Manta rays are relatively new to the conservation scene. They are not as edgy as their distant cousins the shark, and perhaps not as easy for humans to identify with as whales and dolphins. But they are starting to get their due.
Graceful ocean giants with wing spans reaching 12 to 23 feet, mantas have the appearance of birds soaring through the sea. They feed on plankton which they filter through rows of small plates in their mouths. They have the largest brain to body ratio of all fish and have been known to sometimes allow scuba divers to ride on their backs.
“Manta rays are super intelligent and super aware of you. When they look at you, you can tell the lights are on in there,” says photographer Thomas P. Peschak, who has been photographing mantas for the past decade.
During the southwest monsoon season both mantas and enormous schools of baitfish feed on the microscopic riches upwelled by the trade winds that blow across the Indian Ocean every year.
Peschak’s introduction to manta rays began in 2008 when he accompanied scientist Guy Stevens on a trip to the Maldives, where Stevens was researching reef mantas. The abundance of mantas made this a perfect place to witness their behaviors but also see the potential threats of tourism and overfishing. The fruits of this collaboration were published in the pages of National Geographic magazine, but the story didn’t end there.
Paschak and Stevens next traveled to Sri Lanka, where manta rays are fished for their meat but more importantly, for their gill rakers which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The combined experience of diving with hundreds of manta rays in the Maldives and then seeing the potentially devastating impacts of overfishing cemented the idea of forming an organization dedicated to studying and protecting mantas on a global scale, Peschak says. A need made more pressing by the fact that, at the time, no such organization existed. The pair mapped out the groundwork on the back of a napkin over beers a few years later and the Manta Trust was officially formed in 2011.
Bringing the story full circle, Peschak and Stevens have recently published a book, Manta: Secret Life of Devil Rays, which along with the Manta Trust works to raise awareness of what we have to gain by getting to know these extraordinary creatures.