Shawn Heinrichs and Kristian Schmidt’s photos of models swimming with whale sharks were a viral hit last month, helping raise awareness about a species that has been over-fished and killed by poachers harvesting shark fins. Now the pair of photographers are at it again, but this time they’re focusing on manta rays.
“Most of the world except for ocean enthusiasts have no clue what a manta ray is, let alone that it’s vulnerable. They normally associate it with a stingray,” Heinrichs says.
Associating manta rays with stingrays is a problem because stingrays infamously killed Steve Irwin, “The Crocodile Hunter,” back in 2006. They might look similar, but unlike stingrays, manta rays are not dangerous. Instead, Heinrichs says they are highly social and gentle creatures. As trivial as it might seem, slight shifts in public perception can subconsciously affect efforts to save vulnerable species.
Heinrichs says manta rays (and their relatives the mobula rays) are under threat because targeted fishing programs around the world are harvesting them in unsustainable numbers. Instead of their meat, fisherman are usually after them for their gill rakers, which these animals use to collect food such as plankton. The gill rakers are in high demand in Chinese markets because they’re believed to cure a wide variety of ailments — from chickenpox and cancer.
Like the whale shark photos, the manta ray images are high-contrast and striking. We wouldn’t be surprised if they spread equally as quickly across the internet. Many, however, also look heavily manipulated and in some instances the imagery feels overdone. Surprisingly, while there is some Photoshop to enhance the colors and levels, the model–manta ray interaction and the lighting is real. Nothing was added in.
The whale shark shoot was technically challenging, but Heinrichs says the manta ray shoot was even harder. Unlike the whale sharks, which were shot during the day in the Philippines, the manta rays were shot at night in Hawaii. The manta rays feed on plankton, which are attracted to bright lights in the dark.
To get enough light for the shoot, which was documented in both stills and video, Heinrichs and the team used 16 battery-powered Sola 4000s that lasted up to three hours and pumped out almost 70,000 lumens of light. Heinrichs and Schmidt used Canon 5D Mark IIIs and 1D Xs, which they say were crucial to the shoot because of how well the cameras perform in low light.
The shoot was anchored by Hannah Fraser, an underwater dancer and mermaid model, who had 50 pounds of weights tied to one of her legs so that she could stay 30 feet under water. She didn’t have her own air supply, so she would dance for up to two minutes and then signal for a safety diver to swim over and giver her air. At times the swells were so strong that two divers had to hold Fraser to prevent her from getting smacked against underwater rocks. Even though they were in Hawaii, the water was cold enough that the crew needed wetsuits, a comfort that Fraser had to go without.
“She was a machine,” Heinrichs says.
According to Manta Ray of Hope, the umbrella project that the fashion shoot was a part of, there are no hard numbers on global manta or mobula ray populations. What is known is that these rays are slow to reproduce. Female manta rays only give birth to one “pup” at a time and researchers believe they only have one pup every two to three years and may not have time to recover from the increase in fishing.
In addition to raising global awareness, the end goal for the shoot is to help ensure manta rays get protected by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It’s an international agreement between governments that attempts to protect species from becoming extinct due to international economic activity.
Today, more than 30,000 species of animals and plants are granted varying degrees of protection by CITES and manta rays are on the ballot to receive protection when global delegates meet in Thailand in March. Heinrichs says he hopes to get mobula rays protected the next time the CITES delegates meet.
“We need to get the general public to understand what manta rays are and fall in love them so they can tell their [CITES] delegates to vote in favor of the listing,” Heinrichs says. “The problem is many of the delegates have no clue about manta rays and they are not in tune with these animals.”
The final piece of the project involves tourism. In addition to making sure trade in manta rays is governed by CITES, Heinrich says they want the photos to promote manta ray tourism as an alternative to harvesting them for their gill rakers. According to Heinrichs, manta rays could help global communities bring in 30-times more money if they’re used as tourist attractions instead of being sold as a medicinal product.
“The clock is ticking for the manta rays,” Heinrichs says.Share