I love sharing the stories of women who make a difference and most of us do in one way or another. I am sharing my interview with the fascinating Andrea who really can claim to be Queen of the Mantas. I hope you too will find a love for the Manta after reading her powerful story.
Please tell us a little about your childhood and teenage years
The legendary Sylvia Earle was a huge inspiration for me growing up and I’ve been interested in diving before I an even remember. My mom tells me that I always said I wanted to dive and learn about sharks since I was about 5 years old. I never wavered in my passion for the underwater world and was steadfast that this was something I wanted to do.
I learned to dive very young and became PADI certified in Monterey, California, aged 12 – but only because they wouldn’t let me qualify any earlier. I was actually really annoyed that I had to wait until I was 12 before I could become a diver.
What did you study and why?
Growing up, I was obsessed with sharks and I always knew this was what I wanted to study. I studied biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, (UCSB) and got my Masters at the University of Queensland, Australia, before moving straight to Africa to do my PhD work aged 23. I was thinking about studying great white sharks which is why I’d been drawn to Australia and Africa – those are destinations where there were a lot of great whites. When I was in South Africa, I suddenly realised that you mainly study white sharks from the surface or from the boat and I didn’t want my research to be so disconnected from them. I wanted to be immersed in the water with my subject and I wasn’t satisfied with having to research species from the surface.
I had the opportunity to do some assessments on manta rays for the IUCN. Like pretty much every diver, I loved manta rays. But, I didn’t know anything about them so I tried to do some research on them and I found there was very little information out there. It was so intriguing to me that one of the largest animals in the ocean was unstudied. Ultimately, I had to list manta rays as Data Deficient on the IUCN Redlist.
What led you to going to Mozambique and why did you stay?
I was asked to do some exploratory diving in Mozambique and I was a part of a lot of those expeditions. As we started to explore the coastline for diving, I was absolutely blown away. I recognised it as a really special location. There were manta rays everywhere. As I seemed to have stumbled upon this amazing location for manta rays and no-one had studied them before, I decided I should take on the challenge of studying them. I’m so glad this opportunity fell into my lap because it really did alter the course of my life. The more I dived with these amazing creatures, the more I realised how wonderful they are and it has led to me becoming a global ambassador for manta rays and fighting for their protection across the world.
Why do you care about manta rays?
Since I’ve had the opportunity to study manta rays, I’ve fallen in love with this enchanting species. They’re just so different to other fish and are really curious around divers: they’ll come up to you and interact with you which is really special. If you were able to join me on a dive with manta rays and see for yourself, you’d understand why I’m so passionate about them in an instant!
Tell us about the bigger picture in how your work helps to protect the rest of the ocean ecosystem
Marine megafauna – or “ocean giants” – are vital to the delicate balance of the marine ecosystem and also serve as a good indicator as to the health of the ocean. If there’s something wrong with the population of the apex predator in a marine environment, the other species in the ecosystem will suffer too. So, when we protect ocean giants, we also achieve an umbrella protection for a wide variety of marine species.
Take, for example, a simple marine ecosystem where the shark is the apex predator, feeding on grouper which feed on herbivores which, in turn, eat algae. When there are fewer sharks to regulate the number of grouper, the grouper population will grow and, because a larger population of fish needs more food, will decimate the number of herbivores. With fewer herbivores, the algae will grow and take over the coral, putting the ecosystem out of balance and causing problems for its survival.
What is your greatest achievement?
The highlight of my career would have to be when I was featured in the BBC’s Andrea: Queen of Mantas in 2009. I was excited on the first night when over 2.8 million people tuning in to watch my story about mantas because I felt there were so many people who knew nothing about mantas before that evening who stopped to watch, listen and learn. I was contacted by hundreds of people the night the show aired and it was such a fantastic feeling to know I had reached the public and inspired people to learn about the fascinating manta ray and what can be done to protect them.
If you had to choose to give up diving or give up photography, what would you do?
Wow, that’s a hard question! Almost an impossible one. My camera really has become an extension of my arm. I rarely go underwater without it. Being able to capture image based data and develop media to create awareness about the animals we work on has defined my career. I am not sure how I would carry on without this tool. Having said that, the underwater world is my life. It goes beyond just passion, it is the only place where I really feel at home. Anytime I am injured, landlocked or unable to dive, I really suffer. It is where I recharge and where I find balance. It is unfathomable to imagine not regularly being underwater for work or for play, so yes I would certainly give up photography before I gave up diving.
What are your hopes for the future?
My hope for the future is that I can help safeguard mantas globally and try to protect some of their most important habitats from negative human impact. Through my science and photography, and the work of my team at the Marine Megafauna Foundation, I’m hoping to share my love for mantas and inspire people around the world to fall in love with these wonderful creatures. If people could experience the underwater world, they would not only appreciate our oceans so much more but also understand why it’s so important that we protect them.
Who supports you with your work?
I’m a co-founder of the marine conservation NGO Marine Megafauna Foundation where I have a talented team across the globe supporting me with my work. MMF’s vision is a world in which marine life and humans thrive together and we aspire to attain it by saving threatened marine life.
I am also a National Geographic Explorer and I am certainly proud to represent and work with this society as an explorer and conservationist. They provide an excellent platform allowing me to disseminate my work broadly and connect the public with our focal species.
Ultimately I am fortunate to have an explorer family. My husband Janneman Conradie is a conservationist, pilot and cameraman who travels the world with me along with our two year old daughter. There is certainly no substitute for having the support and shared passion of your family.
Are there any websites you’d like to recommend to our readers?
Manta Matcher is a great website for Citizen Scientists. If you’ve been scuba diving, snorkelling or swimming with manta rays, you can upload your photos to Manta Matcher to help scientists identify individual mantas and learn more about their behaviour.
The Gills Club is the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s education initiative which harnesses girls’ passion for sharks by giving them the opportunity to engage in projects focused on making an impact on the way sharks are perceived by the public and inspiring ocean conservation.
Sharks4Kids is a great education tool which aims to create a new generation of shark advocates through games, activities, info sheets and lessons that teachers can integrate into their science programmes.
For more information about Andrea and mantas, please visit: http://www.queenofmantas.com/