If you want to get close to a fish with a brain like yours—large, highly sensory, highly social and highly curious—you must travel to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, board a 145-foot dive vessel and then travel out to sea for twenty-eight additional hours, the distance from Washington DC to New York (245 miles). After squeezing into a thick rubber wet suit, you’ll board an inflatable zodiac for another ride to any one of a number of dive sites. You’ll latch a twentypound belt around your waist, and strap on your tanks, underwater light and camera, after which you’ll jump into the cold water, where every breath dependvs on a fine-tuned contraption of tanks, tubes and gauges. You’ll descend the anchor line slowly. Maximum depth could be 130 feet—the equivalent of descending thirteen stories. Then you wait.
Or you can travel halfway around the world to Indonesia’s Coral Triangle, stay on an island in Raja Ampat, take a fifteen-minute boat ride, and repeat the same routine. Except here, you must use a three-pronged reef hook and line to clip yourself to dead coral so that the ocean’s current doesn’t drag you into the reef. And, again, you wait. If your “hooking in” maneuver is successful, you will be flying like a kite.
Then, as the silhouette of an underwater aircraft with a beating heart approaches from the invisible distance, you will be—in Jann Rosen-Queralt’s words—“mantacized.” That it’s not a mirage is confirmed when a creature the size of a small living room flies close enough for you to scratch its belly. Jann recalls her first time seeing these large rays: “I was in Papua New Guinea. I had to pinch myself—these gentle giants were swimming overhead, circling around an outcropping of coral being cleaned while I sat on the ocean bottom. I was momentarily in shadow, like being covered by a cloak or blanket, and then the light returned as they moved on. Upon breathing all the air in my tank, I reluctantly ascended. The whole dive lasted for forty-five minutes and felt like five.”
“I have not had the pleasure of returning to one location over a period of time to experience the same mantas, which might provide a direct experience that reflects curiosity as defined through inquisitiveness. Nor have I had the experience some divers have described as play taking the form of ‘cat and mouse chasing.’ That said, the encounters I have had make me feel unsure who was more curious about whom. I observed them swimming, perpetually beating their fins in upwelling currents feeding on drifting plankton and hovering at cleaning stations. This continuous shape shifting of their wings, undulating or maybe it is actually oscillating, happens because the cartilage skeleton is hinged at thousands of points. They were not disturbed by my presence; seemingly unafraid staring at me intently or so I thought. They swam overhead allowing my air bubbles to come in contact with their underbelly. This appeared to be something they enjoyed because they repeated this behavior more than once and could have avoided contact entirely. In some way their return over my head while I observed them was similar to when they return to a cleaning station remaining stationary while Wrasse fish clean as they continue to flap their wings. The main difference being there was no symbiotic relationship between us the way there is with the cleaner fish.”
Manta rays have graced earth’s waters for five million years.1 Yet, only in that past ten has there been dedicated research into their behavior and physiology. We now know that mantas’ brains are the largest of all fish (compared to their size). The enlarged regions of manta’s brains—the telencephalon and the cerebellum—are responsible for many higher functions such as sensation and socialization Both, when present in mammals, are associated with intelligence. And, like mammals, mantas’ braincases are surrounded by blood vessels that are presumed to keep their brains warm and functioning effectively regardless of cold temperatures. This ability to “thermo-regulate” is a reason for adaptive success of both species. All these factors point to the possibility that mantas might have a high level of intelligence.2
And, they have recently been listed as “vulnerable” on the international Red List of Threatened Species. Though their tough flesh is not a food source for people, the worldwide catch of manta rays has quadrupled in the past seven years.3 The creatures are caught by accident in commercial long-lining and gill-net fishing. While in the nets, they are entangled, wounded, and smothered by the inability to properly pump oxygen-rich water. Unwanted, they are thrown back. In contrast, they are wanted by fisheries responding to the demand for their gill rakers. These cartilagenous filaments are used by Traditional
Chinese Medicine practitioners, who claim the rakers, when cooked in soup, can boost the immune system and treat a host of ailments, from cancer to chickenpox, to rashes.4 A single, mature giant manta ray can yield up to fifteen pounds of dried gill plates.5 WildAid says the trade is valued at $11 million 6 annually. But none of the purported medical claims are supported by science, nor are they supported by traditional Chinese medicine texts.
Plankton supplies, a primary food source for mantas, are diminished by changing ecological processes. Coral reefs, where smaller fish rid the rays of parasites, are dying. Their disappearance affects the symbiotic process benefitting both the mantas and the fish.
The rays’ vulnerability is especially acute because females do not reach sexual maturity until they are ten years old and give birth to only one pup every two to five years. An ecosystem disturbance that seems small to us is potentially catastrophic for the rays.7
Science writer, David Quammen suggests that “Species go extinct because their populations have fallen to low numbers, for one reason or another, and then something bad happens.”8 Though we know about the world’s oceans and what is affecting manta ray populations, there is more that we don’t know: What is the “something bad?” When and for how long might it “happen?” What difference does it make if a species of magnificent, sentient being disappears? To whom and why?
The trouble with ecosystem crises is that they happen out of view and involve many moving parts. Right now, for example, scientists are asking whether acidification is of greater danger to oceanic species than climate change or over-fishing.9 Humans, at least policy-making humans, need proof before taking action. Proof is political and expensive; and trouble is hard to see before it arrives. It builds in the deep with two mantas mating. It builds from the economic promise of industrial fishing innovations. It builds as opportunistic humans amputate gill rakers from pregnant rays. It builds in bleached coral reefs and altered distributions of microscopic plankton.
Jann Rosen-Queralt loves oceans and its creatures. She has spent many hours diving with manta rays, cavorting with them, encountering them, documenting them. Thanks to her commitment, to her alertness and skill, we get to encounter them, too. Larged-brained manta rays have habits like ours. They are interested in us and we in them. What we do matters to them.
These photographs present us with a decision: Are we willing to be awed by, and respectful of, strangeness and beauty? What are the consequences if we are not?
For more information about manta rays, visit http://www.mantatrust.org/<
- defendersblog.org/2015/12/manythreatsformantarays/Many Threats for Manta Rays
MEDITATION ON MANTA RAY
Look at you here: unmoving, unnatural in my hands.
The photograph gives you voice—
We speak one word: “looking-at-you-looking-at-me.”
I want to drop my landed pretenses and slide into the
frame,into your salty, cobalt skies, where I might be
decreased under your flexing wing.
We speak the same word: “looking-at-you-looking-at-me.”
How close you come with your bold, quiet eye—
I shudder to think what you think of me.
What secrets do you shelter? Please, something
other than your awful gasping in the nets. What ancient
learning will you share?
We speak the same word: “looking-at-you-looking-at-me.”
Bird-fish, fish-bird—cloak me that I may be freed,
from my parasitic ambitions, my naïve beliefs that I might
create a better sea.
When I turn this page, return me to myself,
made softer, restless for the newness of our peace.
We speak the same word: “seeing-you-seeing-me.”