Andrea Marshall – Queen of the Mantas

As published in Dive Magazine here.

Doctor Andrea Marshall, is Founder of the Marine Megafauna Foundation, a National Geographic ‘Emerging Explorer’, star of acclaimed BBC documentary ‘Andrea – Queen of the Mantas’, and in 2008, discovered a new giant species of manta ray.

She talked to Kevin Keith from the Manta and Whale Shark Research Centre, in Tofu, Mozambique about life, loves and leading the global battle for the protection of marine megafauna.

Giant mantas cannot stop, motion a necessity to breathe: do you ever stop?

Part of my problem is because I am so passionate I want to be in my office. Once you are educated to the level were you can help, if you don’t help, you feel you are actively not solving the problem. Why should I sit around and watch some television show or lounge around on the beach drinking a beer, when I could be doing more? It is that desire to fix problems, to change the world that keeps me going.

Giant mantas can only go forward: what drives you forward?

Where I grew in California up many people’s goal was just to survive: to get a job; to raise a family. I felt I should be able to live my dream: to wake up one day and want to go to my work; to not want to retire; to work until I die. Now it is the biggest sense of pride to wake up in the morning [stretches feigning injury] and say: ‘I am sore but I want to go to my job, I get to go to my job, I love my job!’ I love getting up everyday.

When diving becomes part of the day job does it become routine?

Recently in the Galapagos I saw an Orca underwater for the first time – a transient male feeding. I was crying into my mask: no one had seen orcas in this area and it was not a planned. It just came out of the blue, looked into my face, and then just swam off. To be moved by nature like that. To know that there are still surprises in the ocean, that you have not seen it all, that at any given moment you can be surprised and touched by nature – revives you as a biologist. This is why I am doing what I do.

What does the dive community make of your work?

I am not a researcher who became a diver – I was certified on my 12th birthday. You see some scientists treat scuba divers as different instead of embracing them and figuring out how to get them on board, but because I was both, a scientist and before that a diver, I feel like I have been able to get the diving community on my side.

How does the dive community help your work?

Sometimes by simply liking your project, but other times in more important ways with regards to citizen science, Manta Matcher and all of the expeditions that we do: public support is so fundamental. Nobody cares about scientists, people care about the masses, and when the masses get behind you, you have so much power.

What is Manta Matcher?

A lot of people talk about why was taxonomy of mantas was so hard before, and I am like, do you not realise how hard it was to be a scientist about 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 200 years ago? No one talked to one another: there was no communication across the planet; people only could work in one tiny little environment. This is a global effort now. Different manta scientists are coming together from around the world putting data sets together. We are using technology to put stuff online so the public can get involved via citizen science. It is awesome stuff.

Scientist, diver, semi-professional underwater photographer: how does the latter help your work?

As an only child I was desperate to explain to my parents [my mother can hardly swim] from a very young age about my passion. I wanted my parent’s approval and photography was the way for me to come home and say ‘look what I saw; this is why I love what I love.’ These skills have since helped me communicate, to build what we have now – Ray of Hope is a very visual campaign as people are visual now. A lot of other researchers often say to me they wish they had underwater photography skills.

Giant mantas can have a wing span of 8 metres; does your work require equally broad shoulders?

I try to pick people for my team who I think have a future in this business as leaders, who I think have got what it takes to eventually one day share the load. I especially try and focus a lot on women as they are still the minority out there. When I started the Ray of Hope campaign as I saw mantas as this force that could do things for ray conservation that other rays were not capable of; a symbol for ray conservation. So much rests on its shoulders and it is our job to support this, to communicate this, to keep momentum and always go forward.

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