Descending slowly through the water column, Maya Santangelo checks her camera and underwater housing. In the distance she notices flapping wings propelling towards her. With several thrusts of their pectoral fins, a fever of mobulid rays (manta and devil rays) surrounds Maya and her fellow divers. Outstretching her arms and soaring above one of the rays, she is aware of how small she must appear to these massive creatures. A manta ray’s wingspan can reach disc widths of up to 22-feet across.
For the briefest of moments, Maya and the manta soar through the sea together, just enough time for her to snap a few ID photos of this particular ray. Despite their intimidating size, mobulid rays do not pose a physical threat to humans.
As part of the Rolex Underwater World Scholarship program, Maya has traveled the world to bring about awareness for marine life. Over the course of her year as the Australasian Rolex Scholar, Maya swam alongside endangered great hammerheads in Bimini, Bahamas, stared into the eyes of gray whales in the Sea of Cortez, and observed the curious and social nature of great white sharks in South Australia’s Port Lincoln. However, Maya believes her most impactful experience was the opportunity to assist in the production of a 360-degree virtual reality film about mobula rays in the Azores, with the UK-based charity, Manta Trust.
While mobulid rays do not pose a threat to humans, these large rays are targeted by fisheries to supply the shark fin and gill plate trades. Mobulid rays are targeted for their gill plates, which serve as a purported health tonic in Asia, noted Santangelo. These species have experienced population declines of over 70 percent in some areas, and therefore require global protections to ensure that international trade does not threaten their survival. Additionally, as a species that is incredibly long-lived and slow to mature, producing just one live pup every three to five years, removing tens of thousands annually is unsustainable, and has led to many local extinctions, observed Santangelo.
To address this issue, mobula rays were proposed for protection at the 2016 Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) – a conference of true conservation politics involving members from over 180 nations voting on whether species should be offered protection against international trade.
“The problem was that the individuals that were at this conference in Johannesburg, South Africa to vote on these policies were politicians,” said Santangelo. “They were not divers, or scientists, and probably didn’t even know what a mobula ray was. So how do you get someone to protect something they don’t know about?”
Creating the 360-degree virtual reality film about mobula rays served a very unique conservation goal, said Santangelo.
“By showing these delegates just how spectacular these animals are with virtual reality, rather than just numbers on paper, we showed them why these animals are worth protecting,” said Santangelo. “This experience was an incredible eye opener to the power of visual media in connecting people with the oceans, but also a really unique experience for me to see into the world of conservation politics.”
After Maya completed her year of underwater exploration with Rolex, she began working as an Undersea Specialist with National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions to further inspire the world through expedition travel.
“Working in the expedition industry as a professional diver and science communicator, I use visual media to bring back to the surface underwater life that is otherwise inaccessible and unknown,” said Santangelo. “Additionally, with a background in marine science, I would love to return to the world of marine research with the goal of influencing policy and management for positive changes in our ocean.”
Reflecting on this year’s World Ocean’s Day theme—“Gender and the Ocean”—Maya hopes to inspire future generations of female explorers to explore with purpose and curiosity.
“As a woman in science, I feel increasingly fortunate and grateful to have the opportunities I do to explore remote corners of the planet, something once accessible only to men,” Santangelo said. “As women, we have within our chromosomes the ability to double the knowledge and power to make the world a better place. How cool is that?Let’s be inspired by the women that paved the way doing things as “first women,” but remember now is our time to get out there and do things no matter what! Explore with purpose, but don’t forget to just be wonderfully curious sometimes and marvel at how amazing our world can be.”