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New data concluded that there is more than one species of manta ray, and scientists are busy collecting information on their behaviors, markings and populations.

The Georgia Aquarium recently funded an aerial surveying research project on manta rays, a study that took place over a six-week time period.

But why collect this data on manta rays? Timothy J. Mullican, DVM, Vice President of Zoological Operations of the Georgia Aquarium shared with me, “It’s for a basic survey of the population of mantas on the east coast of Florida… Counting the number of mantas seen on a predetermined flight path that is repeated at regular intervals will allow researchers to draw some basic conclusions about the population of mantas present during a specific time of the year. Photographs were taken of each manta because a recently published research paper concluded that the giant manta may not all be one species (the current thought) but may actually be divided into three separate species that are distinguishable by the white markings on their backs. This is important for conservationists because different species may have different habits when it comes to breeding, where they are geographically located, where they give birth and what they eat. We are also interested in whether the mantas are migrating through the area, are part of a permanent population, or maybe some migrate and some are permanent. Publishing this information in a scientific journal will add to the body of knowledge about mantas and will hopefully help other scientists to perform further research the wild populations.”

Although the initial project has since completed, each post-project aerial study is an effort to build on the data of this general manta ray population study. Future projects are still pending, due to funding and State of Florida permits.

So a few weeks ago, I joined pilot Joy Hampp, Project Coordinator with the Marineland Right Whale Project, for a post-project aerial survey of wild manta rays off the coast of St. Augustine, Florida. We flew in the two-person AirCam (affectionately referred to by the team as a Flying Canoe). It was my first time flying in such a unique aircraft – below, a glimpse of our preparations in the hangar and take-off on the grass runway.

Joy and I traveled at about a thousand feet for most of the survey, moving at approximately 60 miles per hour, on a journey that I would liken to a flying motorcycle ride.

After take-off, we flew 15 miles to the shoreline. The flight pattern was as follows: we started at the beach to get to our first line, as we had three pre-determined flight paths of travel, the first being going north on the half-mile line, then south on the mile-and-a-half line, and finally finishing the survey at the two-and-a-half mile point.

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While Joy navigated us over the water on a sunny afternoon, I photographed the manta rays with a Canon 50-D digital camera, 100-400 mm image stabilized lens and polarizing filter.

blog post photoAdditionally, I documented pre-determined parameters on a data-collection chart that was strapped to my thigh.

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We were interested in recording whether the manta rays were swimming solo or in groups (and how many were together at the time) and their specific direction of travel. Waypoints for specific location pinpointing was noted. I attempted to photograph each manta ray and number the memory card end frame in an effort to document their individual markings. Manta rays are massive creatures, as each adult averages a “wing span” of 13 feet and can weigh several hundred (or even thousand!) pounds. Their markings are surprisingly varied in pattern and shade, and their behaviors – from jumping to surface swimming to disappearing to the depths – are no less fascinating.

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The information we compiled on this aerial survey had a random quality about it – there were manta rays swimming alone, or in groups of three to six individuals, near boats or accompanied by fish. As a general report, the highest number of manta rays were spotted within a half-mile from the shoreline. And it seemed that they swam in all different directions, with little rhyme or reason to their path. But the ultimate goal of such a research project is to draw conclusions from multiple observations on a pre-set flight plan, helping to build knowledge on the manta rays living at this particular region during this specific season.

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Normally this survey flight pattern would have ended at St. Augustine Pier, returning over the beach to close the circle back to the hangar. But building thunderstorm clouds to the west and another on the shoreline gave Joy enough concern for us to return home at this point. The total length we spanned on each line was approximately 25 miles before each turn.

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Over the course of our three-hour aerial survey, Joy and I spotted, photographed and collected data on 90 manta rays. Through this type of visual documentation, researchers are hoping to learn more about wild manta ray populations and even answer perhaps the most simple of all questions, “Is there more than one manta ray species living off the coast of Florida?”

Photo Credits: Jodi Kendall