Dr. Andrea Marshall, also known as Queen of Mantas, is famous for her dedication to manta rays and other marine megafauna. She is the co-founder of the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF), as well as one of the world’s leading authorities on manta rays. Here, we chat about how she became involved in conservation and the future of both MMF and conservation in general.
When and where was your first dive, and how was it?
I was 12 years old when I became PADI certified. Even then, I was annoyed that I couldn’t qualify any earlier. I learned to dive in Monterey, California. It was a shore-entry dive and the water was freezing, but I still thought it was the most amazing place — diving under the kelp is like being in an underwater forest. I never regretted learning to dive in such an unforgiving place as it made me the strong, resilient diver I am today. Also, after diving in cold water my whole life, everywhere else feels tropical and I typically dive in a 1 mm everywhere I go.
Did you know right away that this would become a passion?
Put simply, yes! The underwater world has always fascinated me. My mom tells me I used to talk about wanting to dive and study sharks since I was 5, and I’ve been passionate about marine life ever since.
What was the genesis for your PhD in manta rays?
I was actually planning to study great white sharks for my PhD. But when I was in South Africa, I realized that I wanted to be in the water with my subjects and interact with them. That’s impossible with great whites because you study them from the surface or the boat.
Subsequently, I had the opportunity to assess the conservation listing of manta rays for the IUCN Shark Specialist Group. Even though I loved mantas, I knew very little about them. As I tried to put together basic information on them, I realized there wasn’t much available, and the species was largely unstudied. This was so intriguing that I decided I would take on the challenge of researching them myself. Ultimately, I had to list manta rays as Data Deficient on the IUCN Red List, but this really inspired me to learn more about their basic biology and ecology, so we could properly protect them in the future.
You can’t help but want to help these charismatic creatures. When you’re in the water with them, they’re very curious and will come and interact with you. When people ask me why I love them so much, the best way to answer would be to show you: you’d understand immediately if you saw them yourself in the ocean. They are truly one of our most iconic marine species.
Why did/do you focus on Mozambique?
I was involved in many exploratory diving expeditions in Mozambique when the country first opened up from its civil war. During this time, I realized what a special location it was for diving. There were so many animals, especially large, threatened ones like whale sharks, whales, sea turtles, dugong and manta rays. Mozambique offered the perfect opportunity to study species that no one really knew anything about, at least not in Africa. Knowing that your efforts can help contribute to the conservation and management of important marine species in an unstudied area gives real meaning to your work, so it was a great location to focus on. I have never regretted this decision and I still live and work along this coastline.
You’re the co-founder of the Marine Megafauna Foundation. How did it come about?
I co-founded the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) with my good friend Dr. Simon J. Pierce. As conservation biologists, we were passionate about megafauna — particularly manta rays and whale sharks — and set up the charity to research these species and other threatened marine giants. It has grown and evolved over time, but it started because we both agreed we wanted to be in the field full-time. We knew that while safeguarding the animals was a priority, so was educating and uplifting local communities who, at the end of the day, need to be the ambassadors for change in their area.
Can you tell us a bit about the foundation’s work today?
MMF’s vision is a world in which marine life and humans thrive together. Ocean giants play a critical role in the keeping the ocean healthy. So, if we look after megafauna, we’re also protecting the wider ecosystem and other marine life.
Since we founded MMF, our scientists have used pioneering research to educate local and global communities and inspire lasting conservation solutions. Our head office is in Tofo Beach, Mozambique, but we also have projects in many parts of the world. We’ve spearheaded some and others are collaborations with other NGOs. To achieve our vision, we must inspire people far and wide to take action. We are so grateful for our global support and for our many partners. To do this work takes a village and we are always looking for additional support and collaborators.
Divers are often eager to help when it comes to conservation. Can you tell us about the citizen science program that allows them to contribute?
It’s actually really easy for citizen-scientists to make a genuine impact on current scientific research. In our line of work, it’s as simple as uploading photos from your dive. Whale sharks and manta rays both have unique markings, like a fingerprint. On each have a unique spot pattern on their undersides. Anyone who swims with one of these gentle giants can help researchers identify and track individual animals by taking a photo and submitting it to WhaleShark.org and Manta Matcher, the global databases for these animals, along with a few details from their dive.
These websites, and others like it, represent a new trend to collect citizen-fueled data and open-source sightings records for research groups around the world. In our case, we can count how many whale sharks and manta rays divers see in a region. We find out where they travel and how long they live. All this information can be critical to protecting them.
Since you began your work, what progress have you seen?
When I started working with manta rays, there was almost no formal research on these animals and very little was understood about their lives. While there’s still a lot we don’t know, we have made tremendous progress. I am proud to have been a part of a lot of groundbreaking research that has allowed us to study mantas more effectively. These include the development of non-invasive technology to collect DNA samples or algorithms that we use in photo-recognition software to track populations. I was so proud that only eight years after I was forced to list manta rays as data deficient on the IUCN Red List, we were able to upgrade their status to vulnerable to extinction after amassing enough information to show they were a vulnerable species globally.
This meant that eventually, the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), two of the most important global-conservation treaties, listed manta rays. Many countries have also begun to protect their manta populations and develop management plans. Don’t get me wrong, there’s much more to be done to safeguard mantas globally — but we are well on our way.
What are the biggest setbacks you’ve faced with MMF?
The last 15 years have been quite a rollercoaster ride. While helping pioneer manta research was a great opportunity, working with an understudied species comes with many challenges. Our projects are largely in the developing world, which can be frustrating when things don’t move ahead as quickly as we would like. Many large manta-ray populations we’ve found have been in very logistically challenging locations, making it difficult and sometimes dangerous to conduct fieldwork.
Funding can also be a major stumbling block, slowing down or impeding our progress. Even for a good cause, it’s harder than people imagine raising the funds we need to keep our projects running. Satellite tags, for example, can be very pricey, and they only last a few months before they fall off the animal.
Any final thoughts on the future of marine megafauna and ocean conservation in general?
My hope is that we can live in a world one day where both marine life and humans thrive together. I dream of our oceans being respected, restored and used responsibly, and I hope in some small way to help motivate this paradigm shift. I strive to protect and preserve keystone marine habitats from negative human impacts and safeguard our ocean heritage before it’s too late. We have the tools; we have the knowledge. If we can find the will, we can tackle this challenge head-on and win.