By Kalina Grabb
After completing my dive master in Komodo National Park two years ago, I have been itching for a reason to return to Indonesia and dive in these beautiful waters again. Recently completing my undergrad in earth science and oceanography, I was hoping to find an opportunity to dive and learn tangibly what I can do as a marine scientist to make a difference in this world and protect our oceans. Needless to say, I think I have found it: I recently joined the Marine Megafauna Foundation SE Asia as a volunteer at their base in Nusa Lembongan, Bali. For so many reasons, this volunteer position has put a lot into perspective – the necessity for marine conservation, the process of portraying science to the public, and the ability to make a difference with outreach and education.
My first month volunteering with the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) can only properly be described as manta mania! It has been a manta immersion in all ways – diving, studying photos, collecting data, learning, educating, talking and even dreaming about mantas – and it has been nothing but amazing. On one of my first days in the water, mantas were surface feeding around us. They circled around us mouths wide open and cephalic fins rounded, and scooped below us engulfing as many zooplankton as possible.
For her PhD, Elitza Germanov (Ellie) is studying the effects of microplastics on filter-feeding mantas. I have been lucky enough to be able to help her collect some of her data and conduct field surveys. I am interested in attending graduate school and collecting field data, and so it is incredibly useful for me to see how Ellie has set up her project and learn what it takes to complete field research.
Every week, we head out on research trips spending 4-5 hours in Manta Bay to log photographic data on the mantas and do net trawls to determine the concentration of plastic within the waters where the mantas are feeding. We also visually count the pieces of plastic as we trawl for 10 minutes – while this sounds like a mundane task, it is incredible how much the plastic can vary. Some days we only count 5 to 10 pieces, while on others we have seen over 400 pieces! That’s a lot of plastic – imagine a blanket of plastic with a little bit of ocean splashed in.
Through all this field work, I have also learned the important (and difficult) task of designing experiments and collecting HARD science data than can then effectively be used to make conclusions from the study. We have stressed the importance of having photographic proof for anything observed and we are currently reorganizing our databases to ensure all data collected provides the information needed to make scientific conclusions and observations. This tedious work consists of long hours behind the computer, crunching numbers, analyzing photos, and organizing data sheets. While it can seem like a daunting task when there are over 3,000 manta ray encounters to process, I realize how important it is to accurately record data. Coming from an academic science background, this has been an invaluable learning experience on how to convert real life observations into data that the scientific world will respect and listen to!
In addition to everything I am learning, working with MMF in Nusa Lembongan has personally been a very inspiring experience. The team I work with has the passion and tenacity to complete anything they put their heart to (the mantas are lucky they won them over!) and there is constantly an empowering sense of energy towards each other, our work and personal happiness. Additionally, the community within Nusa Lembongan supports MMF in many ways, including through the Lembongan Marine Association – which consists of six dive shops that support our weekly talks and give us the opportunity to dive with them – and the Lembongan Surf Team – which we have partnered with to conduct trash clean ups and spread the word about marine conservation. I feel as if I have been welcomed into a big family, with even bigger shoes to fill from the previous people that have put their time and energy into the mantas. I feel the support, respect and understanding that MMF has gained with their time on this island, and the education that has spread throughout the community to improve each individuals’ actions to live more sustainably and protect their marine environment.
As a MMF volunteer, I try to embody this experience, spread the love, passion and care that I feel for our marine environment and continue to make a better world for our ocean creatures. I am so thankful and honored to have an opportunity to be a part of the MMF SE Asia team and work alongside some of my biggest role models. Here’s to more manta mania!