Location: West Papua
Any encounter with a manta ray will leave you breathless. Few animals compare in size and grace, but modern research now shows that with the largest brain of any fish, few animals compare in intelligence. Prior to ~2005, the manta population in Misool, West Papua had been devastated due to the demand for their gill rakers for completely unproven eastern “medicine”. But through years of hard work, there is now a growing eco-protected area in the region where through proper education & governance, mantas and other wildlife are again thriving, and the people of the region are also thriving both socially and economically. It’s a shining example of how conservation & politics don’t have to be enemies – the world is paying attention, and their success is quickly gaining recognition as a model for other parts of the world to follow.
The Reef Manta (Manta alfredi) is listed as Vulnerable (and decreasing) under the ICUN, occupies a range throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific, and while this individual is ~14′ wide, as the 2nd largest species of manta, they can grow to 18′ wide. For years, I’ve dreamed of getting a different type of manta photo – almost all of my previous shot have been out in the open blue (or green), or over a sandy bottom. So having the opportunity to photograph mantas at this “cleaning station”, where they encourage butterflyfish to pick off dead skin and parasites, was a dream come true. A quiet, almost stealthy approach, away from other humans was key. Of course, the manta knows I’m there (its not like you can sneak up on a manta), but keeping a reasonable distance, holding my breath for extended periods, and moving very, very slowly, put the manta at ease (because really, who wants to be disturbed in the shower?!?!) so she’d continue with her natural behaviors and remain still while being cleaned. -Gug