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Hawaiian manta ray research expedition 2015

The end of June we visited Hawaii for the fourth time during the last five years. The goal of the research expedition this year was to collect tissue samples from wild manta rays as well as to observe and document their rapid coloration change.

The expedition started out rather exciting, I had three flights to get to Kona, to the Big Island and the first two planes had mechanical issues so the trip started very stressful. My first plane turned back from the runway while we were taking off and we had to spend almost 2 hours in the plane while they fixed the problem. I was one of the lucky ones who could still catch the next connection, unlike 90% of people on my plane, but when I boarded the next plane, I couldn’t believe my ears when they announced a mechanical issue again on this other plane. Luckily I met my lucky charm, Dr. Dominic D`Agostino, in Los Angeles, who always brings me luck when traveling. Now, together with him the third flight went smoth and we arrived to Kona late night. We spent the next couple days searching for manta rays during the morning hours at cleaning stations, and after dark at feeding aggregations.

We were very lucky to welcome Dr. Mark Deakos as part of our team, since he works locally on Maui on manta rays. He was a great addition to our team since he could guide us to cleaning stations where manta rays can often be found during the day.

We spent a couple hours every morning searching for manta rays and we often found ourselves surrounded by spinner dolphins. The large groups composed of 20 to 100 individuals swam around us and swam together with us while clicking and chirping and playfully chasing each other around us. Unfortunately, these morning trips were less successful and we found Manta rays only twice but we still had wonderful time snorkeling and experiencing the dolphin encounters.

The evening excursions were much more successful. Manta rays are known to gather at certain locations on the western coast of the Big Island where tour operators organize trips to take snorkelers and divers to see the feeding manta rays. The divers, sitting on the bottom, shine their lights up and the snorkelers shine their lights down attracting the plankton to the light to the area between the divers and snorkelers. The Manta rays are attracted to feast on the plankton between the lights and they swim close enough to people that they sometimes gently brush against them. Since Mark needed tissue samples for his studies we decided to concentrate on the tissue sample collection instead of conducting behavioral studies. We collected tiny biopsy samples from the dorsal side of several manta rays so Mark could use the muscle for genetic analysis, whereas I used the skin tissue to do histological processing to reveal the mystery behind the rapid coloration changes.

This trip became absolutely unforgettable not only because of the wonderful experiences spend with the marine wildlife but also because on our only day to rest between the dives Dominic asked me to marry him on one of the most beautiful beaches, the pristine "green sand beach". Of course, I said yes, and Hawaii will always have a special place in our heart. We can’t wait to return to find out more about the secrets of manta rays and to experience more adventures with them.

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