Men may outnumber women in the scuba diving community, but what we lack in quantity we make up for in quality. This series examines the remarkable achievements of famous female divers, and the contributions that they’ve made to numerous fields, including science, technology and conservation.
As a young girl, Andrea Marshall was obsessed with sharks. She became a certified diver at 12 in order to see them in their natural environment, and focused her studies on becoming a shark conservationist. Fate intervened, however, when she traveled to Mozambique on vacation and stumbled upon one of the world’s largest populations of manta rays. In the clear, blue waters of Tofo, Marshall discovered that her passion for sharks had been but a fling — that her true love lay with the giant rays whose grace won her heart at first sight. At the time, remarkably little was known about manta rays, and in 2008 Marshall became the first person to complete a PhD on the species, which she achieved through the University of Queensland after studying the mantas in the field in Mozambique. She stayed on in Mozambique, and shortly afterwards founded the conservation and research group that would become the Marine Megafauna Foundation. In the six years since, Marshall has remained at the forefront of global efforts to promote manta-ray conservation, and to increase our understanding of these magnificent animals. Today, the Marine Megafauna Foundation continues to research the Mozambican manta population, monitoring the rays’ biology, habitat use, migrations, reproductive ecology and social behavior.
The fruits of Marshall’s research are many, and include the creation of an automated, online manta-ray photo-identification database, which allows researchers and citizen scientists from all over the world to share and compare manta information. Marshall and her team have personally photographed and identified hundreds of mantas, using the unique spot patterns on their undersides to distinguish one from the other. It was while observing the rays in 2008 that Marshall made a startling discovery — a second species. It was previously thought that all mantas belonged to a single species, but Marshall proved that the reef and the giant manta were in fact biologically distinct. This discovery earned Marshall the moniker “Queen of the Mantas,” and signified the largest new species to be described by a scientist in the past five decades. It also shone a spotlight on Marshall’s manta conservation efforts, and global awareness of the issues facing mantas increased exponentially. Marshall expanded her research, leading expeditions to manta hotspots across five different continents, primarily to set up a global satellite-tagging program to help scientists learn more about mantas, with the goal of informing protective legislation for both species.
In this respect, Marshall and her team have had considerable success. In 2013, both the giant and the reef manta were approved for protection under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). This legislation controls the trade in manta rays or any parts thereof, and came into effect in 2014. In November 2014 both species also earned protection under Appendix I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), which bans the fishing of manta rays in all 120 of the convention’s participating nations. The protections afforded by CITES and CMS are critically important to manta rays, whose global populations are under threat as a result of overfishing and bycatch. These species are also heavily targeted for their gill rakers, used in Asian medicine and cuisine.
Although Marshall is currently involved in manta ray projects in Myanmar, Thailand, Ecuador, Brazil and Indonesia, her home remains where her heart is, with her beloved Mozambican mantas in Tofo Beach. There, she aims to encourage empathy for the mantas amongst local communities by initiating education outreach programs and creating alternative livelihoods for fishermen through the development of sustainable eco-tourism.
Since embarking on her crusade to save the manta ray, Marshall has inspired countless others to care about the fate of these remarkable animals. She has contributed to numerous scientific journals and popular magazines both in her capacity as a scientist, and as a professional underwater photographer. Andrea was featured in the BBC documentary, Andrea: Queen of Mantas in 2009, and in 2013, she was chosen as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. It is achievements like these that make Andrea Marshall a true inspiration for female divers and aspiring conservationists alike.