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Published: Monday June 16, 2014 MYT 4:35:00 PM
Updated: Thursday June 26, 2014 MYT 4:18:30 PM

Conservation biologist Andrea Marshall: La Mer's manta crusader

Andrea Marshall with a giant manta.

Andrea Marshall with a giant manta.

Beauty brand teams up with manta ray expert in its support of ocean conservation research.

Owing its beginnings to the miraculous healing powers of sea kelp, La Mer’s roots keep the brand grounded in its support for ocean conservation research.

Year after year, the brand has continued to pledge its support for preserving Mother Earth by celebrating World Oceans Day and partnering with organisations to promote ocean conservation efforts.

Created in 1992 and made official by the United Nations in 2009, World Oceans Day takes place annually on June 8, serving as a reminder of the importance of the sea as a vital ecosystem and the need to preserve its delicate habitats and wildlife.

A Manta during feeding time.
A Manta during feeding time.

This year, La Mer celebrates the work of conservation biologist Andrea Marshall, who works tirelessly to save threatened manta rays and other vulnerable marine megafauna and their habitats through research and conservation programmes.

Partnering with the National Geographic Society for the third consecutive year, and building upon last year’s World Oceans Day campaign with the Society’s renowned Explorer-in-Residence and “living legend”, Dr Sylvia Earle, to date the brand has donated almost US$2mil (RM6.4mil) to organisations to promote ocean conservation research and programmes.

“La Mer is proud to continue its partnership with the National Geographic Society to help improve the health of our oceans,” said Global Brand President of La Mer, Sandra Main. “The ocean is an integral part of La Mer’s heritage, and last year we were inspired by Earle to expand our programme by supporting the next generation of women making a tangible impact on ocean conservation. Andrea shares our passion for preservation and her ground-breaking discoveries have been remarkable.”

Marshall, the first person ever to complete a Ph.D on manta rays, co-founded The Marine Megafauna Foundation and has discovered two new species of the sea creature. Weighing in at just over 1,300kg and with a 5m wingspan, the large and social underwater giant was virtually unknown to the rest of the world just a decade ago. Now, thanks to Marshall and her research, the future of this threatred creature is looking bright.

They often feed at the surface, thus exposing them to dangers such as getting struck by boats or being caught in nets – they are also killed for their lucrative gill rakers, which have emerged as a trendy medicinal tonic in China.

As they only produce one pup every two to three years in the wild, their ability to repopulate in areas where they are exploited has come under threat, and Marshall, who conducts research from the home of one of the largest identified manta ray populations, off Mozambique’s southern coastline, is determined to protect the creatures she fell in love with.

“Mantas tangled in nets have patiently allowed me to remove the hook and lines, even while trembling in pain. That level of trust is extraordinary,” she says in a La Mer press release. “I’ve now swum with thousands of mantas, but each time I see one, it still takes my breath away. We make surprising new discoveries about their biology and behaviour every day.

“They have the largest brain of any fish, make incredible ocean journeys, and dive almost one-and-a-half kilometres under the sea surface. They never sleep, but swim constantly over their 40-year lifespans. They’re curious and smart, and always ready to interact and play. In just a decade, manta ray numbers in Marshall’s own reef population in Mozambique have declined by over 88%, and globally, the numbers continue to drop.

However, there is hope yet for these sea creatures as Marshall’s research and global lobbying to legislate protection and create marine reserves have helped their inclusion in The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement between governments that will help protect the species.

Part of Marshall’s legacy is her creation of a new automated database which gives researchers the ability to share photos and findings, and she hopes to enlist the diving community to contribute photos and sightings records.

She tells how each manta ray has a unique spot pattern – she noticed this during her dives to observe behaviour, attach satellite tags, collect genetic samples and laser-measure the mantas – and she can recognise the 950 different manta rays in her Mozambique database by sight. This was what convinced her that a second species of manta existed, and she then led her team in proving that the manta genus should be split into two visually distinct categories.

After earning her doctorate, Marshall opted to stay in Africa.

“To earn the trust of local government and communities, I had to immerse myself in the issues facing this coastline and make Mozambique my home. People here are poor, and exploiting resources has been the only way to feed their families. But they would rather earn a living from positive, non-destructive means.”

As such, she has worked hard to integrate locals into the process of conservation, creating alternative livelihoods and promoting responsible ecotourism.

“There is such positive energy and momentum ... we started small, but today, we’re building a global manta army,” she said.

This article was first published in Life Inspired on June 8, 2014. Life Inspired is published every second and fourth Sunday of the month and distributed with the Sunday Star to selected households in the Klang Valley.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, world oceans day, la mer

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