Safeguarding Mallorca's Stingrays
Brad Robertson wears many hats: husband, father, conservationist, diver, local business owner, and, most recently, star of David Diley’s new short film, Ray of Light II, about Brad’s project to protect Mallorca’s stingrays. In this exclusive interview, Australian-born Brad tells us about the stingray survey, his next projects, and his hopes for marine protection in Mallorca
In a nutshell, what’s the Mallorca Stingray Survey all about?
The stingray survey is about collecting data and information about the population of stingrays in the bay of Palma. We started with a visual census in 2013 and that went on for 12 months. We discovered that the rays were frequenting this part of the bay, which is actually inside a marine protected area (MPA) here in the Balearics, and they were frequenting the area to reproduce and give birth. From there, obviously we want to extend our knowledge of the population, because they’re only in the MPA for about two months. If we’re going to protect something, whether it’s a whole environment or a species, we need to understand it first.
How did you get the idea to protect Mallorca’s stingrays?
It was actually quite a selfish motivation at the start. With my last job in Australia I was lucky enough to visit a wonderful place called Osprey Reef regularly on a liveaboard that leaves out of Cairns. We’d do a shark feed out there once a week and after feeding and diving with the sharks for 12 months you start to understand these creatures a lot better than just reading about them or watching them on Discovery Channel videos. The sharks became quite an important part of my life. When I came to Mallorca and discovered that the majority of sharks in the Med had been wiped out as far as their population numbers were concerned, I was quite distressed. Then I found out through a friend of mine who’s now vice president of the association (Asociación Ondine, the non-profit that Brad founded), Gabriel Morey, that there was a population of stingrays in the bay of Palma. I went for a few exploratory dives and came across one of the densest stingray populations I’ve seen anywhere in the world. It was the common stingray that was most prevalent but there was also another species, the roughtail stingray, which was huge. Once I saw how many rays there were, I had a chat with Gabriel and we teamed up and put together the initial survey plan. How the stingray survey came about was a very natural evolution; it wasn’t something that was strategically planned. It happened through pure interest and passion for marine creatures, particularly elasmobranchs.
What brought you to Mallorca – on the other side of the world – in the first place?
Well, what normally makes men move to the other side of the world?
Love, we’d guess?
There you go – my lovely wife, Bea, who is from Pamplona. We spent five years together in Australia; I was working on dive boats and she was working for the Australian government. She wanted to come back to Spain and obviously, with my diving and boat qualifications, I needed water to work so we literally looked at a map, found a big Spanish island relatively close to Pamplona and went, ‘Let’s go there.’ We had no idea about Mallorca. It was literally a pin on a map and off we went.
Ray of Light II was about phase two of the stingray survey. What were the most surprising findings?
Well, the thing is, the results from tagging any animals don’t come during the tagging process so to speak. It’s a longer process where we have to wait for the rays to be recaught or respotted so we can collect data. I think the biggest surprise was how much work it involved and how much of a learning curve it was for all of the crew. We had all these different teams – the boat crew, the dive crew, the biologists – that had never worked together and it was only the scientists who had any experience with catching and tagging the stingrays. Day One was really difficult; we had to chop and change equipment, we had to change techniques. The first day we only caught 30 to 40 stingrays. On the second day we caught 90 to 100. It showed the level of professionalism and commitment that we had on board. All of these people were volunteers; they all gave up their time free of charge, got very little sleep and worked extremely hard. Because we’ve committed to do the project for the next three years, obviously the more rays that we’ve got tagged and the more people that know about the survey, the more chances we’ve got of getting back some concrete data. Everybody [on the crew] has said that they’ll give up their time for the next three years as well which is fantastic.
How many stingrays did you tag in the end?
We tagged about 130 common stingrays. Just to give you an idea of the population numbers, a couple of days after we did the tagging David and I went for a dive in the same area. We saw maybe 60, 65 rays in a dive, and only one or two of the rays we saw had tags on them. It suggests that the number’s quite large. But that’s only an estimation. This is why we need to keep working on the stingray survey, why we need to keep tagging and monitoring and seeing what's going on.
So what is phase three of the stingray survey going to be?
It’ll be phase 2.1 I guess, when we go out in April again with the same team to tag some more stingrays. What we’ll be doing in 2015 is to put out a lot more information to local dive companies here in the Balearics and giving them information about the rays: what to look for and what to do if they spot the rays. We’ve already had two rays captured by local fishermen so we’ve got our first little bit of data back. One ray was caught about 24 kilometres from the tagging site, the other one about 11 kilometres. Luckily for the stingrays, they’ve got no commercial value so the fishermen took the serial numbers off the tags and threw the rays back in the water.
When and how did your love of the sea develop?
I was always interested in the sea. I applied for marine biology at James Cook University many moons ago and got rejected, so it became a sideline. It was my uncle who bought me my open water course, and that’s how I got into diving. I started when I was 18. Since moving to Mallorca I’ve dived with really young kids – I teach a lot of kids through our business, Ondine Escape – and they are an inspiration to dive with. Diving with these eight-year-olds, I wish I had started when I was eight.
Now, you’ve also got a kid of your own – with all the work that you do, what are you hoping to teach your daughter?
To do better than what we’ve all done previously with the environment, and to have a little bit more awareness of what you’re doing in your day-to-day life that have an effect on the environment.
When Asociación Ondine was established and you began the stingray survey, were you prepared for all the work it entailed?
No way. The workload after the association was officially established was definitely not predictable. To be brutally honest with you it almost destroyed me and my family. It’s starting to settle down now. We’ve got some very, very good sponsors and members, people who are supporting us financially and giving us a lot of support. I’m now able to spread the work a little bit but in the first couple of years it was quite a challenge.
What difficulties are you still facing?
Obviously one of the biggest difficulties is money. Asociación Ondine has a handful of committed members, but the more exposure we get, the more expectations there are from people, which means it’s very difficult to create, manage and execute various projects with limited funding. If we had the budget of some of the big organisations – if we had even a quarter of the budget of these big organisations – we would be able to do quite a lot of work. We’ve got an endless list of ideas and projects that we want to work on, but the reality is that people need to eat and have a roof over their heads. Working on marine research and conservation free of charge is not a sustainable way to do things.
- 130 stingrays were tagged within 3 days
- The rays spent approximately 40 minutes in the tank before they were released
- About €3,000 was spent on tags and equipment during Phase 2
- 18 maritime professionals are involved in the project
- The team anticipates to tag another 200 rays this year
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Yes, we also want to launch Dos Manos here in Mallorca. Dos Manos is a clean-up initiative adopted from Australia and manipulated to fit the Balearic Islands. It’s a project about plastic pollution and about motivating people to clean up their beaches or their local area for 30 minutes with their two hands, anytime, anywhere. What we’re trying to promote is for people to do this in their day-to-day lives rather than wait for an organised beach clean-up and do it once a year.
There’s also an educational component which takes it a step further, and which we’ll hopefully be able to introduce into the curriculum in the high schools here. It’s a month-long programme where students learn about different types of plastics and how they affect the environment, how they affect marine animals, particularly sea birds and turtles. Then the students will go down to their local beach, do surveys and work out exactly what types of plastics are scattered along our shorelines.
Apart from that, hopefully we’ll get our marine reserve public awareness campaign structured over the next 12 months and launched in 2016.
Sounds great! How can people get involved with Asociación Ondine’s projects?
Once Dos Manos is up and running, if people come to Mallorca for a holiday they can grab some bags and help clean up behind their hotel or private villa. If they want to go diving they can contact me; the rays are around in April and May. Also, if there are any big businesses out there or individuals with a nicely sized disposable income, then they can join the association and help us grow.
What have you learned so far, with all the conservation work you’ve done?
That things take a lot longer than expected, and that I need to learn to balance my life a little bit better – spend more time with my family and less time working. But I’ve also learned that the people I’ve met here in the Balearics who haven't known much about the sea and the state of the sea, when explained clearly to them how dire the situation is, they are very, very open to learning more. After giving a few presentations here in Mallorca throughout the last few years, I now speak to people and they say, ‘You know, I walk through the fish section in the supermarket and I can’t buy any more fish after hearing your talks.’ People are starting to change. Their thought processes and day-to-day consumer behavior are starting to change. What I’ve learned is that just by doing what we’re doing, we’re already changing, even if it is on a micro scale, the way that people think about what they buy in relation to the health of the sea, which is great.
It sounds like you have really been making an impact in the local community. What further changes would you like to see?
I’m 40 years old now. If I could see, before I die, the whole of the Balearic Islands become a functioning marine reserve, working productively with industries – the fishing, yachting and tourism industries – and generating sustainable income for local communities here in the Balearics, I would die a very happy man.