Few experiences can be compared to that of a scuba diver witnessing the beautiful, majestic manta ray in action under water. These creatures can reach an impressive length and disc span of up to 20ft, and vary in shades between white and black. Anyone who had been face to face with this animal has seen its elegance, grace, and power as it glides effortlessly through the water, undisturbed by strong currents and thermoclines that would hold a weaker species back. It is quite an interaction to experience the inquisitive personality of a manta as it calmly approaches a diver to get a better look. It is not uncommon for the ray to swim laps around a person, oftentimes getting so close that if the diver wished to reach out and touch the manta they probably could, but certainly should not.
How to Identify a Manta
For as much information that is already known about manta rays, there is that much more we do not know about them. This is why researchers continue to observe in hopes of better understanding their behaviors, life cycles, migration patterns, and more. Recently, divers in the Similan Islands having been photographing their distinguished markings, specifically the bellyprints, which is the best way to identify a manta. Similar to the fingerprint of a human being, each manta has its own unique patterns. This may come in the form of spots, white patches on the top, all over color, or most obviously by the marks on its belly. Some are stigmatized by permanent injuries such as a broken or missing tail, a disfigured mandible from a fishing accident, or even a bite taken out of its wing by a large predator.
Koh Bon - A Manta Hot Spot
Through collective experience diving the North Andaman Sea, we have found that the best dive site for spotting mantas is at the small, rocky island of Koh Bon. On the west end of Koh Bon is a large ridge that slopes to a sandy bottom of approximately 33 meters. This ridge serves as a cleaning station for larger fish including reef sharks, Leopard sharks, Napoleon wrasse, and of course manta rays. The most likely way to see a manta is to go to either this cleaning station or the pinnacle on the north side and wait. With a little patience, there is a good chance that eventually one or more mantas will circle around to be cleaned or to feed on the plankton in the water. Mantas will normally swim circles in a fairly small area, so if you see one its best to either stay still or to slowly swim alongside it. If a diver swims directly towards the ray, it will most likely become spooked and swim off into the blue. Divers have had excellent luck observing mantas here, photographing and identifying up to 11 mantas in a single dive! These photos are then used to match mantas seen at other times and other sites in hopes to recognize the patterns in their migration habits. Eventually we hope to use this information to predict when and where to find the manta rays.
If photographing and identifying mantas sounds interesting to you, we could use your help! In order to get the best results, researchers can use all the data they can get. Anybody diving in the Andaman Sea who has a chance to photograph a manta can submit their photo to mantamatcher.org, along with additional information such as time and location. Once your photo is submitted, a researcher will run the manta matcher algorithm, much like a facial recognition software. From there, your manta will be matched to a manta profile that already exists, or else find that you have documented a completely new manta for the system! The more we learn about mantas, the more we can do to help preserve their species and habitats.