Andrea Marshall is marine biologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She founded the Marine Megafauna Foundation and leads research on globally threatened manta rays, as well as having discovered two new species. Here she shares her experiences of life in the field in Mozambique.
Name: Dr. Andrea Marshall
Species: Manta Rays
Location: Mozambique & Ecuador
Bio: I am a marine biologist and my interests largely lie within the fields of scientific research and exploration. I would also consider myself a conservation biologist, so to that end my work focuses predominately on questions related to the effective management and conservation of threatened marine species. I have been living in the field for the last twelve years, based largely from field stations in rural Mozambique and fishing villages in coastal Ecuador.
Please can you give us an overview of your work at the moment?
My team and I study the ecology or population dynamics of marine megafauna species like manta rays or whale sharks to help gain a better understanding of the species as a whole and to develop better management strategies for specific populations under threat. To do this we are constantly exploring areas faced with particular conservation problems and monitoring specific populations, sometimes for years and years at a time.
Manta rays are the largest living ray in the world, one of the most evolved members of their group of fish, and in my opinion are one of the most intelligent fish in the sea. They were almost unstudied a decade ago but we have come a long way since – we now know more about manta rays than ever before.
Manta rays are one of the most iconic marine animals and have intrinsic value as natural heritage in our oceans. I have always likened manta rays to the ‘pandas’ of the ocean. Like all charismatic species, manta rays cause something to stir deep inside us. The gentle giants of our planet represent something bigger than our own kind, something to be respected and revered. They symbolize our wild oceans or our terrestrial edens, they make us all pause and stare in wonder, and they often reflect the fragility of nature.
I work 365 days of the year in the field, either in southern Mozambique, Ecuador, or Indonesia. I have a couple of homes but no permanent residence since I lead such a nomadic life.
My research base in Mozambique is about a 12-hour drive from the South African boarder so we spend a lot of time driving. It is incredibly rural and life there is very basic, it was only a few years ago that many of the places that I work had electricity and running water, some still don’t. This coastline is incredibly beautiful and pristine in many ways still.
It is the marine megafauna capital of eastern Africa and for us it represents the best place to do work on our focal species. Mozambique is full of sand so we drive permanently in 4X4 and we often have to truck our food in from long distances away. It makes for a challenging environment to work in but it also brings you back to basics and reminds you what life is really all about. I have built three small houses since I have lived in Mozambique, and while all of them could have been considered huts (partially built out of natural materials) they get more comfortably each time I build them.
It is a harsh environment, Mozambique, it is hot, we often have fires or cyclones but at the end of the day when you live a stone’s throw away from nearly uninhabited beaches of the Indian Ocean you are prepared to deal with quite a lot.
My base in Ecuador is a lot different, in that it has more influences from the developed world, but it is still an incredibly impoverished area. It is mainly a fishing village so it is very basic and unfortunately very polluted. The lack of education in this area of Ecuador ultimately results in it being very polluted, which is very frustrating for me. In this location I am reminded on a daily basis what as a conservationist we are fighting against. Ignorance and lack of proper education is rife globally and for me living in a really representative community like this is helpful when I think about our larger goals. I feel very unhealthy in this location, the sun does not shine during my field season here and I tend to eat mostly a carb-based diet since there is a real lack of diversity in the food at this location.
While I love Ecuador and working in this country I certainly consider it a much more difficult living environment than Mozambique or Indonesia, which are both so beautiful and balance restoring.
Personally I have always been interested in using technology to push the limits of our knowledge of these animals. Sometimes this means using advanced telemetry equipment for the first time to track these animals into the depths of the ocean or as they make broad-scale migrations, other times it means pushing your own limits with technical diving technology, which allow us to better explore the environments used by our flagship species. Every day, every year, it is a different issue or question, and it is this never-ending quest for information about the animals that keeps me inspired as a scientist.
People often ask if they are important species to their largest ecosystem and of course the answer is yes, most animals are, but rather than having top-down cascading effects on ecosystems like sharks, there is more of an economic argument for their protection. Over the last few decades, manta rays, like many marine mammals, have become significant drawcards for tourism, proving to be a favourite among SCUBA divers and snorkelers alike. Encouraging manta ray related marine tourism has already proven itself a far more lucrative use of these charismatic animals than fishing them for their body parts.
In 2012 a collaborative report entitled ‘Manta Ray of Hope’ evaluated global manta ray tourism to be worth an estimated $100 million dollars, upwards of ten times the value of international trade in these species. Realizing the non-consumptive and perpetual economic value of manta rays is of critical importance to their conservation. But economic benefits aside, it is vital for us to remember the larger significance of these animals. The world would be a far lesser place without iconic marine giants like mantas.
The Foundation that I helped create, (www.marinemegafauna.org), addresses conservation issues associated with a wide variety of threatened marine megafauna species. In short, we are trying to save marine giants from extinction, and while we certainly have some ambitious goals, we also understand all too well that ‘conservation’ is an ongoing process. In order make significant impacts, its vital to see it as a long-term commitment that is tackled in stages.
Firstly we try to champion legislative protection for our focal species, for without this key distinction, there is little that can be done to enforce the management of localized populations. As field researchers, it also falls upon us to build ecological knowledge – a process can take a tremendous amount of time and dedication. Lastly, as we are based full-time in the field, we also try to provide local officials with real-time information and documentation on where illegal activities are occurring to allow for targeted intervention and future strategic planning.
Another one of MMF’s mandates is to steer our expertise and support towards regions of the world where the priority for marine conservation is low or where governments have limited resources for coastal monitoring and enforcement. To have created an organization that is constantly growing, expanding and succeeding in stimulating this change is certainly a worthy accomplishment in my mind.
I hope in my lifetime to contribute enough scientific information to develop effective conservation solutions for threatened marine species like manta rays and whale sharks. And since I know that I may only get part of the way to realizing some of my goals, I am also working hard to inspire a new generation of marine activists and educators to carry my work to fruition long after I am gone.
This work has meant committing to remote regions of the world for long periods of time, which comes at great expense and hardship to all those involved. There are many times that I considered giving up because it was so hard to make the sacrifices required.
I rarely see my family, have lost contact with many of my friends and have postponed starting a family for years due to my grueling schedule. I have been sick, tired and overworked for much of my career. So yes, this job can be all consuing at times – it literally takes over your life – but at the end of the day you do it because the work matters and because you know that now, more than ever, we are at a critical junction where we either tackle conservation issues or we watch them consume us. It is a wonderful and humbling job, filled with highs and lows, you just gotta persist through the lows and live for the highs, which make it all worth doing.
We all do this job for the love of animals and it is our passion for the natural world that constantly drives us forward. So when you can see that the work that you are doing is directly contributing to the survival of a species or the management of vulnerable populations, it is the most rewarding feeling in the world.
1) Surround myself with passionate colleagues that help keep me motivated and focused. Conservation work has its high and low points, but believing in what you do and surrounding yourself with passionate people is key to your long-term success.
2) Live your life in the field. Nothing is more inspirational and enjoying the environment you are trying to protect on a daily basis. Also nothing motivates me more than being faced with real-life conservation crises. Witnessing the disrespect of the ocean day after day reminds me of how far we have to go and how little time we have left.
3) Using technology to your advantage. Technology in general is advancing so rapidly. I feel very fortunate to have so much specialized equipment at our disposal today that scientists did not have access to in the past. These tools combined with cutting edge techniques and more sophisticated analyses afford us the ability to pose and answer questions that would have seemed unfathomable to scientists even only a few of decades ago. It is so nice to be able to collaborate with creatives and engineers that can make our jobs as researchers easier and help propel science forward at a swifter pace.
4) But not letting technology make you uncreative or lazy. As useful as technology can be, and believe me it is a tremendous asset, it is important to remember that the most powerful tool in our arsenal is the human mind. We are incredible insightful and can evaluate situations, detect subtle nuances, and process information in ways that computers are not yet capable. I continue to maintain that a multifaceted approach is always best and will likely yield the most comprehensive results. Technology should be used to our advantage when needed but it can’t and should not replace dedicated fieldwork and human interpretation.
5) Do what you love and what you are passionate about. If you do then work is not work, it is something that you would choose to do whether you got paid for it or not. That is one of my biggest secrets. I work 12-16 hour days every day but I do it from a place of love and that is one of the reasons I never get burned out