Conservationist showcase: Jess Haines, The Manta Trust

November 27, 2021

This month, I’m excited to introduce Jessica Haines who is Project Manager for the Maldivian Manta Ray Project of The Manta Trust.

What does the Manta Trust do?

The Manta Trust was founded in 2011 to co-ordinate global mobulid research and conservation efforts. Our team is comprised of a diverse group of researchers, scientists, conservationists, educators and media experts who work together to share and promote knowledge and expertise. Our mission is to conserve mobulid rays, their relatives and their habitats through a combination of research, education and collaboration.

Why do you care about the ocean?

I am a young scientist, having graduated from the University of Exeter in 2016. However, in my time enjoying the ocean as a tourist before this, and in the recent years as a conservationist, I have witnessed much change and damage caused by humans. Swimming among reefs that once were full of life and hearing stories about how the marine life ‘used to be’ makes me sad. It makes me sad that my children and my grandchildren may grow up in a world where they don’t get to experience the underwater world as I have had the privilege of doing.

Submerging myself underwater feels like entering another world. We don’t yet fully understand this new world but we are doing untold damage. I care because I want change for the better. I want the oceans to thrive like they used to. As Robert Swan once said: “The greatest danger to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it”.

What inspired you to work in the conservation sector?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of being a marine biologist. When I was eight years old my family took me on vacation to the Maldives. I snorkelled, took my first breath underwater, saw dolphins for the first time and completely fell in love with the underwater world. I left that holiday adamant that one day I was going to work with ocean animals.

As I grew up, my passion grew also. I began to learn more and more about what the underwater world has to offer and how humans are impacting it. Growing up in a small village in Oxfordshire, England, I had to get my ocean fix during family holidays. But because I was so fascinated with marine life, I used every chance I could to tailor my high school classes towards marine focused projects.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Every day is completely different. I think that’s what I love most about my work. I’ve been with Manta Trust for three years now working on manta ray conservation and research in the Maldives. I’ve never once felt like I’d rather be somewhere else!

On some days, I’m out in the field all day, immersing myself in the ocean and getting lost in this wildlife world. In the field, our primary method of data collection is to freedive under the bellies of manta rays to capture photographic IDs of their unique spot pattern. I love the fact that, in one single breath, we can capture an image that tells us so much about the populations of these enigmatic creatures. Once we reach land, it’s time to process the data we’ve collected. This is where the real fun begins because we get to identify which manta rays we’ve encountered. This gives us a glimpse of their behaviours and migration patterns. As a researcher, I love learning more about the animal I’m studying.

On other days, I spend my time on outreach and education: whether that’s planning and organising events to raise awareness or running education programs at local schools. I’ve always had a passion for teaching and I believe raising awareness and sharing our knowledge is vital to achieving our conservation goals.

How did you get into conservation?

Whilst studying Zoology at the University of Exeter, I began to learn more about working in marine conservation. This this ignited my passion for the ocean even further. From university-led research trips to summer holiday volunteering opportunities, I began building up my resumé with as much underwater experience as I could.

After graduating in 2016, I ventured to the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. There, I became a diving instructor and worked as a marine educator and research assistant for the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI). It was here that I gained experience in various research data collection methods. I also expanded my teaching skills, learning first-hand how much education can make a difference.

In 2017, I moved to the Maldives as a resort marine biologist and diving instructor. It was here that I first encountered a manta ray underwater. Oh, how I fell in love that day! I had never before encountered something so breathtaking. This, in turn, led me to Manta Trust. A few Google searches and email exchanges led to me setting myself up as a voluntary data contributor in the Maldives for the Manta Trust’s IDtheManta programme. These gentle giants were so mesmerising that I couldn’t help but to learn more. I used to scour the Manta Trust web pages for hours. I read everything I could about them: their biology, their life history and, shockingly to me, the threats they face from targeted fishing and bycatch.

From that point onwards, I knew I wanted to work on the conservation of these animals and do my part to create a sustainable future for them and their relatives in our oceans. I got the opportunity to work with the Manta Trust as a project manager for the Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP) in 2018. Since then, I have continued to develop as a conservationist and scientist, expanding my knowledge and skillsets. My ever-increasing love for these animals pushes me to really try to make a difference in my lifetime for all the inhabitants of the ocean.

What’s your favourite marine creature and why?

Of course – first and foremost my favourite marine animal is the manta ray. However, I do hold a place in my heart for all marine creatures. I’ve been working in manta ray conservation for the past three years and have never once tired of seeing these magnificent animals. Each and every encounter is unique, charming and completely memorable. I believe manta rays are one of the most interesting and rewarding animals to study.

What’s the weirdest or most surprising fact you can share about the ocean?

Manta rays can eject their intestines outside of their bodies. You can imagine my surprise when I witnessed this for the first time! I truly thought I’d hit the jackpot. A female manta ray swam closely over bubbles at a cleaning station and suddenly ejected what looked like a huge sack from her pelvic region. Video rolling, I thought ‘wow! I’m going to record the first manta birth in the wild’. Then she sucked it back inside again. Then she everted this sack-like thing in and out several times, leaving me utterly baffled.

Once back above the surface I did my research and found I had witnessed something called “gastro-intestinal eversion”. This is where manta rays eject the lower part of their intestine out of their cloaca to clean it and expel any undigestible material and parasites from their intestines. So, no jackpot for me. But still a fascinating and rare phenomenon to see!

Do you think communications is an important part of your conservation work?

Communication is key to all that we do. It’s important for us to gather data and feed this into our wider research. This helps us all learn from each other. It’s crucial that we teach people about manta rays and the threats they face. We must also communicate how we can all change one small thing to make the oceans a safe space for them. And it’s imperative for us to teach young people about the beauty of our oceans and the importance of having a healthy and diverse marine ecosystem.

What communications challenges do you face at your organisation?

As ever with communication, it’s about reach. We can spread our message to those who are willing to listen and are open to change. But we must go further than that. We must also listen to and work with those who depend on the ocean for their livelihoods. If we can help these people see the ocean and its marine megafauna as being more valuable alive than dead, they can pursue careers and sustainable livelihoods in marine science and eco-tourism.

What are your hopes for the future of the ocean?

In an ideal world, I’d like to see the ocean thriving again; for nature to claim back what has been taken. Just because we don’t all see what’s under the waves doesn’t mean that negative impacts haven’t been devastating. Sometimes, I swim among reefs that have been bleached of life and see a vast expanse of what sometimes feels like a graveyard. I want to see these reefs being reinvigorated. I want to see marine life being enjoyed by humans, not exploited and stripped of its precious resources.

The underwater world is a peaceful, yet vibrant place and there is so much to be enjoyed simply by observing passively. In my lifetime, I would love to see species removed from the IUCN Red List: not because they’ve become extinct but because populations have recovered enough to no longer be at risk of extinction.

What’s the one thing you wish people knew about protecting the ocean?

More than anything I want people to know that what they do counts. It’s very easy to have the mindset that individual small changes won’t make a difference but the truth is they do. Every little helps. We need everyone in the world making changes, no matter how small, to help protect not just the ocean but our natural environment.

What tips do you have for someone who wants to work in the conservation sector?

My top tip is to get the right kind of experience even if you don’t feel it’s 100% the specific role you aspire to. A career mentor once told me that experience speaks volumes no matter what it is. This experience counts whether its admin-related or scuba diving-related. Even if it is not directly relevant to marine conservation or research, it all helps build your profile and showcases the skills you have to offer. I’d never thought I’d become a dive instructor. But if I hadn’t done that at the start of my career, I wouldn’t be where I am today!

What unanswered question do you still have about the ocean?

Manta rays are mysterious creatures and so far, our data collection is limited to depths at which we can free-dive and scuba. Yet there is a whole side of manta rays’ existence we are still yet to discover, and so excited to learn about as time goes on. Where do they go? Where do they give birth? How do they communicate? Many unanswered questions, but with the right research and supporting funds to make that research possible we are gathering the right data to build up a better picture and a better understanding of this enigmatic species. I am currently undertaking a Master(s) by Research degree with the University of Exeter, delving deeper into juvenile manta ray ecology, to help us better understand the first years of a reef manta ray’s life.

Anything you’d like to add?

The Manta Trust is a charity, so we rely totally on donations to carry out all our research. I’d be happy to hear from anyone who’d like to support us either via donations, match funding or networking opportunities. To discuss further opportunities please email us at info@mantatrust.org.

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