As resident marine biologist at the Four Seasons Resort in the Maldives, Dorset-born Guy Stevens spends his days mingling with marine life in one of the most beautiful locations on earth. A defining underwater encounter left Guy with a particular fascination for manta rays, which have taken centre stage in his research and conservation projects.
So with the Maldives’ ‘manta season’ fast approaching (from late-May to November), we thought we’d pick his brains about these fascinating fish to understand why the Maldives is such a special place for aquatic exploration.
Where was your last trip?
I just returned from six weeks in the Maldives where I was searching the more remote southern atolls for aggregations of both reef and oceanic manta rays. The great thing about the deep south of the Maldives and the remoteness of these atolls is getting to explore dive sites few people have the privilege to experience.
Where is your next trip?
I will be heading back to the Maldives again in July, this time back to my usual research site in Baa Atoll, which is home to the world’s largest population of reef manta rays. As part of the Manta Trust’s ongoing research, we have undertaken a decade of continuous data collection on this population, following the lives of each individual manta to better understand and protect this increasingly threatened species. So I will be heading back to Baa to join my team and catch up with my fishy friends to see who is about this year and what they are getting up to.
What is your first travel-related memory?
Every summer when I was a kid my parents would pack up the car and trailer with tents, food, sleeping bags, me and my two sisters, and we’d set off in the early hours of the morning for the ferry terminal on the south coast of England to begin our summer holiday in France. I love that feeling you get when all the bags are packed and you are about to begin a new adventure. After 15 years living out of a suitcase, I still get itchy feet within a few weeks of unpacking. I need to know what the next adventure is before the current one finishes.
Aisle or window seat?
Window – for two reasons. Firstly, I am 6ft 4in tall, so being stuck in the aisle means having my legs continuously knocked by people and trolleys, plus I prefer to get settled into my seat and stay there for the duration of the flight. Then there’s the view. I must have flown into the Maldives 50 times or more, yet looking down upon the myriad of tiny green islands dotted amongst the waves of the Indian Ocean as you come into land is always worth a gaze.
Favourite city or country or region?
Well, it has to be the Maldives. Simply because there is nowhere else on this planet where I’d rather be in the ocean, free-diving or SCUBA diving, with manta rays and all the other amazing marine life. And this marine life is so accessible for anyone who’s willing to don a snorkel or learn to dive.
What is your most unforgettable travel memory?
Travelling through Rwanda to see mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains was a magical experience. After six hours of hiking and hacking our way through dense forest, I will never forget the moment the guide in front of me reached out for my arm and pointed at a gorilla sat a few metres away, staring at me through the bamboo thicket.
What has been your most challenging travel experience and why?
I have been lost at sea a few times. There is a horrible sinking feeling you get when you surface from a dive to see the boat is only a dot on the horizon, or worse still, not there at all. Thankfully I have been found each time, relatively quickly, but that feeling of being alone at sea adrift is certainly not a pleasant one.
What is your favourite thing about studying manta rays?
Manta rays are beautiful creatures; I’m captivated by their grace and inquisitive nature. For me, it’s all about the personal connections you have with the individual rays. We are able to identify each individual by their unique spot patterns, so after thousands of hours spent in the water you really get to know the personalities and lives of these animals and appreciate the impact we as humans are having upon them. I think we are losing our empathy towards the natural world because we have lost that connection.
Tourism plays a huge role in many of the manta ray conservation projects you are involved in. How do you think tourism benefits these conservation efforts?
Money makes the world go round. In an ideal world manta rays and their marine habitat would be protected simply for their intrinsic value alone, however, in the real world there usually has to be an economic incentive to drive conservation. Manta ray tourism, while not perfect, is a much better alternative livelihood for local communities to benefit economically from these species than manta fisheries.
What is the best or worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
Go and see the world because it won’t come to you.
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
Soundtracks to travel. For every amazing place, I have been there is an album or artist I bring back with me in my memory, which takes me back there whenever I listen to it. Music is the best souvenir – and the more I travel the better it becomes.
What’s your biggest travel fail?
I don’t think any travel experience has been a failure. Of course, there are times when you don’t achieve all your goals or meet all your expectations, but I try not to think of these as failures.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
As a kid, I used to stare at the small fish in my tropical fish tank, some of which had travelled halfway around the world from the Amazon to my front room. I have always longed to visit South America and travel up the Amazon River.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
Don’t take too much luggage. Pack your bag, then remove half your clothes. Trust me, you won’t wear them.
Find out more about Guy's conservation projects and his work with manta rays at www.mantatrust.org.