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As such graceful and charismatic marine animals, it is no surprise that diving and snorkeling with manta rays is on the bucket list of many dive enthusiasts and wildlife tourists across the globe. Interacting with these beautiful and intriguing rays in the wild is an experience of a lifetime, but many may not realise the potential impact that tourism can have on the mantas themselves, and the essential role management plays in ensuring these activities are sustainable.

Photo1 Credit Andrea Marshall

© Andrea Marshall

Manta ray tourism has a significant number of positive impacts. From an individual standpoint, these experiences invoke a connection with mantas as a species, as well as with the marine environment. They also inspire people to contribute to conservation efforts and protect what they love.

From a wider standpoint, tourism is by far a more sustainable alternative to consumptive activities such as fishing, which can devastate populations of long-lived and slow growing megafauna in a matter of years. Tourism also provides socio-economic benefits to local communities and national economies and can present alternative livelihood opportunities for local fisherman and traders.

Manta ray tourism is already a large industry, one that continues to grow in over 23 countries around the world. In 2013, a global study estimated that manta ray focused tourism generates an income of US$140 million (including associated tourism expenses) annually. In Mozambique alone, MMF scientists estimated that manta-focused tourism generates US$10.9 million per year in direct revenue to dive operators (read our recent study here). Demonstrating the economic worth of these industries can be an effective way of helping to gain regional and national protection for these animals and their associated habitat in tourism hotspots.

© Steph Venables

© Steph Venables

However...

Poorly managed tourism activities can have a substantial impact on the animals they focus on, in this case – manta rays. Over-crowding, bad behaviour such as touching, chasing or riding (yes, it does happen), excessive boat traffic, and damage to critical reef habitats are all threats that come hand-in-hand with this type of tourism.

Photo3

The tricky thing is that these impacts tend to be cumulative, rather than catastrophic. Isolated 'one-off' occurrences may seem harmless, for example a diver chasing a manta away from a cleaning station once doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? But what if that same manta is chased away by the next dive group, and then the next, resulting in multiple incidents over the course of a day. Repeated disturbances like this have the potential to have longer-term implications on the mantas’ natural behaviour and routines, which can be detrimental to their health.

So how do we find a balance between the positive and the negative? The good news is that it isn’t rocket science. Mitigating the potentially negative impacts of tourism can be achieved with simple management strategies that adopt a long-term and sustainable outlook towards the activity.

Manta Sandy – a tourism management example from West Papua, Indonesia

Over the course of the past decade, Raja Ampat has become increasingly popular as a marine tourism destination and is now widely known amongst the global dive community. As visitor numbers steadily increase, so has concern from local dive operators, scientists and management, specifically for one of the most popular dive sites, known as ‘Manta Sandy’.

Manta Sandy is a cleaning station used regularly by the local population of reef manta rays, where small reef-dwelling fish pick off parasites, clean wounds and infections on the body surface of visiting manta rays. Mantas are also commonly seen feeding on zooplankton in the surrounding waters. Manta Sandy is one of the most reliable sites to encounter manta rays in the Dampier Strait and as a result it was common to see up to 7 or 8 boats and 30+ divers on the site at any one time. Of even greater concern was a notable decrease in manta sightings.

This sparked the development of Tim Pokja Manta, a working group made up of a range of stakeholders including local community and government representatives, tourism operators including resorts, homestays and live-aboards, NGOs (Conservation International, Raja Ampat SEA Centre, MMF and Indonesian Manta Project) and UPTD-BLUD, the management body responsible for the management of the Raja Ampat Marine Protected Area (MPA) network.

In 2016-2017 the team held a series of meetings and workshops and worked together to develop a solution that is designed to decrease the pressure on the mantas, whilst improving the experience for divers. This solution is the Manta Sandy Monitoring Post.

Photo4 Credit Arno Brival

© Arno Brival

The Monitoring Post itself was constructed on a nearby sandbank overlooking the dive site. It is manned daily by Kader Manta (Manta Cadre), a team of dedicated local rangers from surrounding communities who are trained to implement the regulations at the dive site, check marine park entry tags, provide information to visitors and monitor manta numbers and tourist interactions.

Photo5 Credit Rob Perryman

© Rob Perryman

Regulations at the dive site include a restriction on boat and diver/snorkeler numbers – a maximum of 20 divers or 4 dive boats (whichever is reached first) has been set for any one time. A no-boat zone exists above and around the cleaning station, mooring areas for waiting boats and speed limits set for the surrounding waters. A standard operating procedure has been developed for tour operators visiting the site, along with a code of conduct for divers and snorkelers to ensure minimal disturbance during underwater encounters.

Photo6 SOP_2

Standard operating procedure

After a trial period in July of this year, the system is officially up and running for its first full manta season. The team is already reporting regular manta sightings and successful regulation of diver and boat numbers. Manta Sandy will act as a pioneer dive site management project and if successful the system will be replicated for other heavily trafficked dive sites in the area.

Congratulations to the Pokja Manta and Kader Manta teams and all involved for achieving this goal and working towards sustainable manta tourism in Raja Ampat. Watch this space for updates on the Manta Sandy Monitoring Post and how the management system is progressing!

Want to find out more?

Check out the Raja Ampat SEA Centre website and this blog post on the Bird’s Head Seascape website.