I strongly believe that you shouldn’t be in your field of work unless you love what you do (of course, this is a privilege and I understand this is not an option for everyone). Not everyone is going to know exactly what it is they are passionate about right away. I definitely was not one of those people. While completing my Bachelor’s in General Biology, I had a variety of different summer jobs. I started as a cell biology research assistant in the basement of Sunnybrook Hospital, pipetting and washing test tubes every hour of every day. Next was writing grants for a small charity, Toronto Foundation for Student Success, that focused on student education and well-being. I then found myself as an educator at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada. This mostly involved me yelling at people to stop splashing water, to not grab animals or take them out of their tanks. People would pick up sharks by their tails and take them out of the water. YES, I said sharks. Ok, I will move on because I could write an entire blog post about some of the insane things I have seen people do at the aquarium, and it is already beginning to stress me out. Finally, I had the amazing opportunity to be a student intern for an NGO called Conservation International at their office in Singapore, where I was introduced to the elasmobranch world of sharks, skates and rays. This job introduced me to the species I work with now, which is the reef manta ray.
Manta rays are in the family Mobulidae, and there are two species, the reef (Mobula alfredi) and oceanic (Mobula birostris) manta ray. The reef manta can grow up to 5 meters wide, and the oceanic manta can grow as large as 7 meters wide. They are gentle giants, as they have no stinger and they feed on microscopic plankton. During my internship at Conservation International, I travelled to Bali to scuba dive at a dive site called Manta Point, and a reef manta ray circled me for about 10 minutes. That moment in my life made every other moment completely irrelevant. I know I will experience amazing milestones in my life, like buying my first house, getting married, having a child, etc … but for now, that was hands down the coolest thing I have ever experienced.
Unfortunately, the reef manta ray is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, in part due to targeted hunting to harvest their gill plates to supply demand in southern China (where the gill plates are believed to have medicinal value). Although these predictable aggregations put manta rays at risk of overfishing, they also provide reliable snorkel and dive sites for marine eco-tourism industries. Eco-tourism has the potential to be an effective economic replacement to hunting mantas for their gills. Ultimately, I want to show that manta rays are worth more alive than dead. I decided to focus my project in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, because there is an understudied population of manta rays in the area. My project focuses on satellite tagging reef manta rays in Papua New Guinea, so I can find out what areas around Milne Bay they visit frequently to help promote ecotourism and inform conservation management. As manta rays are being overfished, it is important to protect populations in areas before the gill plate trade expands and they are put at risk. A perfect outcome of this project would be to have several community-based marine protected areas set up around these newly discovered manta aggregations to help conserve this species, but also to promote areas for local tourism operators to take their guests diving and snorkelling. This will obviously be a lot of work, and any scientist or conservationist reading this would tell me that projects never go exactly as planned, so I will keep this in mind while completing my project.
To date, nine SPLASH10 archival satellite tags have been deployed in Milne Bay. All data is just starting to be analyzed, which means I have a fun couple of months ahead of me sitting on my computer and drinking way too much coffee. I am hoping to travel back to Milne Bay at the end of this year, to explore the sites identified by satellite tags, and also to tag more manta rays. I am also hoping to talk more with local communities about manta conservation and protected areas.
I thought I would just use this post to give you an overview of what I do, as well as show people that it can take many years until you discover something you are passionate about. If you have the opportunity, don’t just settle for the first thing that interests you. Try out different jobs and experiences so you can compare them to one another, and don’t be afraid to step into something that is out of your comfort zone.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you stay for future blog posts
– Shannon Murphy