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.
Showing 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