Ocean of Hope

What it’s Like to SCUBA Dive: Part I

manta ray cleaning station
Me and a manta ray at a cleaning station

I have returned from a SCUBA diving trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, and I am inspired to share the joy of diving with those that may never learn to dive. PADI, a leading SCUBA diving organization that certifies divers, has certified over 23 million SCUBA divers. That means (assuming most of the certifications from PADI were in the USA) less than 1% of people in the USA have gone diving.

Here’s a description of what it’s like to suit up on a boat dive and actually enter the water:
(This assumes that the gear is already setup, which also takes time to do and will be a part of a different post)

Gearing up for me starts with a fleece-lined dive skin. This layer helps keep me warm, and it helps the wetsuit slide on more easily. Then it’s the farmer john wetsuit layer (think overalls). After sliding it on, I get help with the Velcro shoulder straps. The shortie part of the wetsuit (it covers the chest, arms, crouch and part of thighs) is next. I put on the booties on my feet under the leg portion of my farmer john wetsuit.

It’s time to defog my mask with defog drops (others use spit, dilute baby shampoo or defog gel). I rub them on the inner windows of my mask, and rinse in water. It’s then time to sit down on the bench in front of my gear. I check that my tank and dive computer are on. I put my flippers on. I strap on my BCD (Buoyancy Compensator Device) on like a backpack, and clip or Velcro several straps to me. I shimmy my way out of my seat and shuffle to the back of the boat. Take a giant stride off the dive platform, signal I’m okay to the boat, and get camera from crew member.

I let all the air out of my BCD and start to descend. I clear my ears frequently (it’s the same as when you pop your ears on an airplane). Near the bottom I add air to my BCD so I don’t hit the bottom, especially if it’s a coral reef. I always marvel at some point during my dive at how I’m breathing underwater. It’s a weird yet exhilarating feeling. I look around at all the fish and coral, and look around frequently for large visitors such as dolphins and tiger sharks that prove quite elusive.

I usually follow a dive guide so I don’t get lost. More experienced divers, especially photographers, go off on their own. I take lots of pictures even though I know they aren’t good. They serve as a reminder of the fish and coral I’ve seen. I check my dive computer frequently to monitor depth and air consumption. By 500 psi I signal to my buddy and dive guide that I need to surface (a thumbs up) and the guide points up to the boat above and waves goodbye. I do a safety stop for 3 minutes at 15 feet. Then I kick up to the boat’s ladder and take off my fins. I give them and my camera to a crew member on the boat. I haul myself out of the water and waddle over to my spot on the bench. Once the tank is in place, it’s time to unstrap myself and share what I saw with my fellow SCUBA divers!

10 Amazing Manta Ray Facts

manta ray facts
Manta Ray Silhouette photo by: Jackie Reid NOAA

10 Amazing Manta Ray Facts

1. There are two species of Manta Rays: The Coastal or Reef Manta Ray (Manta alfredi) and the Oceanic or Giant Manta Ray (Manta birostris).

2. A Manta Ray’s spot pattern on its belly is as unique as a human fingerprint. (There is an international database of Manta Ray belly pictures called Manta Matcher)

3. Manta Rays feed on the smallest denizens of the oceans, the microscopic plankton. (Manta Rays feed by filtering seawater through their gill rakers).

4. Manta Rays may have self recognition, something only higher primates, elephants, dolphins and humans have. See previous blog entry, “Moby the Manta Ray and Self-Recognition”

5. Manta Rays have the largest brain/body ratio of any fish in the ocean.

6. Despite that their prey is so small, Manta Rays can have wingspans up to 23 feet (7 meters) and weigh 2,980 lb (1,350 kg).

7. When courting, a train of up to a dozen males will follow one female.

8. Manta Rays swim constantly and only occasionally stop to be cleaned of parasites at a cleaning station on a coral reef.

9. Manta Rays like to breach (jump high out of the water), but the reason why is still unknown.

And the last manta ray fact is an important one:
10. Manta Rays are at risk from fishing for their gill rakers. (Manta Ray gill rakers are used in a controversial new formula of Traditional Chinese Medicine)

What is CITES, and how does it affect sharks and rays worldwide?

CITES Appendix II listing
Good news for Manta Rays!

March madness came early for ocean conservationists yesterday (9am March 11,2013 local time in Thailand) as the twitterverse was abuzz with the hashtags #CITES #CITES4sharks

So what is CITES, and how does it affect sharks and rays worldwide?

In short, CITES is a treaty between 178 countries to help regulate the worldwide trade in wildlife, much of it endangered. It is especially important for ocean animals, as many of the larger species (like sharks) are migratory and move from various countries’ waters to international waters (the high seas) which are not under the jurisdiction of any country.

The (slightly) longer explanation is that CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (of Wild Fauna and Flora). CITES started in 1975 from a proposal at a 1963 meeting of the International Union (for) Conservation (of) Nature (IUCN). CITES helps to regulate the worldwide trade of over 34,000 plant and animal species.

Right now the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties is meeting in Bangkok, Thailand from March 3rd to March 14, 2013.

What interests the ocean conservationist community is the shark and ray proposals. There are different appendix listings depending on how endangered a species is.

Appendix I lists 1200 species that are threatened with extinction and are affected by worldwide trade, like Asian elephants, tigers, and rhinoceros.

Appendix II lists 21,000 species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but could become so if worldwide trade is not monitored or regulated. Great White Sharks are listed here.

Appendix III lists 170 species that specific countries have asked for CITES’ assistance with (and is not mentioned much as Appendix I and II).

Oceanic whitetip sharks, hammerhead sharks, porbeagle sharks, and manta rays are up for Appendix II listing. It is important because currently trade in those animals is up to individual countries to regulate. An Appendix II listing would show the world that those species (and hopefully sharks in general) are in danger of becoming extinct. Sharks are in danger of becoming extinct almost solely because of the shark fin soup trade. Manta rays are becoming endangered because their gill rakers are used in a controversial new formula used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

What happened was that the proposals for Appendix II listing (oceanic whitetips, hammerheads, porbeagle and manta rays) and Appendix I (sawfish) were voted in! Those animals are not out of hot water yet, as the proposals still need to be ratified on Thursday March 14, 2013. But it is good news overall for those sharks and manta rays!

UPDATE: As of March 14, 2013 all the proposals were ratified so all the shark and manta ray species mentioned are (potentially) regulated worldwide!

Moby the Manta Ray and the Mirror Self-Recognition Test

”manta
Manta Ray investigates itself in a mirror

My earlier posts ended pretty grim because I wanted to share how manta rays are being overfished. But today I just want to share one really cool fact about us manta rays. Did you know that manta rays have the largest brain/body ratio of any fish in the sea? Yup, that includes all other rays, elasmobranchs (sharks and rays), and any other fish you can think of. I’m surprised it took humans so long to figure that out, but it is not like we are the easiest of the marine animals to study.

There is one human, Dr.Csilla Ari, who is running experiments on two of my buddies living at the Atlantis Aquarium in the Bahamas. She recently put a large mirror into the manta rays’ tank to test their ability to recognize themselves. Self-recognition in a mirror has only been shown in very large-brained and “smart” species such as dolphins, higher primates, and elephants. In those experiments a mark is placed on the animals’ forehead, and when the animal sees themselves in the mirror they soon investigate the mark. Animals without self-recognition may charge at the “intruder” or show their normal social behavior towards another animal of the same species.

Unfortunately the mark that the scientists placed on the manta rays did not stay, but maybe in the future I should loan them some of the remoras that are forever stuck to me to use as markers! The two manta rays did spend a lot more time than usual in the area where the mirror was. They also blew bubbles in front of the mirror, which manta rays don’t usually do. They also turned their underbellies towards the mirror. It will be monumental when humans finally figure out how smart we manta rays really are!

Please visit Dr. Ari’s blog for more information on her research.

Why Manta Rays Are Becoming Endangered (Moby the Manta Ray Part 3)

Manta Ray & Traditional Chinese Medicine
Manta Ray (photo by Cherilyn Jose)
It has been brought to my attention that even though I am a very fascinating animal, many humans do not understand why us manta rays need their help to gain protection worldwide. Here are the reasons why:

1. Manta rays are now being targeted by fishermen and killed for their gill rakers, as opposed to being killed by “accidental” by-catch.

2. Gill rakers (the feathery part of my gills that helps me sieve out microscopic food from the seawater around me) are used in a controversial new formula of Traditional Chinese Medicine. That formula is not listed in the classic textbooks.

3. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) reports that the worldwide catch of manta rays has quadrupled in 7 years.

4. As the IUCN (International Union for Conserving Nature) states, we “are easy to target because of (our) large size, slow swimming speed, aggregative behavior, predictable habitat use, and lack of human avoidance.”

5. In short, we are highly migratory due to the seasonal and geographic variability of our food source, plankton. We are not protected in international waters, nor off the waters of many heavily fished countries.

6. One of the most important reasons we are vulnerable to extinction is that female manta rays only give birth to one pup every 2-3 years, and over her lifetime will only produce as many pups (14) as a great white shark does in one year (16).

7. The good news is that manta ray tourism worldwide brings in $100 million in revenue versus $500 per kilogram of gill rakers. We are worth more alive than dead, duh!

You can help me and my fellow manta rays by visiting Manta Ray of Hope and watching their convincing video and by visiting Project Aware to sign a petition or donate money.

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