Monday, December 15, 2014

Indonesia, where manta rays thrive and die

Manta ray landed in Tanjung Luar

I decided in almost the last minute to go. Indonesia was one of my dream locations to dive with manta rays for a long time. I had about 10 days to prepare, but I was committed to make it a successful trip. It finally exceeded all my expectations.
Getting there was already the first test of someone`s dedication: it took 40 hours of traveling, 5 flights and a car ride to get to my destination in Lombok, to an isolated village on a small island.
Arriving at Bali

The purpose of the first part of my trip was to visit a fishing camp that was famous for landing Manta and Mobula rays, while the second part was to make observations on wild manta rays in their natural habitat on another island.
I was very lucky to find out just a short time before my arrival that a Hungarian guide, Denes, will be able to help me on my mission at the fishing camp. Tanjung Luar has a reputation that conservation workers are not welcomed due to their efforts to shut down the shark and ray fishery, which would have a negative influence on the income options of local people. My goal was to make contact with local fishermen to find out how we can help them to change their options on shark and ray trade, since this activity was to become illegal from 15th of September, 2014. Manta ray fishing was already illegal in Indonesia. Unfortunately, the reality is that legal protection is not always enough. If people do not have the choice to survive, only by doing illegal fishing activity, it is very hard to implement the law. The recently started Manta Memories project works toward establishing alternative income options to those people who now rely on manta ray fishing and trade because they don’t have other options. The goal is to help them creating an asset based community development project. Talking to villagers and fishermen in order to involve them in decisions, what income possibilities would be easiest to switch to seemed like the next necessary step to do.

My local guide, Denes, his friend and me left our accommodation around 3:30am next morning to arrive at the fishing camp in time to observe the fishermen returning back with their catch. The road conditions at this location were terrible, so relatively short distances took very long time to traverse at 10 mph around rocks and mud. 

We arrived at Tanjung Luar at 5am. Half-frozen dead fish all over on the dirty, muddy ground, catches piled up from the previous days and friendly villagers offering their products. We located the area where sharks and rays were butchered; they already had a couple of smaller sharks from previous days to offer for sale. We spotted a couple of squatting fishermen warming up by the bonfire of trash, just before the sun was coming up. We joined them by the fire to engage in friendly conversation. They told us about their fishing habits, and how they struggle for their livelihood by depending on manta ray catches. One of their first questions was whether we knew another job for them. I felt that my purpose to be there was completely justified by this question. They did not know yet, but they gave sufficient information that will help us develop and asset based community development for alternative income. Fishing boats of all sizes started to swarm into the small harbor that was full of floating trash. People gathered by the shore and started landing many sharks.
Sharks landed at Tanjung Luar

I was there to find out whether they are still catching manta rays, even in spite of the legal protection, but as time passed and landing continued the scene became increasingly disturbing. Suddenly a huge, flat fin appeared on the deck of a larger boat. This must have been a manta ray. They cut up the large body on the boat so it was easier to pull the parts to shore, piece by piece. My heart was bleeding, but I could not show emotions in these circumstances. My heart was equally bleeding for seeing the magnificent, huge manta rays cut up into pieces and to experience the circumstances in which the villagers fight for their livelihood for. While trying to sort out my thoughts and focus on documenting these scenes a huge white blanket appeared in the water on the other side of the harbor.   The information collected was to help us to start the Manta Memories project in this village.

Two kids were trying to pull a giant manta ray ashore while playfully jumping on and off of it. Only six adult men were able to bring it on land, even after cutting the huge animal into multiple pieces. The magnificent animal was now for sale on the market. The fishermen knew that what they were doing was illegal but this is their only option to support their families. It was a very intense and sad day, but also important as lots of information was collected with the invaluable assistance of Denes and his friend.

Before leaving the island I had to visit the famous Mount Rinjani and Tiu Kelep waterfall, which was more beautiful than any other waterfall I have ever seen before. Swimming under the gigantic waterfall, and entering the cave behind it made me forget for a little while the tragic scenes observed not long ago on the other side of the island.

After spending the night in Senggigi due to ferry problems, I soon arrived at Nusa Lembongan. I was hosted by the Blue Corner Dive Center, where beautiful little bungalows sit on the beach, there’s an infinity pool and a great dive center. Here I finally met Steve Woods, one of the best underwater photographers I know, who regularly documents the local manta ray population and generously provided some of his great photos for my TEDx Talk I gave recently about my research.  I have spent the next week diving, searching for manta rays to observe their social behavior, communication and coloration changes, which I recently discovered on captive animals.

Presenting about my manta ray research at the Blue Corner Dive center

Finally among live manta rays

My first dive in Indonesia brought luck, but not with a manta ray that we hoped for, instead we were met with a thresher shark swimming up close to us from the deep dark. I was thrilled and could not wait to get into the water as many times as possible. Finally we spotted a few manta rays feeding close to the surface by the rocky coastline. Some days the swell is too big to dive close to these rocks, but that day was just not too rough that we could still get into the water. 
More and more manta rays showed up, feeding on the dense plankton cloud. The strong swell pushed us back and forth, many meters away so we did not even have to swim much to cover large areas. We just had to be careful not to hit any rocks while being pushed around by the swell and focusing on documenting the manta rays` behavior. We had several dives with them during the next couple of days and I was lucky to meet some great divers and instructors during these days who worked for the Blue Corner Dive Center.
Before leaving Indonesia I had a few hours in Bali to catch up with Sarah Lewis from Manta Trust, who will help us to organize the next steps for the Manta Memories project in Lombok. This trip provided a lot of crucial information that will benefit both Indonesian manta ray populations and fishing communities.
Please, support the MantaMemories project so we can change the lives of manta rays and fishing communities!