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A Ray Of Hope

 
 
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Original research at Tofo on the Mozambique coast gives hope for the future of the Giant Rays as Lindsey Macdonald relates

 

The ghostly figure of a Giant Ray sweeping through the darkness like a stealth bomber of the depths says that this is no place for the casual underwater tourist. Divers do not come here for pretty underwater scenery provided by coral. Most of the dive sites are over 20m deep, rocky wall leading to a sandy base.


The Indian Ocean at Tofo is blessed with teeming underwater life, as it lies at the northernmost habitat for many semi-tropical species and at the southernmost range of tropical species. It also attracts migrants from the temperate zone for the waters rich in plankton - the diet of both the whale shark and the manta ray.

 

 

Tofo beach panoramic


A major scientific discovery has been made by marine researchers based at this Mozambican coastal resort. Dr. Andrea Marshall ,who has been studying manta rays for six years at the only African research station around 200km north of Maputo, has published her pioneering work identifying three seperate species.


As the scientific community is still coming to terms with her findings, divers are enjoying seeing at close quarters some of the world’s most elegant but also most vulnerable sea creatures.


Dr. Marshall is hoping the gobal importance of her work and that of her colleague Dr. Simon Pierce, who is studying the equally vulnerable whale shark, will lead to international protection for all the marine life in the are in the form of a marine reserve.

 

Tofo is blessed with conservation-minded dive schools which publicise the work of the researchers and make sure divers obey the ‘look but don’t touch’ rule. Whale sharks and two of the three species of manta rays can be seen almost around the year, with the best time December to February. Both giant, cartilaginous fish can be identified by the pattern of spots on their bodies. Like fingerprints each pattern is unique. The 1500 population of whale sharks is 80 per cent young and male, seeming to indicate they have chosen Tofo for its bountiful food source.

 

 

In contrast, three-quarters of the manta ray population – again about 1500 – are female and Tofo is one of the best places to see mating, from November to January.
The Manta Ray evolved from the sting ray family around 5 million years ago, making it the most recent and therefore the most sophisticated of the species. Thecephalic fins, rolled up when swimming, are used as ‘fans’ to sweep plankton into their mouths when feeding.


The biggest rays at Tofo are about 7m wide and weigh up to 2000kg. So far little is known about their life cycle but Dr Marshall and her colleagues believe they could live for 60 years.
Mantas have the largest brain relative to their size of any fish, with areas for smell,

co-ordination and hearing. This ground-breaking research has shown they are not only intelligent, they are very social creatures.

 

 

These can grow up to 7m wide and weigh up to 2000kg

 

They eat an eighth of their body weight a week and visit a cleaning station to remove parasites and clean up wounds at least once a day. There are several cleaning stations off Tofo, creating a wonder-show for divers, as mantas slowly circle waiting their turn for the six species of cleaner fish to give them a ‘wash and brush up’.


Though their population is healthy at the moment it is not assured and both mantas and whale sharks feature on the International Conservation Union’s ‘red list’ of endangered species as vulnerable to extinction.


Tofo has been targeted by commercial fishermen catching mantas and whale sharks to provide cartilage popular in Chinese medicine, though they are no longer present.
The researchers have witnessed a massive decline in the population of mobula, a smaller relative of the manta, caught by locals fishermen. Tofo is home to seven of the nine species of turtle on the planet: but shells of the protected mammal are often found dumped along the dunes.


Diving boats can also pose a danger, the propellers causing injury, so all commercial dive boats now have a look-out alongside the skipper to protect marine life.


Now, through the work of the research station, local communities and tourism businesses are recognising the global importance of their ocean and are working along side the marine biologists to help protect it for the families and visitors of the future.

Photos: John & Lindsey Macdonald


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