behind the photograph: Manta Mayhem
Posted on August 12, 2012
I am 30 feet under the water as a vortex of manta rays stirs just inches away from me. Shielding my head with the camera, I curl up in a little ball as my lungs burn for air. In moments like this I often catch myself thinking “how the heck I did get here?”
Manta ray researcher, Guy Stevens and I have been friends for several years. We first met at a conference in 2007 where he showed photographs of his study site in the Maldives. When I am not making pictures, I spend a lot time obsessively looking at other people’s work. I sometimes will look at hundreds if not thousands of photographs per day, so it takes quite an image to knock my socks off. And this is exactly what one of Guy’s grainy, dark photographs did. In a single frame he captured more manta rays then I had seen in my entire life. In one of the most spectacular marine biology discoveries in recent years, Guy pinpointed the largest manta ray feeding aggregation in the world.
Unfortunately, the site was already threatened by development and six months later I traveled halfway across the world to begin work on a story to help raise awareness and stop the development. “Feeding Frenzy” as the story was to be called, happened to be my first feature story for National Geographic Magazine, which is the ultimate platform for bringing threatened places and species into the living rooms and consciousness of tens of millions of people.
Manta rays migrate to Hanifaru when the southwest monsoon blows at its peak and the surrounding seas become the most productive. An upwelling of nutrients and sunlight explode into a rich plankton brew. When the tides and currents are just right, swarms of krill wash into a cul-de-sac in the reef, luring up to 250 manta rays at a time into an area the size of a few basket ball courts. I needed a frame to illustrate the sheer abundance of mantas in order to bring this story to life.
A mass manta ray feeding event can either be a highly choreographed ballet or a complete train wreck. When coordinated, hundreds of manta rays glide in an elegant vortex. When chaos reigns, the rays crash into one another like drunken bumper cars. The key to getting the frame was positioning myself ahead of the aggregation, taking the shot as it was moving towards me, and then returning to the surface before running out of air (I was free diving). I managed to get myself into position, but underestimated the speed at which the manta rays traveled. Just as I was returning to the surface to catch my breath, I was enveloped in a blanket of rays that blocked my path to the surface for at least 30 seconds. I broke the surface elated, but gasping for air.
In 2009, Hanifaru was finally proclaimed a marine reserve and the development was vetoed at the highest level of government. Guy and I followed up 3 seasons in the Maldives with repeated visits to the fish market in Sri Lanka to monitor and document the plight of manta rays. After comprehending the true magnitude of the threats manta rays face around the world, we co-founded the Manta Trust, which is the only charity in the world dedicated to the study and conservation of manta and rays and their relatives. Today the trust is home to a dedicated team of associate directors and project scientists with a passion for manta rays around the world from Mexico to Indonesia. Please visit: www.mantatrust.org.