Manta Trust in Makunudhoo: exploring undocumented manta populations with community

Photo: Jasmine Corbett

One of the world’s leading manta ray research organisations,  Manta Trust, has been collecting data on the Maldivian population of manta rays since 2006. The Manta Trust’s work has been pivotal in identifying the largest manta aggregation hotspot in the world in Hanifaru Bay, Baa atoll. Their work across the nation has identified migration of mantas between atolls, resident populations of mantas based on different locations, and critical habitats for manta ray feeding or mating.

The Manta Trust team is currently in H. Dh. Makunudhoo to learn more about their previously undocumented manta population. Makunudhoo, based in the second northern-most atoll in the country, became an area of interest for the Manta Trust after community members and fishers shared their manta sightings with the team during an exploratory trip of Maldives north.

Following an invite to return, the team started a pilot project in March 2022, to conduct their first surveys in Makunudhoo, and have now returned for a research expedition fromDecember 2022-March 2023.

Photo: Jasmine Corbett

The Maldives Business Review spoke with Jasmine Corbett and Tiana Wu of the Manta Trust to learn more about their current work.

What is the Manta Trust project in H. Dh. Makunudhoo?
Our team is collecting baseline data on a previously undocumented manta ray population here. By gaining valuable local knowledge from the island’s community and fishers, we are better understanding the marine environment here and its inhabitants.

What is the research being done, and what are the preliminary findings?
We are collecting non-invasive photo identification data of the manta rays, to better understand the population numbers and movements, alongside deploying remote underwater cameras, to continue to collect photographic data when the team are not in the water.

We initially expected to see a huge number of individuals from Baa atoll, with the assumption that they migrate to this
region during Iruvai. However, we were pleasantly surprised to also find many new individuals. We are currently also collecting size data on the individuals here, to understand the maturity ratio within this population, and we have started to record and study sites of interest such as cleaning stations in the area, based on the local knowledge that has been shared with us.

Photo: Jasmine Corbett

Why is studying this manta population important?
Due to the remote location of Makunudhoo, it is relatively undeveloped and has very little impact from tourism and industrialisation. So, the manta ray population here is relatively undisturbed, therefore, the findings here could serve as a useful tool for conservation management, when compared to other areas impacted highly by tourism and development.

Haa Dhaalu has low tourism pressure, and Makunudhoo is especially isolated. How has this affected the manta population of the atoll?
Since we don’t have previous data from this region, we cannot determine yet how the low tourism pressure has influenced the manta population here, however from what we can see so far the current status is positive, as the population here is healthy. We can see that the manta rays here are not as used to human presence, as manta populations in more developed atolls, and they are noticeably shy, yet curious at the same time.

Photo: Jasmine Corbett

What is the engagement from the community?
We have been so lucky to have such a positive and supportive relationship with the Makunudhoo community, who are incredibly hospitable and engaged in our work. They have kindly shared vast amounts of crucial local knowledge that is essential for our research. We started a marine education programme in the local school, in which the school and students were motivated and eager to hear and learn more about their surrounding waters.

We also engage with the women’s development committee on the island, and have together hosted snorkelling opportunities for women on the island; it was incredibly rewarding to witness some of the women who had never snorkelled discover the underwater
world. We look forward to developing further outreach programmes with the community.

What are the opportunities for locals from the islands to join in on Manta Trust research during your expedition?
We are hosting bi-weekly workshops in the island youth center, which provides an opportunity for us to share our research findings and goals, and gain feedback from the community members to ensure that our work has a positive impact on the island. We have also thoroughly enjoyed welcoming community members onto the research boat to experience our work with us first-hand and have been able to experience some wonderful manta encounters together. We hope to build upon these experiences and create extensive internship opportunities for community members who are interested in developing fundamental research and conservation skills.

Photo: Jasmine Corbett

Are there any longer-term plans for developing manta tourism in the area?
The Manta Trust does not actively develop any tourism plans, as our key focus is research and education, however, we are working alongside the island council and community to develop sustainable tourism guidelines best suited for Makunudhoo and its inhabitants.

What is the current expedition team?
The team is made up of a passionate group of five manta ray researchers, science communicators, and educators from the Manta Trust. All three of the Maldivian staff and interns on the current expedition are from this atoll, so the work is close to their hearts.

What are the highlights from the trip from the team members?
‘The people of Makunudhoo are incredibly welcoming and supportive of our work. It has been a privilege to spend time in an area that is so pristine.’ said Fauz Fath-thee, research and outreach intern.

Yaniu Mohamed, Makunudhoo education and outreach manager, said ‘It has been great to see community members learn more about manta rays and their marine environment. Students, community leaders, women, fishers and various stakeholders are eager to understand the beautiful ocean they have around them.’

Anything else of interest?

Our first officially identified manta ray was submitted by a community member, Nazeedh Mohamed, before the pilot project began. We are so delighted that there is an interest in the work we do, and that the community here are interested in submitting data to us.

Aside from manta rays, we have had the pleasure of witnessing unique and rare species, and locals have reported occasional sightings of large whales rarely recorded elsewhere in the Maldives, so we are excited to further our data
collection here!

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