Is Manta Ray Snorkelling Ethical?

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A Bali visit isn’t complete without a day trip to Nusa Lembongan. Its famous snorkeling and diving scene makes it a hit with tourists and locals alike. Hearing that manta ray sightings were practically as common as seeing a pigeon in London, we decided to grab our goggles and check it out for ourselves.

Excitement at seeing a manta ray quickly evaporated when we arrived.

What happens during the snorkel trip?

Diving into the water we soon heard shouts of ‘manta, manta!’ from our guide, who encouraged us to swim after the creature in what felt like a cat-and-mouse chase. Ten or more people to one manta. Beforehand, we were told not to touch the manta but there’s no doubt that people were still getting way too close – anything for that perfect Instagram photo.

Needless to say, we felt pretty uncomfortable and stopped swimming after them altogether (not that Ellie had the stamina to even if she wanted to).

Back on the boat, we had a chance to take a look at the scenery, and we made sure to take off our rose-tinted goggles this time. We saw litter on the ocean’s surface, and boats spewing exhausts the number of which rivaling those you’d see at a Full Moon party.

Our first-hand experience was enough to tell us that this part of the itinerary was far from ethical. Sara, having a personal interest in this kind of issue (as well as an insatiable curiosity) researched the subject further.

Why is it unethical to snorkel with manta rays?

Littered water aside, there are other questionable things that led to some unimpressed eyebrow raising on our part. The first is that Manta Point is a cleaning site for manta rays. Basically, the rays visit these areas to have small fish remove the parasite from their skin – it’s not that different from our daily face moisturizing routine. Because this routine is well known, it means their whereabouts can be easily anticipated, so they’re left no alternative but to share this space with humans who are ogling after them. We wouldn’t appreciate it if people swarmed to our bathroom while we cleansed our faces first thing in the morning.

What’s happening to the manta ray?

Globally, populations are declining. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has deemed mantas as ‘vulnerable’ to extinction.

Fishing activities pose a big threat to mantas worldwide. Whether or not the manta population in Indonesia is declining is one for marine biologists to decide, and that’s difficult because of the lack of local studies on the topic. One thing is certain though – if the manta population is declining in Indonesia then they’ll struggle to bounce back. Why? Well, because they’re not the most fertile of creatures.

What can we do?

So, we can agree that this type of snorkel package isn’t ethical but whether or not it contributes to the population decline is still uncertain. Like Luwak Coffee farmers, we know some people’s livelihoods depend on this type of tourism, so it can’t be easily scrapped.

Studies have shown that manta tourism could be more lucrative for locals than manta fishing. Studies also found that well-managed tourism models can tick both boxes: provide stable income and support aquatic fauna conservation. The key word here being well-managed.

Pressures for safeguarding measures to be put in place is definitely an option. The number of boats travelling at a certain time can be regulated, as can the distance between tourist and manta.

Eco tours will hopefully start to take off soon, and if that’s the case, then tourists like us should choose this type of package instead. Yes, it may be a bit more expensive, but it’s hardly money wasted when it makes a difference.

Sunset at Komodo National Park

Until that happens, shop around for the eco-tours. We’re sure they exist, even if they are small in number or a bit more difficult to find. If that’s not an option, then try elsewhere. Manta rays aren’t just spotted in Nusa Lembongan. In our experience, Komodo National Park makes for a quieter snorkeling spot. You also have higher chances of seeing the mantas and having them all to yourself.

Find a place where ethical tours are offered. It that’s still not possible, give the snorkel trips a miss altogether. We think it’s better to do these things ethically or not at all. We’d rather miss out on something than leave with with knowledge that a creature’s welfare was compromised.

References:

White, W. T., Giles, J., Dharmadi, & Potter, I. C. (2006). Data on the bycatch fishery and reproductive biology of mobulid rays (Myliobatiformes) in Indonesia. Fisheries Research, 82(1), 65–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fishres.2006.08.008
O’Malley, M. P., Lee-Brooks, K., & Medd, H. B. (2013). The Global Economic Impact of Manta Ray Watching Tourism. PLOS ONE, 8(5), e65051. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0065051
Graham, R. T., Witt, M. J., Castellanos, D. W., Remolina, F., Maxwell, S., Godley, B. J., & Hawkes, L. A. (2012). Satellite Tracking of Manta Rays Highlights Challenges to Their Conservation. PLOS ONE, 7(5), e36834. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0036834

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