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Michel Guerrero | Protecting Giant Manta Rays

Discovers Your Love for Giant Manta Rays

by Nolan Hawk

Michel Guerrero is a well-respected marine biologist whose research of giant manta rays has led to a wider breadth of public knowledge about the endangered species. 

To Michel, in order to truly have passion for something, people must first strive to educate themselves about it. Through his work with El Fundación Megafauna Marina del Ecuador (Marine Megafauna Foundation of Ecuador), Michel seeks to educate both himself and others about his passion: giant manta rays. 

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Not only has his work given the scientific community new knowledge about the creatures’ behaviors, but it has demonstrated their imperativeness to the greater ecosystem. But how did he come to be so passionate about giant manta rays and marine life in general? 

Michel Guerrero, a Scientist at Heart

Believe it or not, Michel’s hometown of Quito, Ecuador is approximately 2,850 meters above sea level and six hours away from the ocean. The seeds of his lifelong fascination with oceanic life were first planted by the television shows he and his cousins would watch together as children. 

He cites sci-fi series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and docu-series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau as his first inspirations to make the study of the ocean his lifelong goal.

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However, because Michel’s father was a doctor, he felt familial pressure to enter the medical field. So, after finishing high school, he immediately entered medical school; while he didn’t despise the curriculum, he knew it was not his passion. He learned that a university in Columbia—Jorge Tadeo Lozano University—had a world-renowned marine biology program. 

Transferring to this university was a huge risk for Michel: Not only was Columbia considered dangerous at the time, but he needed to sell his possessions in order to afford tuition/living expenses. Still, he was tenacious in his pursuits, and his decision to move ultimately paid off. After six years of study, Michel Guerrero earned a degree in marine biology.

Michel Guerrero Discovers His Love for Giant Manta Rays

After graduation, Michel briefly moved to Florida, US to earn his master’s degree. Upon returning to his home country, he found a job as a diver at Isla de la Plata, an uninhabited island off the central coast of Ecuador. It was here that he saw his first giant manta ray, an experience that forever changed him.

He recounted the story: “I was diving near Isla de la Plata. Just before entering the water, a fisherman told me, ‘Don’t go in the water. There’s a shark.’ When I looked down, I saw a giant manta ray. I knew they did no harm , so I just jumped in the water. That first encounter I had really blew my mind.”

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Because manta rays have the biggest brain-to-body ratio of all fish, Michel believes that they can connect with humans on a profound level; he claims to have felt such a connection during this first meeting: “We made real eye contact. It was something that changed my life. It was weird because I felt that inside it wasn’t just an animal… It looked like an alien.”

This experience was the catalyst for Michel’s current work with El Fundación Megafauna Marina del Ecuador.

What Makes Michel Guerrero an Everyday Hero?

Michel has devoted nearly 30 years to studying the giant manta ray. And while his research has contributed to a greater public knowledge of the creatures’ behaviors, it has also opened lawmakers’ eyes to the giant manta ray’s importance. 

According to NOAA Fisheries, giant manta rays are “crucial to the ecosystem. Manta rays control plankton abundance and diversity and regulate nutrient cycling. Their feeding and diving behavior creates a valuable ecological connection between the surface ocean and the deep sea.

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In addition to studying giant manta rays, Michel and his team share their findings with local lawmakers, hoping that they will pass measures to protect the species from poachers. 

Giant manta rays are hunted for their gill rakers, which some claim boost the immune system by enhancing blood circulation. However, according to Scientific American, “None of these purported medical claims are supported by science.”

Michel’s fight against poaching is heroic: He lives for the protection of docile, harmless creatures whose survival is vital to the functioning of the ecosystem. Because of his and his team members’ work, legislation has been passed that has benefited the species.

What Impact Has Michel Guerrero’s Work Made?

Michel’s accomplishments whilst working for El Fundación Megafauna Marina del Ecuador are innumerable, but he spoke on some of the highlights of his career, saying, “In 2011, we worked together with Galapagos National Park authorities to put together a proposal to the Conservation of Migratory Species [CMS]. Then, that same year, the CMS declared giant manta rays the first manta ray species to be protected under Appendix I in Ecuador.”

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According to the CMS website, species under Appendix I are considered endangered, and thereby receive the fullest level of protection under the law.

Additionally, his work with satellite tags—in which he and his team tag giant manta ray populations with satellite tracking devices—has given the scientific community new insight into the species’ movements.

Michel Guerrero on the Struggles of Maintaining a Non-Profit Organization

Michel and his teammates’ biggest struggle is, of course, finding funding for El Fundación Megafauna Marina del Ecuador. However, the organization has a number of ways to stay afloat. 

In the early days of the organization, they looked for local private companies who would be willing to act as sponsors. As their accomplishments grew, so did their receiving of grants.

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This culminated in their 2017 signed agreement with WWF (World Wildlife Fund), from which they received funding and equipment. Then, in 2021, National Geographic even provided a grant to the org.

Still, the organization’s aspirations exceed the limits set by its current income, so Michel is hopeful that his and his teammates’ work will eventually fall under the radar of more major corporate sponsors.

Michel Guerrero on Heroism

Being an everyday hero himself, Michel had the following to say when asked to define the word hero: “A hero is someone who has achieved something that others have not, someone who sets an example to follow and teaches others.” 

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His personal heroes include fellow Ecuadoran marine biologist Jimmy Martinez, as well as documentarian Rick Rosenthal, who, according to Michel, works strictly out of love for the ocean.

However, Michel’s greatest hero is his wife: “The most important person to me is my wife,” he said. “Without her support and my family’s support, my accomplishments could’ve never happened.”

Michel Guerrero Is a Hero

Michel’s passion for oceanic life is intertwined with his humanitarianism. He studies giant manta rays both out of inherent curiosity and out of love for the world: Because of the manta rays’ irreplaceable role in the ecosystem, their survival is beneficial to humankind as well. 

Considering this, Michel Guerrero’s unflinching efforts to protect the endangered species make him an everyday hero.

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“Through the information we collect we wish to teach people about this species,” he said. “People should watch documentaries and read books. The first step towards falling in love with something is knowing about it… If you don’t know anything about something, you won’t care about it.”

Michel Guerrero Resources

Learn more about Michel Guerrero’s work with giant manta rays. 

Visit the Proyecto Mantas Ecuador website.  

Check out El Fundación Megafauna Marina del Ecuador’s Facebook page. 

Keep up with Michel’s dives on his Instagram page. 

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