Thursday, 30 March 2023

A marine biologist’s quest to protect the Maldives’ majestic manta rays

Even the most swanky underwater camera looks rather mundane compared to the gadget Jess Haines shows me. The marine biologist and Manta Trust project manager is demonstrating how the world’s first underwater ultrasound device can provide invaluable information about the reproduction cycles of manta rays.

Developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge, the device is purpose-built to obtain clear images of mantas’ reproductive structures. To do this, all marine researchers have to do is briefly hold the device five or six centimetres over the manta ray. Luckily the device – about the size of a bicycle pump – works in depths of up to 30 metres, so scientists can get pretty close. The stored images are then downloaded back at base.

The Maldives is a hotspot for manta rays

Haines shows me an ultrasound photo in which I can clearly see an unborn manta, its tiny wings wrapped around its body. “It looks like a burrito,” she exclaims. She hopes that the device, and the information it reveals, could eventually lead to footage of a live manta birth.

This would be an important milestone, because it would back up Haines’ belief that this area of the Maldives’ Raa Atoll is a manta ray nursery – a place where they come to give birth, and a location to which the young will regularly return as a result. At a time when mantas face more threats than ever – ranging from increased boat traffic to the devastation caused by over-fishing in nearby Sri Lanka – their decision to give birth here is a major win.

Jessica Haines of the Manta Trust, a UK-based charity that aims to conserve manta rays through research and education

The Maldives: a hotspot for manta rays

Haines’ love affair with mantas began after she completed her zoology degree in 2016. She arrived in the Maldives in 2017 to work as a marine biologist on Dhaalu Atoll. While there, she saw (and fell in love with) mantas, and started sending the Manta Trust photos of ones she spotted, helping the organisation build a manta ray database in an area where they had no staff. When the Manta Trust decided to set up a base on Raa Atoll’s Maamunagau Island, which had added bonus of its proximity to the Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve, a hotspot for manta rays, they asked Haines to manage it.

A perk of the job? Haines’ office is in the dive centre at the InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau Resort, where the boardwalks that weave around its beautiful lagoon double as brilliant viewing points from which to spot mantas. By the end of my first day on the island, I’ve spotted manta rays, sharks, stingrays and eagle rays – not during a scuba dive or snorkelling session, but during the short walk from the resort’s reception area to my villa.

The stunning InterContinental Maldives Maamunagau resort

Resort guests become citizen scientists

The resort is the perfect base from which to conduct research into the plight of the region’s reef mantas. At the same time, hotel guests get a fascinating insight into the creatures during annual Mantra Retreats and manta-spotting boat trips. Photos taken by guests during these trips are often added to Haines’s database of manta mugshots, and guests who spot a previously undocumented manta get the right to name it. One of the recent additions is a specimen christened Manta Claus.

I’ve spotted manta rays, sharks, stingrays and eagle rays – not during a scuba dive or snorkelling session, but on the short walk from the resort’s reception to my villa

Keen to see a manta for myself, I join one of Haines’s excursions. First, there is a brief chat about manta protocol. We should aim to keep five metres between ourselves and the mantas (although they often choose to come much closer) and never chase or touch them. Our small group – consisting of Haines, myself and three other guests – clamber into the boat and head to one of the so-called cleaning stations. These are locations where mantas congregate so that tiny fish can give them sub-aquatic spruce-ups, feasting on parasites and dead skin cells on their gills and skin.

It’s not long before Haines spots a pair of wingtips poking slightly above the glass-clear water. We don our snorkels and lower ourselves into the bath-warm ocean, careful not to disturb the creatures as they glide through sparkling shoals of tropical fish. We needn’t have worried. There are multiple mantas swimming in circles, mouths agape as they glide through the water, cephalic lobes (two fleshy tendrils) curled to funnel more food into their mouths. They seem unfazed by our presence, and several swim directly up to us. Their daunting size is offset by the absence of any teeth, and although the water is too deep to see the seabed, it’s crystal clear. There’s something wonderful about staring down into the depths as the mantas sweep slowly upwards to give us a once over.

A manta at a cleaning station. Photo credit: Manta Trust (Simon Hilbourne)

Later, Haines explains that their gills help filter food from the vast quantities of seawater they consume, but there’s a downside. Many practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine incorrectly believe that consuming these gills filters toxins from the body, and demand for them has skyrocketed. Efforts to highlight the problem have somewhat backfired. Previously, the gills would be removed from the mantas and the carcass discarded. But in certain countries, a desire to minimise this waste has resulted in a growing appetite for parts which weren’t previously consumed. This in turn has made mantas more valuable to fishermen who catch them.

Protective measures for Maldivian marine life

Thankfully, the Maldivian government realises that preserving its marine life is key to maintaining its status as the Indian Ocean’s most popular tourist destination. According to regulations, fish must be caught using a hook and line (rather than drift nets) and mantas are protected, making it illegal to capture, keep or harm them.

But Haines points out that there are other threats. Take a seaplane over the Maldives and you’ll see a growing number of artificial islands – often made with sand scooped from the seabed and dumped over reefs. More islands means more boat traffic. This is partly why Haines is on a mission to secure MPA (Marine Protected Area) status for the waters around Maamunagau island, something she hopes will happen by the end of 2023.

Mantas emerging from the deep blue to feed. Photo credit: Manta Trust (Simon Hilbourne)

Key to this designation is proving that the area is a manta ray nursery – a place where mantas don’t just spend a significant amount of time, but visit to give birth. She hopes to do so by showing that the immediate area meets various criteria laid out in a paper published by research scientist Michelle Heupel, who identified key trademarks of elasmobranch (a category of marine life which includes sharks and rays) nurseries. A live birth is one such key criteria – hence the ultrasound device I’ve had the privilege of seeing.

Haines believes that MPA’s protective measures will become crucial as a confirmed nursery status will undoubtedly attract even more visitors keen to check out a manta hotspot. “We don’t want this area to become a circus show,” says Haines. “Raa Atoll still has this wonderful quietness about it, and we want to preserve that.”

Singapore Airlines flies to Male, the capital city of The Maldives. To book a flight or learn more, visit the official website.

The post A marine biologist’s quest to protect the Maldives’ majestic manta rays appeared first on SilverKris.

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Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Beyond sakura: the spiritual practice of flower-chasing in Kamakura

With the thaw of springtime, water trickles down the mountain and finds its way into bamboo fountains. Koi lie still along the bottom of the pond. An old man rotates a prayer wheel. Twin toddlers run down stepping stones on a day out with their grandmother. A woman looks up from her camera to watch a small green mejiro flutter through the branches. And dozens of people stop to admire as delicate pink plum blossoms dangle in the sunshine between earth and sky. People of all ages murmur and exclaim, “Kawaii!”

The inescapable allure of blossom-chasing is on full display as I wander in Hasedera Temple’s Four Seasons Garden in Kamakura. The temple, home to Kannon, the Japanese bodhisattva or Goddess of Mercy, is especially beloved by flower-chasers. 

Plum blossoms on bare branches against bamboo fountains
The first plum blossoms of the season are a sight to behold at Kamakura’s Hasedera temple grounds. Photo: Mari Krueger

Only an hour by train from glossy Tokyo, on the coast of Kanagawa Prefecture, the ancient capital city of Kamakura is a separate world of mountains, peaceful hikes, shrines and temples. It’s also a must-visit for its rotating calendar of flowers: plum blossoms in February and March, followed by the iconic sakura – cherry blossoms – in March and April, and finally the underrated but equally stunning hydrangeas in May and June, which signal that the rainy season and summer are just around the corner. 

All of Japan seems to pause and admire the sweet but fleeting moment when spring begins again

I follow other flower-chasers up Hasedera’s famous mountainside hydrangea path where temple gardeners are busy tending the bushes that will turn all shades of violet and blue in a few months. Hydrangeas are indigenous to Japan, where the rocky volcanic soil is chemically perfect to produce the bold colours in each of the thousands of tiny petals that make up the bowl-sized flowers. Established bushes can tower overhead, covered in lush green leaves and bobbing purple flowers. Akihiro Ishikawa, a particularly happy gardener, straightens up to look proudly at his work. 

“It’s very happy for me!” he says. Ishikawa started 10 years ago as a temple groundskeeper and the monks soon recognised his love for flowers. Before long he was promoted to gardener, a job so well-suited it almost feels like a hobby. Now his handiwork delights thousands of people each June. Seeing their reactions is immensely satisfying, he explains. “Japanese people see a flower and feel the season.” 

Hydrangea walk in Meigetsuin temple in Kamakura
Yukata-clad visitors walk through the hydrangea walkway at Meigetsuin temple. Photo: Shutterstock/Princess_Anmitsu

Tea and Zen among the hydrangeas

Locals and visitors to Japan notably go sakura-crazy every spring, but blossom enthusiasts don’t limit their flower-chasing to one brief window in March. Plum blossoms, daffodils, wisteria, irises, azaleas and hydrangeas all have near-cult followings with dedicated hiking routes, boat tours or paths designed for maximum flower appreciation during their respective blooming season. Daily news updates on what’s blooming are the norm. 

Hydrangeas are especially popular in temples for their associations with gratitude and heartfelt emotion. Meigetsuin Temple, about an hour’s leisurely stroll from Hasedera, is particularly famous for them. It’s close to a popular hiking route that winds through half a dozen temples and shrines to end at Komachi-dori walking street.

For Sumie Maruyama, a tea ceremony expert and instructor, Meigetsuin Temple is the ideal place in Kamakura to appreciate spring flowers – and the best way to do it is with a bowl of tea. To facilitate this contemplative practice, vermillion umbrellas often stand out against the soft pinks, greens and purples of temple gardens, marking places where tea can be enjoyed on tatami mats or benches. 

Even spiritual newbies can pause to savour spring blossoms with a bowl of matcha, a drink which originates from the practice of Zen priests chewing tea leaves to stay awake during meditation. Japanese powdered green tea is dissolved into froth with a bamboo whisk and served with a small sweet. Holding the sweetness of sugar on the tongue to balance the bitterness of the tea is said to heighten one’s appreciation of this moment in time. That’s the philosophy of tea: ichi go, ichi e: one time, one meeting. It’s an invitation to appreciate this one moment because this day, this atmosphere, this bowl of tea can never happen again. It’s a sentiment that also underpins the practice of seeking out Japan’s seasonal blossoms. The sakura that is in its peak one day will blow away the next.

Crimson torii gates bookend the Danzakura, a blossom-filled walkway leading to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine. Photo: Shutterstock/voyata

Both Zen Buddhism and chado, or tea ceremony, trace their roots in Japan to the rise of samurai political power in Kamakura. In 1192, the Imperial Court appointed samurai Minamoto no Yoritomo as the country’s military ruler, or shogun, beginning the Kamakura Shogunate. The city became a powerhouse of politics and culture in Japan, and samurai elevated their new status by developing chado and incorporating aspects of Zen – humility, peace and quietness – into their training. 

“When you enjoy tea, you sit and wait to be served, just doing nothing,” says Maruyama, who comes from a samurai family. “Not walking, not taking pictures – that quiet moment. By sitting at that bench, relaxing, drinking tea, it makes it special, focusing on the beauty of the garden.” 

The first whispers of sakura

I continue toward Kotoku-in Temple. It’s famous for its 33-meter outdoor seated Daibutsu, or Great Buddha of Kamakura, but the main draw in springtime is its grove of sweet-smelling cherry trees. 

So light pink as to almost be white, cherry blossoms have five notched petals in a unique star shape. When the season comes, bare brown branches give way to a vague pinkness, then explode in pillowy blooms of soft pink. The flowers are most beautiful near the end, when the petals fall like snow, washing away in the rain, sticking to benches and signposts – but that’s all still a few weeks away. 

All this pondering leaves me hungry so I get a crêpe along the way at Kannon Coffee. The adorable handmade treats here vary with the season – of course – so I can enjoy the idea of delicate transience even at snacktime. Cubes of matcha mochi, crunchy cereal flakes, sweet cream and spring strawberries come wrapped in a delicate crepe topped with a cookie in the shape of the Daibutsu, garnished with a rosemary sprig.

Past the temple, I cross paths with hikers carrying daypacks and locals biking home from the market, but plenty of times I also find myself alone in the cool shade of the mountainside. Old stone steps rise into the forest and out of view. I wish I had time to follow every route, visit every garden and see every flower. 

I end my walk at Kamakura Station, where cherry trees line the Dankazura, an elevated path bookended by crimson torii gates leading straight to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Lovely any time of year, it’s a breathtaking tree tunnel in April, when fathers carry children high on their shoulders among the blossoms, and all of Japan seems to pause and admire the sweet but fleeting moment when spring begins again. 

Kamakura’s coastal views from a lookout at Hasedera. Photo: Shutterstock/Supravee-Phathunyupong

Visiting Kamakura

Kamakura is only an hour from Tokyo, but for the ultimate Japanese experience, consider spending a night or two by the sea.

Where to stay

Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills (1-23-4 Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-0001) is where you can enjoy cherry trees before you even get to Kamakura, especially if you book a stay in April. For two weeks only in the second half of the month, they have real cherry trees in bloom as part of their special Sakura Garden at the Rooftop Bar promotion. Perched 52 floors above the city, with fabulous views in every direction, the bar has been voted among the world’s best, and features their signature ’52’ sake. The hotel’s rooms are among the biggest of their kind in the city and – as a bonus – all feature a deep soaking bathtub, the better to rest up after being on your feet flower-chasing all day.

Modern Ryokan Kishi-Ke If you’re spending the night in Kamakura, this upscale Japanese guesthouse (21-5 Sakanoshita, Kamakura, Kanagawa 248-0021) offers packages for experiencing tea ceremony, practicing katana with a real sword and Buddhist cooking lessons. 

Kamakura Rakuan offers simple Japanese-style accommodations at a budget-friendly price. Tucked away near the sea, this cosy spot only has room for 10 guests. 16-11 Sakanoshita, Kamakura, Kanagawa 248-0021  

Where to eat

Kaikoan Cafe Located inside the Hasadera temple complex, this little eatery serves a modest selection of hot drinks, vegan Japanese curry rice, udon noodles and local Kamakura beer.

Kannon Coffee (3 Chome-10-29 Hase, Kamakura, Kanagawa 248-0016) should be your rest and refuel stop after a bit of sakura-viewing at Kotoku-in Temple. This whimsical and highly Instagrammable café offers elaborate sweet crepes, fruit drinks and top-notch pourover coffee.

Komachi-dori is a pedestrian street lined with shops selling Japanese handicrafts, local honey, matcha ice cream, coffee shops, all manner of street food and even an owl cafe.

Where to flower-chase

Hasedera Temple is one of Kamakura’s most beloved temples, famous for its centuries-old, 9m-tall wooden statue of Kannon, and for its stunning hydrangea path that is at its peak in June.

Build in the 12th century, Meigetsuin Temple is known locally as the Hydrangea Temple and is at its busiest in June – peak season for these delicate flowers – as well as autumn when the grounds are particularly stunning with turning leaves.

Kotoku-in Temple is home to the Great Buddha of Kamakura, a towering copper statue of Amida-Butsu sitting impressively in the open air – a particularly breathtaking image when the temple compounds many sakura trees are in full bloom.

Dankazura is Kamakura’s iconic elevated stone pathway, leading straight to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, originally built as a prayer for the shogun’s wife when she was about to give birth. It’s great for sakura-viewing in the spring and azaleas in the early summer.

Singapore Airlines flies to several destinations in Japan, including Tokyo and Osaka. To book a flight or learn more, visit the official website.

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