Martin Clunes – Man to Manta

Martin Clunes seeks to fulfil a burning ambition to swim with one of the sea’s most enormous and enigmatic creatures in ITV1’s new documentary Man to Manta.

Produced for ITV1 in the UK, the film was conceived by author and naturalist Tim Ecott who chose Scubazoo to carry out the principle underwater filming in the Maldives

Already a qualified diver, Martin’s fascination for the underwater world has been fuelled by family holidays to the Maldives. Like many divers his quest has been to see a giant manta ray, one of the most iconic species on the planet.

“There’s just one creature in the ocean which I’ve always truly wanted to see. The mysterious, magical and elusive manta ray,” Martin explains. “I’ve been told that hundreds of manta rays gather to feed in a remote corner of the Indian Ocean, and I was desperate to be there to experience it.”

In Man to Manta, Martin sets off to realise his dream.

By turns exiciting, poignant and distressing, Martin’s Journey takes him to visit the cousins of the manta ray in Stingray City in the Cayman Islands followed by an intimate encounter with Nadi, a manta living in Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta USA. In Ecuador Martin meets scientist Andrea Marshall who is attempting to attach satellite tags to wild manta rays and in Sri Lanka he sees the tough reality that manta rays face as dead mantas are sold in the markets of Colombo for their gill rakers.

Martin’s dream finally comes true on the last leg of his journey, travelling across the Indian Ocean to the Maldives. In the crystal clear waters of Hanifaru lagoon Martin takes the plunge to swim with 40 feeding mantas.

“Hanifaru bay is truly a unique location” says Man to Mantas principal underwater cameraman Roger Munns. “so many different factors have combined to turn this small lagoon into a feasting venue for manta rays. Getting Martin up close with one was not easy though as we suffered some rough surface conditions which affected the flow of plankton into the bay. Martin also had some confidence issues to overcome”

“Three years ago I had a bad experience underwater and I’ve been nervous about diving ever since,” says Martin who is a certified scuba diver, after qualifying in Belize about 10 years ago.

“I had a panic attack whilst diving off the coast of Scotland for a documentary about islands. I, and everybody else, had underestimated the impact the long break I had had from diving would have on my diving ability and the water was freezing cold and murky. The worst thing was, so that I could talk to the camera underwater, I was wearing a goldfish bowl of a mask and a respirator. This goldfish bowl was full of air and it kept lifting up and pulling the whole suit up around my chin in a very disconcerting way. I couldn’t regulate my breathing, and I completely freaked, and had to ask one of the safety crew to take me up to the surface. It was horrible.”

So the first time Martin had ventured underwater since the incident was when he plunged into a giant tank in a marine park in Atlanta, Georgia to meet Nandi, a rescued manta ray.

“I was full of trepidation and I was very panicky breathing.  But I got the hang of it. Getting to swim underwater with Nandi was a real thrill. It was such a pleasure. It wasn’t until the end of the trip I got my confidence back and started enjoying diving again.”

Martin admits that during filming he began to question whether he would ever dive again.

“I used to dive a lot but I just got a bit panicky about breathing underwater or not really belonging down there. But I had experts around me and I thought it was good to scare myself, and get these little panics out of my mind, because I had dived in the past and enjoyed it. There were times when we were filming I thought ‘I am never going to dive again. I’ll do it for this programme, but never again’.  But I don’t think that now. I do feel I have overcome that fear I had now.”

Neutral Buoyancy author Tim Ecott, Associate Producer and Dive Supervisor for Man to Mantas, talks about the challenges of re-introducing Martin to diving.

The idea of getting Martin Clunes into the water with the mantas in large numbers was particularly appealing, because I knew he would fall in love with them. But more than that, we wanted to explain some of the amazing facts about these creatures – which can grow to over 20 feet across. Although they are fish – their life cycle is in many ways closer to that of a mammal. They breed slowly – having one baby – called ‘a pup’ about once every two years. They also have a large brain, and as we found out during filming, can be trained.”

“One of my tasks was to ensure that Martin was not put into a situation which might be dangerous.I knew that he had a panic attack while diving in Scotland, and had not been diving since.”

“I therefore planned the mantas film so that the places Martin could dive would not require him to leave his comfort zone underwater. Our agreement was that I would always accompany him underwater and that he would not feel under pressure to dive if he thought conditions would be too difficult. It was crucial to me that we had Scubazoo on board for this part of the film – the climax of the story – as I wanted to work with a camera team that would deliver the best shots – and with whom Martin would feel comfortable underwater.”

In the Maldives the crew was guided by Guy Stevens, Senior Marine Biologist of Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru and founder of the Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP). Guy is one of the leading manta researchers in the world and through his research he’s gained an excellent understanding of manta behaviour at Hanifaru. However due to some bad weather the mission to see a manta in the wild was tougher than expected. Martin went diving every day of their eight day stay in the hope of seeing the enigmatic creatures. But it wasn’t until the final dive he finally realised his ambition.

“It was the tenth day of the tenth month, and the tenth reel of film in the camera. It must have been an omen. The manta rays came so close I could almost touch them. It was amazing. There were about 3 or 4 of them just gliding over us, so close, so unworried by us. I had faith that the mantas wouldn’t hurt me. I had enough people telling me they were completely safe.”

At high tide Martin returned to the bay and was rewarded by seeing 20 mantas, which swam towards him and underneath him as he snorkeled.

“It was manta heaven in there,” he says.

But the undoubted highlight of the whole visit was when he was joined by his wife Philippa and daughter Emily, to go snorkelling together.

“After we’d finished filming and I joined up with my wife and daughter for a family holiday. I did a couple of pleasure dives, so I got my appetite back. It was a really lovely thing to do. We returned to Hanifaru, where I had been filming, for a snorkeling safari. We held hands as we snorkelled in a line, and all these manta rays were swimming around us. That was the high spot; to be snorkelling with my family and the mantas. There’s just something about manta rays –their big brains maybe or their kindly eyes – which makes me feel I can connect with them – like dogs or horses – in some way that I never thought possible with marine life.”

“They’re just magical. I was worried how I could relate to the manta rays. I like to cuddle and stroke animals. But they are very captivating, very mesmeric.”

Just 300 miles away from the paradise islands of the Maldives in Sri Lanka Martin was disturbed to witness the booming business in fishing for manta rays.

Local marine biologist Daniel Fernando, took Martin to a fish market in Mirissa, where manta rays are known to be bought and sold to feed a growing demand for use in Chinese medicine.

The manta rays are hacked apart for the gill rakers, the black filters along the underside of the rays’ torso that help them breathe underwater. The gill rakers are dried and turned to powder used to purify the blood.

“What I saw in Sri Lanka was truly gruesome. You can’t blame the local fisherman, especially after the devastating affects of the Tsunami. But without a solution to this the consequences for the manta ray population in the Indian Ocean could be catastrophic. From making this film, I learnt quite a lot, and not just about manta rays, but the underwater world, and how it is being plundered in an unsustained way. The way pregnant sharks and their babies are being killed; it does not make sense for their own business. I am not sure what the answer is.”

Man to Manta was produced by Buffalo Films and aired on Thursday 6th January 2011 at 9pm on ITV1.

In the Maldives the crew were based at the excellent Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru Resort which offer regular educational and inspirational trips to see the manta rays at Hanifaru bay during the manta season which runs from August to October. Guests can become ‘Manta Researchers for the Day’ and accompany the research boat to Hanifaru to help document the mantas.

If you’d like to license some of our High Definition underwater manta ray footage from the Maldives you can browse through clips online at our stock footage library

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