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I AM WATER in Ecuador

(Date: 30 September 2014)

This September the I Am Water Foundation team headed on the road to Puerto Lopez, Ecuador in the name of our Last Wilderness film and media project.  We were proud to team up with the Marine Megafuana Foundation at MMF’s Ecuador research sites for a unique week diving among giant manta rays. Unlike the more common reef manta, giant mantas can reach 7 meters wingtip to wingtip! These creatures travel massive distances around the ocean and many questions are still being answered about their daily habits. No one in the IAW team had dove with these special animals so we were eager to hop on the plane and into the water at the largest congregation site yet discovered in the world.

Marine MegaFauna Foundation Founder and Chief Scientist Andrea Marshall was the first person to recognize giant mantas (Manta birostros) as a brand-new species of rare ray.  Since 2009, she has been leading a team of researchers in Ecuador to identify, study and track these gentle giants.  Each ray has a personally unique belly markings, similar to a fingerprint, that if matched can help researchers measure migrations, reproduction rates, feeding behavior and human interactions.  As a part of their world-class outreach efforts MMF hosts diving groups in the research season to meet these gentle giants  and understand what it’s like to work in the field.  This rare chance to capture beautiful images and build our understanding of one of the giants of our wild oceans was perfect for the Last Wilderness project.


Mantas are the youngest new species in an ancient family including sharks.  There are no vegetarian sharks; similarly mantas also eat tiny animals called zooplankton.  Mantas also share the same cartilaginous skeleton with no true bones in their whole body.  Go ahead and squeeze the end of your nose and your earlobes if you’re a tactile learner who wants to know what squeezing mantas is like!  Now no squeezing mantas in real life!  These rays use their massive wing rays to fly like birds through the ocean currents filtering food from the water as they glide.  Giant oceanic mantas are highly social boasting the largest brain of any fish which Dr. Marshall believes contributes to the unique interactive experiences rays seek out with divers in Puerto Lopez.

I Am Water Founder and CEO Hanli Prinsloo, COO Peter Marshall, Director of Education Megan Cook and a collection of foundation friends and board members arrived eager to explore this corner of the underwater world on one breath. Although many of these generous individuals have been crucial to I Am Water’s expansion this last year, several had never been through a freediving training let alone an in-depth ocean experience. 

 

We began every morning with yoga in the poolside cabana stretching our bodies to be agile and athletic in the water and expanding our minds to find stillness and power in each breath.  Stiff bodies from long hours of travel shortly gave way to limber bodies breathing larger breaths than ever before.  We were so proud of our students who all passed the 2:00 breathhold within days of arriving! 

 

Our diving each day centered on Isla de la Plata, an hour’s boat ride offshore within Machalilla National Park.  This island used to provide refuge for pirates in storms but is now the protected home of the world’s largest population of oceanic mantas.  Over 1600 individual animals have been identified in five years of fieldwork.  For several months of the year Dr. Andrea and her team dive daily with tornadoes of mantas all around.  The island stands off the central coast of Ecuador where two strong currents collide (Humboldt current and Equatorial countercurrent).  The result is called upwelling where nutrient rich water rushes to the surface supercharging the food chain from the bottom up.  These kind of productive waters draw in giant mantas and many of their friends like mola mola sunfish, humpback whales and huge schools of fish.  The team was giddy for our first moments in the water!  The mantas proved all week to have a different agenda.  Although we searched and searched, thinking our best manta thoughts they were nowhere to be found.  The water was beautifully clean and warm, the opposite of what we expected to find in upwelled water.  Camera operators joked that for the first time in their careers they might actually be disappointed with clear, warm, blue water.


Toasty warm temps however are perfect for enjoying an introduction to freediving.  Gaining confidence foot by foot, our students took to free immersion training on the line.  The shallow bays of Isla de la Plata were perfect for perfecting the relaxation, duck diving, and equalization techniques needed to enjoy freediving with large animals.  Schools of fish cruising along the coral reefs and sand flats greeted divers each time they neared the seafloor.  We spent our lunch breaks swimming in the bay just offshore of ranger headquarters with the friendliest green sea turtles the team had ever encountered.  Between the severe fishing pressure on large predators and the allure of fruit carelessly discarded by tour operators, the turtles had massive incentive and no detraction from approaching boats and snorkelers eye to eye.  By day three we were wary to go gloveless for fear a massive green sea turtle may misjudge your fingers for a sliver of tasty pineapple rind.  While we awaited the mantas return, friendly turtles delighted the photography team with their unflappable confidence swimming right to, or into camera domes. 


Our home for the week was the small fishing village of Puerto Lopez.  This village is a major hub for longline fisheries of tuna and mahi mahi in Ecuador.  In 2012 there were 525,068 tons of tuna caught in the Eastern Pacific; Ecuador collected the highest catches, accounting for 41% of the total.  This fishery exports the majority of its catch to the United States and Canada via fishing agents leaving the fishing community itself quite poor.  Each morning in walking from the hotel to meet our boat at the pier we passed among fisherman landing catch on the sand.  Longline fishing has one of the highest rates of any method for catching non-target animals like sharks, rays and turtles.  The shock of seeing juvenile sharks in market each morning further emphasizes the complex needs of effective conservation.  Global efforts to secure the future of our ocean’s top predators must include local solutions to incentivize protection for the animals.  Ecotourism is growing in Puerto Lopez led by researchers like Dr. Marshall and championed by the local government.  A future where financial security is founded in celebrating ocean life rather than harvesting it could be a game-changer for Puerto Lopez and communities like it worldwide.

The culture of Ecuador places enormous pride in the presence of magnificent ocean giants right on the doorstep of these fishing communities.  The label of “Poor man’s Galapagos” slapped hastily on the region has done little for moral among the residents, but there is truly much to celebrate in conservation of manta rays from this small nation.  In 2013, Ecuador led the charge to secure oceanic mantas as the first ray placed on the Convention for Migratory Species.  This CITES designation is the first step to global protection.  Despite overwhelming skepticism that a small nation could influence an entrenched international delegation, Ecuador pushed the initiative forward to the vote with 80% pass.  Far beyond the 2/3 majority necessary for adoption, the vote was a turning point in the conservation of mantas creating trade restrictions worldwide eliminating the lawful trade in harvested animal parts.  The nation is hungry for news about their manta population and Dr. Marshall sees this species becoming a point of pride not only for Puerto Lopez but for an entire nation. 


As the week progressed we started to feel the water temperature cool and the vibrant nutrient rich upwelling return.  Janneman Conradie, MMF’s Director of Conservation summed it up best saying “You can feel the ocean is alive today!” after only moments with his face underwater.  Schools of yellowtail tuna began circling our freedivers at the surface and the research divers were treated to surprise visits from sunfish, barracuda and a very surprised baby humpback whale.  Looking up from depth our cameraman felt the sun go out over her head as she peered up at the belly of a huge whale shark.  Hanli, Peter and our freedive team basked in the warm shallow waters with this large male out for an afternoon swim around Isla de la Plata.  These gentle giants, the largest fish in the ocean, eat the same plankton as mantas.  Surely it was a sign the mantas would appear any moment.  We waited.


The mantas of Puerto Lopez live in a complex region where protection means not only eliminating targeted attacks on them but also creating a safe ocean for them to migrate through.  The Ecuadorian oceanic mantas have the highest incidence of human-caused scarring from entanglement with fishing lines and traps.  When the first manta of the trip approached diver Megan Cook it was actually the fishing line she saw first. 

“From the haze green of the deep water below me I saw an abnormally bright white streak that caught my eye.  As the shape moved closer, I realized I was looking at a chunk of PVC piping dangling from a longline frame.  As I followed the streak forward I startled myself to see it wrapped around the wings of an enormous manta ray.  Familiar only with their smaller cousins in Hawaii, this manta seemed massive to me – easily 3 meters across his wingtips!  It was only later as the MMF team giggled at me did I realize in Ecuador I had just met a tiny teenage male, dwarfed by large females who may be nearly 3 times larger.  As the entangled ray glided into our group, the MMF team sprang to seemless action.  A diver slipped underneath him to snap the characterizing ID photo just as Dr. Marshall swooped in from above with a pair of shears.  Two quick snips freed this ray from more than 20 meters of tangled twine, piping and monofilament fishing line.  The scarring along the front of this ray told the story of his entanglement over weeks or possibly months.  The taxing pressure of dragging around that net and the risk of entanglement if he entered shallow water were surely life threatening for a young adult ray.  The moment was so special to see a ray freed from the damage humans had caused him and free to return to an open ocean life unencumbered.” 

“It is Ecuador’s intention to take the conservation of this iconic species very seriously.” said Marshall. “Ecuadorians feel a cultural pride and responsibility to these animals and will protect them as well as they can in the future.  This country has done more than any other regarding manta conservation to date.  This is the right place to be if you want to be part of something very exciting- conservation wise for this animal!”


We were thrilled to be able to support Marine Megafauna Foundation in their research and momentum in Ecuador.  Further collaborations are in the works looking at exciting ways we could help the community of Puerto Lopez feel more connected to their oceans and special ocean animals through freediving.  It would be our dream to share these special waters with the same kids who call them home.  To learn more about Marine Megafauna Foundation’s work in Ecuador check out: http://www.marinemegafauna.org

Photographer: Peter Marshall

Image of Hanli & Andrea Courtesy of Andrea Marshall

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