As close encounters with nature go, it takes some beating. A distressed manta ray, three metres in wingspan, approaches a lone diver. Fishing line binds its mouth and gills, cutting like a ligature. The stricken ray allows the diver to remove the line before it wheels away and disappears into the blue. Two days later, at the same spot, the diver is back, this time with a group, and all are watching manta rays feeding in a gyring whirl. Suddenly, one of the rays breaks away and swims towards them, before it circles repeatedly above the diver’s head. It suddenly becomes clear that it is the very same injured manta ray.
With memories such as these, is it any wonder that marine biologist and University alumnus Guy Stevens has devoted his career to researching, studying and helping to conserve these iconic creatures?!
“There’s a tendency to anthropomorphise these things but there was no doubt that that manta ray sought me out for help,” says Guy, Founder and Chief Executive of the global charity The Manta Trust, recalling their meeting in the Indian Ocean several years ago. “That in itself is quite remarkable. But for the same animal to pick me out from a group of divers was amazing. How did it know and what was it trying to say?”
Such questions have been a feature of Guy’s work ever since he first encountered the creatures in 2003 when, having graduated from his Plymouth degree, he landed the extraordinary job of marine biologist at the Four Seasons in the Maldives. Working aboard the luxury vessel Explorer, Guy was responsible for leading snorkelling and dive trips, as well as presenting to guests on the local marine ecology.
Guy says: “I started to see manta rays on a daily basis, and I was struck by how charismatic they were. They are beautiful and graceful in the way they move through the water, and when you look into their eyes, you get a real sense that they are pondering what you are. That is backed up by their behaviour, which is curious, social, more like a dolphin or seal. In fact, to describe them as a fish is to do them an injustice!”
What surprised Guy from the outset was just how little was known about the behaviours and habits of the rays, and so he began to conduct research on the population in the Maldives. Within two years, he founded the Maldivian Manta Ray Project, the first full-time study of manta rays in the territory, working closely with the government, local communities and business stakeholders to raise awareness and introduce protective measures. The project has now documented more than 40,000 sightings of more than 4,500 mantas, making the Maldivian manta ray population the most intensely studied anywhere on the planet.