Whale sharks are such gentle giants, and it’s a shame that they’ve fallen victim to poaching and pollution. Their numbers have dwindled down to barely anything, which is why it’s more important than ever to help ensure their survival. These beautiful creatures needed all the help they could get, and Shawn Heinrichs and Kristian Schmidt delivered. Their photo series from a few weeks ago directed so much attention towards the conservation of whale sharks that they’ve decided to do it again, but this time, they’re shooting manta rays in Kona, Hawaii.
The pair teamed up once again to raise awareness in the hopes of ensuring the survival of the manta ray species. These slow-growing large-bodied animals have been hunted for their gills which are highly valued in international trade. A kilo of dried gills can retail for up to $680 USD in China. In some cases, the manta rays are ‘gilled’: they are caught, stripped of their gills and then their remains are chucked back into the sea.
“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. Stingrays are not the same as manta rays. Though they are similar in physical appearance, the manta ray is not dangerous. In case you were wondering, it was a stingray that killed Steve Irwin, the famous crocodile hunter, not a manta ray.
It does not come as a surprise that tourists sometimes pay big money just to catch a glimpse of them, as they are unafraid of people. Their curiosity makes them vulnerable to exploitation, especially in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, where populations have plummeted by as much as 86% according to a report by Wild Aid and Shark Savers. Female manta rays can only give birth to one offspring ever two to three years. Thousands of manta rays are killed each year and at the rate we’re going, it won’t be long before these beautiful creatures are endangered as well.
This shoot would not have been possible without the help of their model, Hannah Fraser, who is an underwater mermaid dancer. She had 50-pound weights strapped to her leg and went without a wet suit despite the cold water. At one point, divers had to hold on to her to prevent her from getting banged against underwater rocks. “She was a machine,” Heinrichs says.