Featured ‘day in the life of’: Steph, a PhD student & manta ray researcher.

A day in the life of Steph (PhD student & manta ray researcher):

PhD candidate at University of Western Australia (UWA) and manta ray researcher at the Marine Megafauna Foundation, Steph Venables spends her time between Perth, Western Australia and Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Her research focuses on the population genetics of reef manta rays in Raja Ampat and Mozambique. For Steph the ocean is a place of intrigue and adventure and she is happiest when she is on top of or under the water!

This series of photos was taken on a pretty special day during a recent field trip to Lady Elliot Island, a small piece of paradise in the Southern reaches of the Great Barrier Reef. She was helping out fellow manta ray researchers Asia and Amelia Armstrong, who are both PhD candidates at the University of Queensland and researchers with Project Manta.

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7:45am – Steph selfie

Days on Lady Elliot start out in the best possible way… with a dive! The team is usually blowing bubbles before 8am visiting the local manta ray sites to see which animals have come to pay a visit.

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8:00am – Mantas

Busy day at the cleaning station! In this photo alone we can see 5 different individuals. Cleaning stations are areas of reef where small cleaner fish eat the parasites and dead skin of mantas bodies, they are very important to the health of manta rays and reliable aggregation areas for scientists to study these stunning creatures.

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8:10am – Asia preparing to tag

Asia preparing to tag a male reef manta ray with an acoustic tag. These tags send out a unique signal that is picked up by receivers set up in an array around the island to learn about the fine scale movement of mantas in the area.

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10.05am – Breakfast

Warming up and refueling with coffee and an omelette (diving makes you hungry) before recording the sightings from the morning dive.

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11.35am – Beach walk trash

A mid-morning walk on the beach to look out for humpback whales and what do I find? A McDonalds cup that has washed ashore, upon close inspection this cup is over a year old. The closest McDonalds is approximately 80km away in Bundaberg. Marine debris is a huge problem for our oceans and marine life and our waste has reached every corner of this beautiful planet, no matter how remote.

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1:20pm – Lagoon

Checking the conditions before our afternoon dive, it looks pretty good to me!

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1.50pm – Belly shots

Back in the water for the second research dive, Asia sets herself up to capture ID photos of the visiting manta rays. Each manta has a unique spot pattern on their underside that can be used to identify individuals, like a fingerprint. Using these photos we can create photo-ID catalogues for long-term population studies, the building blocks of manta ray studies.

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2:35pm – Sleepy turtle

After a successful research dive we creep up on this sleepy green turtle taking a nap on top of some soft coral. Turtles are abundant in the waters around Lady Elliot and don’t seem to be bothered by divers as they pass by.

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2:40pm – Amelia on safety stop

Project Manta research Amelia hanging out on our safety stop as we end the afternoon dive. The pole she is holding is a biopsy pole with a small stainless steel tip on the end used to take tissue samples from the pectoral fin of a manta ray. From this tissue we can extract DNA and use it for genetics studies on manta populations.

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4.00pm – Identifying mantas

Asia busy processing the photos from the day’s dives. The team uses the unique spot pattern to find out whether the mantas we have encountered have been sighted before or are new additions to the East Australian catalogue.

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5.15pm – Sunset

After a busy day the island ritual is to sit on the beach near the lighthouse on the Western shore, watch the gorgeous sunset and reflect on how lucky we are to have days like these!


Thank you so much to Steph for sharing her exciting day & some seriously spectacular photos! Don’t forget to check out Steph’s Instagram (@motherofmantas) for more amazing photos.


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