Don’t Call Them Cute: Queen of Mantas gets tough on saving a threatened marine species

She’s sassy, determined and passionate. But those are the attributes we already knew about Dr Andrea Marshall – or the ‘Queen of Mantas’ as she is also known. If it’s possible, Dr Andrea has become even more focussed on protecting manta rays and encouraging others to contribute to their conservation since she started her work in Mozambique in 2003. You could see a clear shift of focus in this ambitious scientist as she gave a talk at the Dive Show in Birmingham (30th – 31st October 2010). Since she last spoke to the British public at the London dive show in March she’s been travelling the globe to further research manta rays. Those few months have changed her perspective and how she talks about these creatures that motivate and inspire her every day.

Chatting to Dr Andrea MarshallShowing the crowd pictures of slaughtered manta rays on beaches and at markets, she said she was “incensed” at how people are treating them; they are being killed for their alleged miracle properties, which are then used in Chinese medicine. She spoke of times of near emotional breakdown when she saw dead mantas on the Mozambique coast where she lives and works. She knew these mantas as she recognised the markings on their ventral surface: in fact, she has named all 750 of the manta rays currently under study, adding with a smile that “there’s not much else to do in Mozambique”.

Dr Andrea Marshall does more than record data and write up studies on manta rays; she is encouraging others to become conservationists and get involved in what she terms “citizen science”. Divers in particular have a great deal of power to help her cause. She says that just taking photographs on diving trips could help scientists learn more about manta rays and she hopes a database will be set up soon to make this sharing of information a simple task. She says: “We need an ocean revolution. The important thing is that you get involved. This is about global education, not just research.”

Incredibly, Andrea and her team are researching a potential third species of manta ray in the Atlantic Ocean, following her discovery of the giant manta ray in 2008. This could provide further implications for their evolution and ecology – and could change the focus of Dr Marshall’s manta education again.

I spoke to the Manta Queen about the woman behind the science, how we can all get involved in conservation and more marine documentaries in the making. But she would only give me an interview on the condition I signed her ‘save the mantas’ petition. See what I was saying about her meaning business?

 

You mentioned how this talk is very different from the one you gave at the London Dive Show in March. What’s happened in that time?

 

I spent a lot of my time talking to communities around the world, from schoolchildren in Mozambique to scientists and professors at scientific conferences. I’m finding that the talks I give are not as effective as I want them to be – and the reason they’re not effective is because people are so enamoured with the animals, they are not necessarily seeing what needs to happen to make a change. I’m trying to make my talks more focussed on harder conservation issues so that people walk away thinking, “What the hell can I do to change this?”, not “Wow, manta rays are cute”.

You talked about ‘citizen science’ in your presentation. How can people get involved?

 

People have such an incredible power to get involved and I think they don’t realise that they do. Just taking photos on dive trips when people travel around the world is data for scientists – and there are millions of divers diving every day. But even people just demanding change from some of the countries that they are diving in, actually have a bigger voice than the entire scientific community put together. I want people to know that they have the power to change things if they want to.

You’re known as the ‘Queen of Mantas’. Did you give yourself that title?

 

I did NOT give myself the title of ‘Queen of Mantas’. It was the BBC’s idea to name that documentary and it has unfortunately caught on… and there’s nothing I can do about it!

Are there any openings for princes and princesses of Mantas?

 

There are definitely openings for princes and princesses of Mantas. We also have whale shark scientists at our research centre, who study the plankton that whale sharks eat. We’re looking at a new documentary entitled, ‘Whale Shark Warrior and the Prince of Plankton’.

When you gave everything up to go to Mozambique, did you think you’d still be doing this, seven years later?

When you start out as a scientist, you’re interested in the science; in getting papers, marks, university and a professorship. But the longer I have spent in this business, the more I have realised that it is up to us to fix it. No-one else can. It’s not about me making a paper and lodging it in the university for someone else to read one day. If we want to be conservationists, we have to be activists. We actually have to do something now. I never expected in my wildest imaginations that I would be this active in manta conservation when I first started. I liked mantas – but now it’s my entire life.

Do you have a ‘manta mantra’ that gets you up out of bed in the morning? (She didn’t even flinch at that rhyming piece of alliterative genius…).

 

To be able to get up every day and see these animals that actually look like they’re smiling at you when you look at them underwater is what pulls me out of bed every day. The fact that we see mantas slaughtered on the beach all the time can be really depressing, but then you go on a dive and have an encounter with one and you realise it’s all worth it. They literally get me out of bed every morning.

If you had one shot to give everyone on Earth one message, what would it be?

 

This is our planet and we have the ability to change it for the positive. People may think that we can’t but we can – if we want to.

If you want to show your support for Dr Andrea Marshall’s conservation efforts, visit marinemegafauna.org

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Online dive dating? Meeting the DiveBunnie…

Since I set up The Adventure Girl’s Guide, I have gained lovely comments and heaps of advice from other travel enthusiasts, outdoors lovers, adventure junkies and both dive experts and novices alike. A hefty chuck of my blog has been focussed on scuba diving as I make my journey through the underwater world – and of course, wanting to write about it for publications.

But I’ve not only gained helpful tips, I’ve started to make firm connections with people passionate about similar things to me – the internet and social media has done more than just provide a platform to chat about what excites us or to share ideas to help us make decisions. For me, it’s now crossing into the real world; meeting interesting new people is one of the things I wanted to achieve from claiming my own little piece of the web, because, after all, who knows where that leads?

It was because of my tap, tap, tapping away at my laptop that I met the DiveBunnie, aka Clare Wilders, online. It sounds like I signed up to some Dive Date site – especially when I mentioned on the phone to my boyfriend that I had “met this really interesting, lovely girl online… she’s a dive instructor in Sharm and could be good to know if we go diving in the Red Sea”… Well it turned out that meeting each other through dive forums and checking out each other’s sites led to just that.

Meeting the DivebunnieOn a dive trip to the Red Sea at the end of August we made plans to meet up in person. Clare is a lovely wee whippet of a lass – you can see from the picture that my head looks like the size of an enlarged watermelon next to her – but don’t let her diminutive frame fool you. She’s a reputed dive instructor with Ocean College, been awarded Lady Diver of the month by Lady Diver magazine and she’s made a life out of diving in Sharm-el-Sheikh with her husband, who she met there (and who guided me on the SS Thistlegorm – darling geezer!).

Her website, divebunnie.com, is branded as ‘the website for diving women’ and she sells all sorts of merchandise. A dive goddess AND a businesswoman. I think I have someone to follow here. She said I was the second ever Divebunnie to come out to dive with Ocean College: I was sworn in to the club with a cute Divebunnie vest top. Awesome! My babbling is now earning me threads.

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Paul Rose brings the Oceans home

Explorer and professional diver Paul Rose took some time out from underwater discovery to tell us all about the next series of Oceans – and he’s on a mission to get Brits diving too.

Following the success of the eight part BBC series in 2008, Paul animatedly revealed at this year’s Dive Show in Birmingham (30th-31st October 2010) that he’ll be hitting our screens again in March 2011 with a brand new serving of maritime wonders.

But this time he hasn’t been sunning himself in exotic locations like the Indian Ocean or collecting air miles for venturing all the way to the Arctic Ocean. This series is all about our waters: Britain’s seas. In his affable Essex lilt, he described how the series will cover the whole compass to show Britain’s ‘Wild North’, ‘Energy of the East’, ‘Crowded South’ and the ‘Giants of the West’.

The intrepid presenter admitted that the title of the next series hasn’t been decided yet, but hinted that we could be seeing ‘Britain’s Secret Seas’ in our telly guide soon.

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I caught up with Paul during his book-signing of ‘Oceans’ after the talk (harangue is more accurate – he has a determined fan base!) to find out more.

Chatting to Paul Rose

What’s been your highlight of filming the new series of Oceans (Britain’s Secret Seas…)?

It was being able to bring the simplicity of UK diving to life. A lot of people may think it’s murky, deep or technical but actually it’s within reach of everybody. It’s very accessible and you only need basic training and not much gear to have a lot of fun as a diver in British waters. If you don’t fancy diving, you can snorkel. We had some fantastic snorkelling experiences with basking sharks for example. Families can have an absolute blast doing this in only chest-deep water. So to bring that to life on television to millions of people is a real highlight for me.

You talked about pushing hard the ‘simple easy diving’ and how you wanted to make people watching the new series to get up off the sofa and get in British waters.

There’s so much to experience! As a new diver there’s a sense of just being underwater and breathing underwater. When I first started diving I just loved that feeling and I didn’t care if I couldn’t see anything. But there is so much to see: you can watch fish in their environment and see all the colours of the sea come to life. In just three metres of water you can have an absolute ball off the British coast. If you venture a bit further, you can see wrecks that are a significant part of history.

In the last series you discovered a new species (of amphipod). Did you discover anything new this time?

No new species this time but we did uncover hugely surprising stories – it was full of surprises for the team, so it will be jam-packed full of surprises for the viewers. You’ll find out about protecting wildlife on Garvey Island and how dolphins end up stranded on the beach.

You’ve got a bigger CV than most will ever achieve (his job titles include polar guide, professional diver and instructor, mountaineer, yacht skipper, expedition leader…). Are you ready to kick back and take up backgammon now?

Oh no I’m going to keep at it because it’s something I can do. I think if you find something you can do, just keep going. I’ll keep diving and I’ll keep exploring. Working in the Polar Regions is a big part of my life and I’m now going down for my 13th season in the Antarctic; I’ve done nine in the Arctic. When I’m not doing those, the diving seems to take up a big chunk!

How can everybody grab a slice of the explorative action?

I work with an organisation called Earthwatch and it really benefits from ‘people science’. If you have an interest in global issues or the environment, you can work with the world’s finest scientists as a non-scientist and be a bona fide part of the scientific community. It’s really exciting and you can make a difference.

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Paul’s off to the much colder shores of the Antarctic on a science expedition this month until January 2011. If you want to find out what he’s up to next, visit paulrose.org

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