The Seven Seas News - January 2014
Komodo: An Ocean Gem
Trip Report by Andrea Marshall, Photos by Andrea Marshall & David George
I have been waiting to visit the Komodo National Park all of my life. Much to my surprise and delight, my first impression was how incredibly beautiful the terrestrial scenery was. I had not quite been prepared for this, although it might have had to do with the fact we were visiting the park during the rainy season (something most boats in the area do not offer). Everywhere I looked jagged cliffs saturated in the most unnatural shades of bright green stretched out before me. Komodo was also filled with more animals than I expected. Small deer, monkeys, eagles, and wild pig seemed to freely patrol the local beaches. Everything about the islands seemed surreal, a feeling that was no doubt intensified by the striking mode of transport. The Seven Seas is a gorgeous traditional Indonesian schooner and the vessel gave the expedition an old world feel, despite having all of the creature comforts you could hope for in a place as remote as this. I instantly felt a million miles away from the bustling world I had just left behind, like I had been transported back in time.
I had come all this way (not that I had to have my arm twisted or anything) to film with the well respected marine cinematographer Tom Campbell and the production crew for Ocean Gems, a children's education series that targets young girls and aims to inspire and mentor them to become ocean conservationists. It is a project I strongly believe in, having been desperate for role models when I was growing up. Tom is also an old friend and I have traveled to so many wonderful destinations with him over the years. He merely had to mention the project and Komodo in the same sentence and I was onboard. But I had also come to see my favorite animal, the manta ray, and collect ID photos that I could contribute to 'Manta Matcher', the global online database for mantas that I started with another non-profit called WildMe a few years ago.
I specialize in manta rays and have been conducting research on both species of Manta globally with my own organization, the Marine Megafauna Foundation, for the last 12 years. While both Tom and I have worked and filmed extensively in Indonesia before, it would be our first experience in Komodo and I, for one, was eager to get on the water and see for myself what all the fuss was about. Komodo National Park is famed for its good diving, particularly its healthy corals, fish biodiversity and its incredible array of invertebrate life. It is also an area known for great encounters with manta rays. In fact, some of the first studies on the reef manta ray were conducted in the park, offering researchers some of the first insights into this mysterious animal's behaviours in the wild.
My rising anticipation was quelled almost immediately. On only day two we located a massive feeding aggregation of manta rays in the center of the park in an area known as 'Karang Makassar'. Normally a popular cleaning area for these gentle giants, large groups of rays had come together at the surface to feed in long coordinated chains. We watched as the mantas swam slowly against the current, their giant mouths wide-open scooping up large quantities of their favorite zooplankton. Dozens and dozens of mantas skimmed the surface waters as far as the eye could see and we spent the next two days jumping in and out of our small tenders taking photos and videos of the incredible feeding event. It actual fact it was one of the biggest feeding events I have ever seen. So good, that in a 48-hour period we managed to wrap up our entire wish list for the expedition. Tom got incredible footage of the feeding action and me at work in the field and I managed to compile 63 ID photos of different individuals.
Manta rays each have unique patterns on their underside that make them easy to visually identify. These patterns represent permanent markings, the manta equivalent of a fingerprint! Getting a good ID shot takes skill and it also takes tolerant mantas. So to put our fortune in context, over a two-day period I managed to break my own personal record for manta IDs on a liveaboard expedition…by a landslide. I was stunned and impressed. This was an amazing area for manta rays!
Simple ID photos can offer so much information about these elusive animals. Photography is actually the single most important tools in our research on these animals and I have photo databases of manta rays all over the world. One of the primary reasons I helped to create 'Manta Matcher' in the first place was to help me process the rising number of photos. As luck would have it, two days after the expedition finished I managed to match one of the manta rays I saw to a photo some of my collaborating researchers at the Aquatic Alliance took of the same individual in Bali! 'Manta Matcher' had struck again!
This incredible result is not only one of the largest movements of this species on record, but also evidence how wide spread their home ranges really are and how fast they can swim from one location to the next. Results like these reinforce why we need to learn more about these amazing animals and why we must think of creative ways to protect migratory species like mantas, which from time to time leave the protection of marine protected areas like Komodo and are forced to navigate through treacherous and heavily fished waters on the way to their next destination.
All in all this was a spectacular first impression of this region and it lived up to all of my expectations. Hopefully our time in Komodo will ultimately showcase, through engaging media and our research findings, the importance of these iconic rays and their need for increased protection and management. It is not often that I find such an 'ocean gem' on expedition and I can say with certainty that it will not be long until I return to this magical place!
» Click here to see what our guests had to say about this trip.