Bethany Augliere and a manta ray swimming off the coast of Florida. Photo credit: Nicodemo Ientile
What inspired you to go into this field?
I think like many biologists, as a little kid I was fascinated by nature and curious to learn as much as I could. When it came time to choose my major for college at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, I never considered anything other than wildlife science. Since then, I’ve spent time working with nesting leatherback sea turtles in the Virgin Islands and researching black bears. Later, I did my master’s work at Florida Atlantic University with Denise Herzing, research director of the Wild Dolphin Project, and studied the movement patterns and habitat use of Atlantic spotted dolphins in the Bahamas. I’m still involved with the project to assist in the field and collaborate with research, as well as with photography and outreach. I love science — exploring and asking questions.
Now, as a science communicator and conservation photographer, my goal is to inspire that curiosity of the natural world in others, and also to share the stories about the people studying these animals and ecosystems, and the threats they face. Ultimately, I hope that my work leads people to care about our planet and to positive action.
How did you get involved with the Florida Manta Project?
I collaborate with a lot of different scientists and researchers to document their work. Because of my background in science, I have a lot of scientist friends. So, I actually went to graduate school at Florida Atlantic University with the biologist that started the project, Jessica Pate, and we became good friends and have stayed in touch. She started the project last summer while I was in California finishing up a graduate certificate program in Science Communication at UC Santa Cruz. When I came back to Florida, I wanted to not only document her work, but to help contribute to the research. That’s part of my mission as a conservation photographer.
The goal of the project is to answer questions about these young, or immature mantas that cruise the shoreline of the South Florida coast. No one has really studied these animals, so Jessica hopes to answer some basic questions, like how many have fishing line, how many individuals are in the population, and where they are going. There’s so many questions to be answered and it’s just getting started.
Most of the manta rays seen along the shore are young.
What’s your role?
As a photographer, I’m documenting the work as part of a long-term conservation project. But, my role is also to help out however I can while I'm out there. I take photo-identification shots of the mantas for her catalog, document any mantas with fishing line or boat strike scars, and also take working shots of the science and crew. As you’ve seen, I also post a lot on social media to raise awareness of the project and about the mantas themselves.
How long have you been involved?
It’s a new project and this is only the second field season; It’s my first summer being involved.
How many manta rays have you seen?
So far, Jessica has identified 27 individual manta rays between last year and this year. I think I’ve seen about a dozen or so different individuals, but I’ve also seen a couple more than once.
How do you ID the manta rays?
We ID the manta rays by looking at spot patterns on their bellies, overall coloration, and any distinct features like a missing fin tip, or boat scars.
What is your success rate with finding manta rays? Do you find them pretty consistently while out on the water?
Overall, the team has seen mantas on about 60 percent on the surveys this year. I’ve been out and seen zero mantas, and also been out when we’ve seen five. So far, seven is the record for one day, but one or two is pretty average. It just depends really and it’s not easy. The weather can impact our ability to see them, like if it’s rough or cloudy and there’s a lot of glare on the surface.
You've shared on social media some photos and videos of manta rays with hooks & fishing line, how many manta rays have you seen so far like this?
In total, about 35-40 percent of the mantas have some evidence of human impact —such as boat propeller scars and fishing lines and hooks. Out of the dozen or so I’ve personally seen, I’d say at least four of them had some kind of fishing gear.
As often as we can, we try to remove the fishing gear — but it’s difficult. One animal we came across, a manta ray named Stevie Nicks, had 3 hooks with fishing line trailing, and even some lead weights. The animal was moving really slowly and we stayed with her for 20 to 30 minutes while Jessica repeatedly dove to attempt to cut the lines. I filmed the entire process and when Jessica finally popped up with the last bit of fishing gear, it was so rewarding and a huge relief. After that, the manta just took off.
Project manager of Marine Megafauna Foundation's Florida Manta Project swims alongside Steve Nicks before attempting to remove the fishing line.
What has been the most surprising thing you've learned or witnessed so far while working on this project?
I think one of the most surprising experiences I’ve had was witnessing their intelligence. These rays are young and traveling in shallow water, likely to avoid predators, so they are pretty shy when it comes to people and swim just ahead of us. But when I hopped in the water with Ginger, a young female manta ray, to get an identification shot, she turned belly up and swam beneath me for about five minutes, just checking me out. At times, she came right up to me, just as curious of me as I was of her.
I’ve read studies that have talked about the intelligence of manta rays. They have the biggest brains of any fish, and they’ve passed the mirror test, which so far, I think only great apes and bottlenose dolphins have done. The idea is that the animals recognize that they are glimpsing themselves in the mirror, rather than another individual. Passing the mirror test suggests self-awareness. I’ve spent years swimming alongside wild dolphins and observing their intelligence, and as I swam with Ginger, I couldn’t help but have the same feeling — that someone was behind those eyes.
Even though the encounter was incredible, it was ultimately kind of heartbreaking. I could see a bright fishing lure attached to her face and it was just sad to think that she has to live with that because of humans. It’s a common misconception that hooks rust out, they can be in there a long time depending on the kind of hook.
Ginger, a young female manta ray in Florida with a fishing lure attached to her face.
What can you tell us about the necropsy that was performed on a deceased manta ray that was found by FWC?
That dead manta ray was an incredibly rare opportunity for scientists. As of now, I know that measurements were taken, as well as photographs and it will be used to help characterize the species. I took some macro shots of the teeth, for example. I’m not sure other data have come from that yet, but it’s certainly a valuable specimen.
Jessica Pate, a project manager with the Marine Megafauna Foundation and Sarah Hoffman, a PhD student at Florida Atlantic University studying shark mechanics, sample a dead manta ray found by FWC in Florida.
What advice do you have for people who want to help save manta rays?
There are a couple things people can do to help save manta rays. One — be a responsible and educated consumer, such as knowing what seafood is sustainable or not, and recognizing where your food comes from. Around the world, the manta rays and devil rays are caught as by-catch for more desirable species, especially tuna.
I also think people should try to limit their use of single-use plastics, like plastics bags, straws and cups. We pick up a lot of garbage while out surveying for the mantas, everything from balloons to Styrofoam. Every little bit helps, and reducing your use of plastic has positive benefits for all marine life. In general, I try to just consume less, and when I can, buy used not new.
Lastly, people can donate to support scientific research that works to understand more about these species and how to conserve them. If you are interested in helping, go to http://marinemegafaunafoundation.org/support-us/
Want to learn more about Bethany, or see more of her photography?
Twitter and Instagram: @bethanyaugliere
Facebook: Bethany Augliere Photography