells.

Manta swimming in the Maldives

Due to Maldivian Manta rays visiting the islands all year, a comprehensive research project has been undertaken by the charity Manta Trust. Using citizen science, a manta encounter is able to provide data which can be used to identify each individual using ID photos. Therefore mantas can be recognised from season to season.

Manta IDs

The Manta Trust uses a research technique that captures an identity photo by swimming five metres (or more) below the manta and taking a clear photo of its underbelly. The ID photo can identify each manta because the spots on the underbelly are unique to each individual. Like our very own fingerprint! Photos of these spots let us recognise and track manta migration in and out of the Maldives year on year.

This means the research is also an opportunity for citizen science! By taking part, you can contribute to a national database in the Maldives. This work researches the size, behaviour, migratory patterns, health and reproduction of the mantas visiting the region.

Manta in the Maldives

Other Visitors to the Maldives

Manta rays are not the only visitors to the Maldives. The atolls of are a meeting point of currents and a region, which hosts other migratory species such as whale sharks. These sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean, and they use the protection of the atolls to rest and feed. Although they do not know it, whale sharks are protected from aggressive fishing practices like shark finning. When they are in the Maldives, the region has strict fishing regulations.  Whale sharks can be identified by markings close to their gills around a third of the way down their body. By photographing each the left and right side of each individual, scientists can identify an individual.

Whaleshark swimming in the Maldives

Over time, scientists have found through identification research, the same individuals will make journey back to the Maldives each year. The research has become so important that divers and tour operators have learnt where best to encounter and photograph these large filter feeders. For example, mantas can be most easily seen and found at cleaning sites. This is where cleaner wrasse strip them of dead skin and parasites on the reef. Whereas, whale shark encounters are most often experienced when the sharks swim to the surface to warm themselves in the sun after time in the depths. Neither animal lets out a call like a whale or dolphin, nor do they need to come up for a breath. Therefore, spotting them at the surface can be tricky unless they are feeding.

Whaleshark in the Maldives

Getting Involved

Due to the importance of the photographic identification databases of migratory species, scientists encourage photographs of these animals to be taken where possible in a respectful way. That is why, if we ever see a manta or whale shark in the water, we try to take these important photos and note the time and location. All photographic information is fed back to charities such Manta Trust and Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme.

You can become part of a research campaigns to help understand and protect marine species in the Maldives! Keep your eyes open, get in the water and take a camera! If you follow the photographic guidelines and you can collect identification photos of mantas!

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