By Louise Rocket
OLOWALU - Immersed in a crusade to save the manta rays in Olowalu, Napili scientist Mark Deakos recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $75,000 by Jan. 17.
The Olowalu reef hosts one of a handful of known manta ray aggregation habitats in the world, with over 350 individuals frequenting the area.
Dr. Deakos is the executive director and founder of the nonprofit Hawaii Association for Marine Education and Research (HAMER). He has been conducting manta ray research in the state for the past decade, producing several peer-reviewed scientific publications describing Maui's manta population demographics, reproductive habits, range and human threats.
Deakos described his intimate relationship with the West Side manta colony.
"When I first began taking photo-IDs (each manta ray has a unique spot pattern on its ventral side) and began recognizing the same individuals over time, they started to become family to me. They also have a very curious nature to them, and it gets hard to tell sometimes who is studying who. This is a very moving experience for anyone what has been investigated by a manta ray," Deakos observed.
A HAMER brochure describes their majesty: "Manta rays are mesmerizing animals. With wingspans reaching over 22 feet across and possessing one of the largest brain-to-body ratios of any fish, their curiosity rivals that of marine mammals."
Unfortunately, according to recent studies, one out of every ten manta rays frequenting the reef off Olowalu suffer from an amputated or severely damaged cephalic fin, an important appendage used to guide plankton into their mouth.
These injuries are the direct result of getting entangled in fishing line, and now HAMER is on the march.
"We need an effective management plan to protect Olowalu's manta ray population before it's too late," a HAMER brochure implores.
"Contributing," Deakos said, "will allow us to purchase satellite tags that will allow us to track the manta rays and shed light on: 1) unknown feeding grounds, 2) unknown pupping areas, and 3) where manta rays are likely getting entangled in fishing line.
"Mantas are plankton feeders," the 43-year-old marine conservationist advised, "so healthy mantas suggests healthy plankton, which is important because plankton is the base of the food chain and highly sensitive to ocean acidification."
His work with the mantas will be aired nationwide on the ABC Jeff Corwin Animal "Planet Ocean Mysteries" series "sometime in February."
Deakos is highly respected by his peers.
Robin Newbold chairs the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council. She met Deakos in 2007.
"In 2009," she told the Lahaina News, "his work, together with Manta Pacific Research Foundation, helped pass Hawaii Bill 366 to protect manta rays in Hawaii from being killed or extracted for the aquarium trade and more recently helped get manta rays listed on CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to make it illegal to trade manta rays and their parts."
Newbold is impressed by his accomplishments.
"Mark is a very bright scientist and dedicated Maui resident who cares deeply about the fate of our coral reefs and its inhabitants," she said.
Sierra Club Maui Conservation Chair Lucienne de Naie agrees with Newbold's assessment of the ethical environmentalist.
"Mark has been very conscientious and effective about bringing situations that threaten reefs to the attention of the community and regulatory agencies," she said, adding, "He is a good scientist, who is also willing to get personally involved to ensure that resources are respected and protected."
De Naie contributed to the Indiegogo campaign.
"I pledged to Mark's Manta Ray campaign, and I urge others to do the same. We are so fortunate that we have a person of Mark's qualifications here on Maui willing to do the research to help us all better understand how to malama these graceful creatures," she said.
Visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/save-maui-s-manta-rays to contribute.