Ray of Hope

This expedition at San Benedicto Island, off the western coast of Mexico,
was part of a global giant oceanic manta ray project.
The sound was deafening. It was the first time I had heard an explosion of any kind underwater. The sound reverberated in my chest, and I could feel my heart beating in my ears. But the noise that the bomb made was nothing compared with the scene that awaited my team. After we identified where the explosion had occurred and watched the likely culprits and their boats fading off into the distance, we slipped back into the water to find utter devastation.

Thousands of fish littered the reef like leaves on a windy fall day. They were all belly-up, lifeless. The blast had burst their air bladders, so these fish had not floated to the surface as the fishers had hoped and were not able to be collected. They were left to rot on the seabed. A few sea snakes had already moved in to feast on the fish carcasses but would soon have their fill. The rest of the bodies would decay, leaving a graveyard where only a few hours before a healthy reef swarmed with life. It was my first experience of bomb fishing.

I was a mess when I reached the surface, fighting back hot tears of rage. I wanted to go after the boats, but they had vanished over the horizon. Then reality hit me: Were my clients OK? What were they going to think about this?

One by one they surfaced. The mood was somber. The others had never seen anything like this either. As the expedition leader, I tried to think of a way to break the awkward silence and cheer them up. They had signed up to travel with me to one of the most beautiful and picturesque regions of the world: the Mergui Archipelago in southern Myanmar. They had come to see manta rays, not death and destruction.
I could only imagine their disappointment.

Then one of my guests uttered the strangest reaction: "Thank you for bringing me here to see that." It was a simple statement, albeit confusing. I put my hand on her shoulder and asked, "Are you sure you are OK?" She nodded and replied, "Sure. It is not nice, but it is reality, and it is important to see it firsthand."

Later that evening, as we dined on the top deck of our wooden expedition boat underneath a million blinking stars, we chatted about our sobering experience. I explained how bomb fishing worked and why poor artisanal fishers in developing countries are turning to this destructive practice as the world's oceans become more and more depleted of edible fish. The problem was clear to the group: "Doesn't this kind of fishing only make the situation worse?" "Of course it does," I said, "but these people are living for today, not for tomorrow."

I was amazed at how the experience had affected each of them. This profoundly sad moment had ignited my clients' inner conservationists. It would come to represent the most important experience of their expedition, despite all the other wonderful things we would go on to see. They had experienced for the first time the complex war that is raging in our oceans. It was a brutal wake-up call.

With authentic expeditions you never know what you will encounter along the way. That is the single most treasured aspect of fieldwork and travel. I love not knowing what the day will bring, and I like to share that sense of adventure with my guests. My clients have helped me to disentangle mantas draped with lines and ropes and to cut away and remove ghost nets strewn across coral reefs. They have documented unsustainable harvesting of sharks and rays at local fishing camps and cared for turtles that have been struck by boats in front of us — pretty grim stuff.

Participants encountered this feeding whale shark off the Yucatán Peninsula.

We have also seen some of the most spectacular natural phenomena in the marine world: the graceful ballet of the manta ray courtship dance, whale sharks feeding through plankton soup so thick you can lose a 65-foot fish in it, humpbacks sleeping in the shallows with their calves and jellyfish blooms so big they seem never-ending. That is the beauty of a genuine adventure versus manufactured or controlled holiday vacations. You get what you get, nothing is guaranteed, and you learn and experience something real no matter what.

When I started Ray of Hope Expeditions, I had no idea if the concept would be well-received. I had recently cofounded a nonprofit organization called the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF), which focuses on the conservation of large, iconic and threatened marine species such as endangered whale sharks, manta rays, dugongs and critically endangered guitarfish. The foundation's mission is to save our ocean giants from extinction and create a world where marine life and humans thrive together.

As an executive and board member, I have a lot on my plate as it is. I am also the director for MMF's global manta ray program, meaning that I travel six to eight months of the year to our various field study sites, where I supervise numerous students and conduct my research. I was short on time, short on people and impossibly short on funding.

Field research is outrageously expensive. Even more costly is marine research. Most of the places where we work are remote and have challenging conditions, so expenses pile up. Our single biggest cost was chartering the boats needed to reach the remote field-study sites.

An Ecuadorian expedition spanned six seasons of studying the world’s
largest population of manta rays.
It did not take long to put two and two together: Instead of turning away all the people who wanted to come out and dive with my team, what if we could offer them the opportunity to come with us on an expedition? I have been diving since I was 11 years old, and I know there are countless divers with an insatiable appetite to travel and experience something new. There are also increasing numbers of people who want to travel for a purpose. Travelers are looking for more than cookie-cutter, hotel-based holidays and want to learn, give back and be engaged. The only question was whether enough people would take us up on the offer.

Our participants have since followed us from Indonesia to Mexico. They have helped us work in remote areas of Mozambique, helped fund months of seasonal research off the coast of Ecuador and allowed us to travel to the remote Andaman Sea to look for new manta ray aggregation sites.

On expedition, they help my small research teams execute our work more efficiently. Having more eyes and cameras underwater helps us conduct more megafauna transects, identify more individual animals and take more samples from our focal species. In addition to helping us pay for private charter vessels for our expeditions, they often help us fund or raise funds for the scientific equipment needed for the trip, be it new drones or satellite tags.

Most important, their enthusiasm lifts the spirits of my team. Our work is not always easy. Days are long, and conditions can be challenging. The nature of our work (fisheries work, for instance) can be quite depressing. Nothing beats having a cheerleading squad encouraging you along the way, celebrating your victories and holding your hand when you fail.

I have been so grateful that our participants get it. They understand that the scheduled itinerary might change at any stage during our navigation, that sometimes the animals are nowhere to be found and that even with the best technologies out there we are sometimes unable to answer the questions we came to address. They embrace the experience, and they are behind me every step of the way.

Last year, despite our best efforts, we failed to deploy the satellite tags we brought to put on giant oceanic manta rays off Myanmar. Even though my guests were disappointed, they knew it paled in comparison to the disappointment I felt. They kept cheering me on until the end, even when all hope was lost, and in the last 10 minutes of the final dive, in a location not known for manta ray sightings, I managed to get a tag on. The guests went wild, and we celebrated into the night like a team, because that is what we are. As it turns out, it takes a village to be a successful conservationist.
Explore More
Watch Andrea Marshall swim with manta rays in this video.

© Alert Diver — Q1 2020