Our oceans have a serious PR problem. The severe disconnect between people and the oceans they ultimately depend upon is perhaps one of the most underappreciated issues facing our blue planet. Many people simply don’t know, or are seldom bothered, about the species that live beneath the waves and the threats that confront them. Such apathy presents a real hurdle for conservationists, leaving many of them stumped as to how to overcome it. Put simply, how do you convince people to care?
This question came front and centre earlier this year when discussions began between the Manta Trust and other parties about the upcoming CITES Conference of Parties in Johannesburg (CoP17) and the proposal to list all Mobula species in Appendix II. How could we ensure the success of the proposal?
Just like manta rays, which were successfully proposed at the previous CoP in 2013 and are now listed on Appendix II, mobula ray populations are facing significant and rapid declines that typically range between 60 and 99%. This is due primarily to targeted fisheries that hunt them for their gill plates. Unlike mantas, however, mobulas don’t have anywhere near the same legislation to protect them from consumptive overexploitation. Part of the reason for this is that mobulas are not as charismatic as mantas and do not have the same universally beloved status as their larger cousins. Mobulas are smaller and tend to be more elusive, so most people don’t even know what they are, let alone care about their future survival. To rectify this situation, we decided to turn to technology to bring mobula rays (‘mini mantas’) to the forefront of the hearts and minds of the CITES delegates.
This past summer the Manta Trust launched #LoveMiniMantas, a media campaign to help the mobula ray CITES effort. There were several pieces of video content, but the jewel in the campaign’s crown was to be a 360˚ virtual reality film. Virtual reality, augmented reality and 360˚ films (all under the ‘VR’ umbrella) are a pioneering and booming new medium that is changing the way we tell stories. Unlike conventional films and photos, which are confined to a rectangular screen, VR content transports its audience into another world. Using a smartphone, a specialised headset or a combination of the two, viewers experience a story unfolding around them. In some instances they even become characters within the story and can interact with the virtual world they have become a part of.
Our big idea was that we could use 360VR technology to take the CITES delegates on a digital scuba dive, where many of them would meet mobula rays for the very first time. By enabling them to see the rays with their own eyes, we hoped that we could inspire and excite the delegates to want to learn more about the animals and why they are under threat – and to support the proposal to list mobulas. Perhaps by engaging undecided or uninformed nations on an emotional level, we could persuade them to vote in favour of granting mobulas the increased trade protection they desperately need.
After a few months of planning, we assembled a small team for a short-notice 360VR film shoot on the island of Santa Maria in the Azores. When it comes to mobulas, the Azores archipelago is a special place, one of the few locations in the world where the rays can be seen consistently on a seasonal basis. Santa Maria is particularly well known for its visiting mobulas and serves as the base of operations for SOSF-funded biologist Ana Sobral, who runs a project on the sicklefin mobula rays that visit the waters around these remote volcanic islands. We managed to rope Ana in not only to help us encounter these ‘mini mantas’, but also to be the central character around whom the VR film would revolve. Creating 360VR content is no easy task. Filming requires a great deal of equipment and often involves several cameras that need to work in unison to record the world around the viewer. It may sound simple enough, but there is no end to the many things that can go wrong. The core issue is that should just one camera have a setting out of step or a technical hitch that interrupts recording, the entire sequence has to be discarded. This isn’t so devastating when you’re on terra firma and working with people who can reset and reposition themselves for another take. However, having cameras that are sealed in a housing with limited ability to access any controls or settings, taking them underwater miles offshore, and attempting to collect usable content of elusive rays that may not appear for days at a time – all of this creates a recipe for a potentially fruitless shoot.
As with all good film shoots, ours came down to a handful of days when the stars aligned and we were able to capture exciting and usable interactions with the sicklefin mobulas we had come to film.
Having started out in the Maldives, the Manta Trust is now active in about 16 countries worldwide promoting the conservation of manta and devil rays and their habitat through research, awareness and education. Three of its current major operations are the Global Mobulid ID Project, which aims to provide a taxonomic, morphological and genetic identification guide to manta and devil rays; the collection of data about ray landings in India, which will inform conservation management in that country; and the Indonesian Manta Project, which works to promote an appreciation of manta and devil rays among local people.