This Woman-Led Conservation Team Is Protecting Giant Gentle Manta Rays

Manta rays are vulnerable to extinction, but there are few known nursery habitats for them.

When Jessica Pate first saw the huge black shapes swimming close to shore in Palm Beach County, Florida, she didn’t know what they were. The shadowy forms were manta rays. Even though Pate was studying sea turtles at the time, and that meant she was constantly on the beach, she didn’t even realize that there were manta rays in Florida. She also soon learned no one else was studying them. Eager to find out more, she convinced a friend to take her out on the water to search for the rays.

On that first expedition, Pate and her friend closed-in on an immense black shape in the teal water. The closer they got, the more the ray came into focus: broad, pointed wings, and cephalic fins that protrude from the head like antennae.

Pate joined the manta ray in the water, and the ray turned upside-down and swam beneath her, observing her as she did it. Manta rays have some of the largest brains of all fish, and this one’s curiosity was apparent.

This is amazing, Pate thought. Even after the ray swam away, and she got out of the water, she couldn’t stop smiling. “I was hooked after that,” said Pate.

Pate knew she wanted to study the rays, but it took a while for the project to take hold. By 2016, the Florida Manta Ray Project finally gained traction. Though many people help out, many days it is just Pate, photographer Bethany Augliere, and their intern on the boat. Most of their research days involve going out in search of the rays. When they do, Pate stands on the bow of the boat as high as she can get for the best vantage of the surrounding waters. From there, Pate looks for big black shapes. “I can tell you I’ve identified every manta-shaped rock in Palm Beach and Martin County, Florida,” said Pate.

Photo by Bethany Augliere, used with permission.

Over the course of studying these rays, Pate and her crew have learned several things important to these animals’ conservation. First, Pate believes the area off the coast of Palm Beach County may act as a nursery for juvenile manta rays.

“A nursery ground usually is characterized either one by an abundance of food or two by a lack of predators,” said Pate. “So this would be a habitat where they can more safely mature into adulthood.”

Manta rays are considered vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Worldwide, there are very few known nursery habitats for manta rays, so protecting this one off the eastern coast of Florida is vital.

The first step, which Pate and her crew are already undertaking, is to assess the possible threats to the area’s manta rays. “28% of them have either a foul-hook or are entangled with fishing line,” said Pate. “So our next step is to figure out where this is happening and how this is happening, and then we can figure out ways to mitigate or stop it.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I can tell you I’ve identified every manta-shaped rock in Palm Beach and Martin County, Florida.[/quote]

Another reason why conservation of the manta rays in this area is important is because Pate and other researchers believe that they may represent a new species of manta ray. Dr. Andrea Marshall, who Pate says is known as “the queen of the manta rays,” discovered in 2009 that there is more than one species of manta ray. Dr. Marshall says that there are two known species, possibly a third. Pate thinks she has discovered the third species of rays off the coast of Florida, but her team is “currently researching the morphological differences.”

That means Pate and her crew must continue to venture out on the water, collecting as much data as they can and trying to catalogue the manta rays in the area. For their research, Augliere’s underwater photography skills are vital. When the crew locates a manta ray, they get in the water, and Augliere takes a picture of the manta ray’s belly. Each manta ray has a unique spot pattern, so these photographic records help Pate’s crew recognize and track individual rays.

Photo by Bethany Augliere, used with permission.

Getting in the water with the manta rays give Pate’s crew a chance to help them, too. A ray (later named Stevie Nicks by their intern) that they came upon one day had two fishing hooks jabbed underneath her pectoral fin and another under her shoulder. Determined to help her, Pate and Augliere stayed in the water for over an hour. Augliere filmed, and Pate dove down again and again, trying to work the hooks out, while the enormous manta ray swam in slow, patient circles beneath them.

“After we finished removing [the hooks], she just swam off,” said Pate. “It’s hard to explain this behavior without referencing some kind of intelligence … It's just so weird to be in the water with a creature that wants to interact with you. Other than marine mammals, there aren’t that many fish in the water who like approach you and are curious about you. It really inspires awe.”

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