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Women Mind the Water Podcast Series: Martina Wing, Hawaii

As told by Martina Wing
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

Story Narrative:

A woman with a black t-shirt on stands on the beach in front of the ocean.

Submitted as part of the Women Mind the Water (WMW) digital stories project produced by Pam Ferris-Olson, in conjunction with Stories from Main Street and the traveling exhibition "Water/Ways." This story is one in a series created for a podcast in 2022, featuring regional and international artists whose inspiration blends conversation, activism, science, and water. Find earlier stories from the WMW initiative by searching for "Women Mind the Water" on this website.

Martina Wing is a manta ray and marine life advocate, educator, author, and underwater photographer. Martina fell in love with the ocean in 1998 after scuba diving with manta rays for the first time. Martina now devotes her life to educating and inspiring others to honor, protect, and support our oceans. She co-owns Manta Ray Advocates on the Big Island of Hawaii, and with her husband James co-founded Hawaii Ocean Watch, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Pam Ferris-Olson (00:01): Today on the Women Mind the Water Artivist Series I'm speaking with Martina Wing. Martina is a manta ray and marine life advocate, educator, author, and underwater photographer. Martina has devoted her life to educating and inspiring others to honor, protect, and support our oceans. The Women Mind the Water podcast series engages artists in conversation about their work, and explores their connection with the ocean. Through their stories Women Mind the Water hopes to inspire and encourage action to protect the ocean and her creatures. I am pleased to welcome Martina Wing to the Women Mind the Water Artivist Series podcast. Martin fell in love with the ocean in 1998, after scuba diving with manta rays for the first time. Originally trained as an environmental engineer, Martin now works as a manta ray and marine life advocate, educator, author, and underwater photographer. Martina co-owns Manta Ray Advocates on the Big Island of Hawaii. And with her husband, James co-founded Hawaii Ocean Watch the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Welcome, Martina.

Martina Wing (01:18): Aloha, Aloha.

Pam Ferris-Olson (01:19): How you're doing? I am looking forward to our conversation about the many things you do to inspire others to support our oceans. Among these are having written Notch, a children's book about a true-life rescue of a bottle nose dolphin. You also teach online basic underwater photography, and probably the most exciting thing you do is offer a nighttime snorkel adventure with manta rays. I'd like to begin by talking about what you were doing before that fateful dive in 1998 with manta rays, where did you grow up and what got you interested in scuba dive?

Martina Wing (01:59): I pretty much fell into to do what I do today. You mentioned I'm an engineer by trade. So I finished school in Germany, I grew up in Germany. And until my 30th, when I turned 30, that was really when the trajectory of my life changed. I went traveling to Hawaii, I went on the path onto Hawaii, so was traveling, and did a volunteer program in Oahu with dolphins. And I had got certified in Australia eight years prior in '91, 7 years prior in '91. And I just always wanted to go back into scuba diving. So being in Hawaii I wanted to try it again. And I did the manta ray dive here on the corner coast, it's on the Big Island. And I was actually on a different island, Oahu. People said, "If you go diving, go on the Big Island." And so I did some daytime diving, refreshed myself on the skills and then did the night dive with the manta rays.

Martina Wing (03:04): And that point we had only one location on the coastline where commercial operators brought you to see the manta rays. And I was actually in a really sad chapter of my life. I had lost my first husband to leukemia and in a really deep grieving stage. And so when I did this dive and I saw these incredible, beautiful animals and being underwater, really back to the basics and feeling humbled and feeling small with all the live questions that came up because of this sad chapter or sad ending for my first husband, I felt like there is something else for me in this life.

Martina Wing (03:52): Manta rays themselves are angel-like creatures. They are big fish and they're harmless. They have no stinger, no teeth, no barb. And the combination of being in the ocean at night, I mean, it's really, really impactful. And for me it changed my life in the sense of like I did the dive and that was this gentleman on the board filming me. I bought the video, and think of it, it's a VHS tape that I purchased in '98, so it's a really long time ago technology wise. And I bought the video from the gentleman on the board and I also married him. So, I bought the video, I married the guy, immigrated to the United States and we continued filming together the manta rays and build a company-

Pam Ferris-Olson (04:34): That's quite a triple love story. Your husband, Hawaii and manta rays. I don't know how many of our listeners know what a manta ray is. Would you describe what a ray is? And then tell us the difference between a ray and a manta ray?

Martina Wing (04:50): Yeah, so this is actually how I start my briefing every single night when I have my guests, because it's confusing, rays in the ocean. And most people think of spotted eagle rays or bat ray and a cow ray. And then the infamous stingray and Steve Irwin's last problem. So, people know about rays in the ocean, but in particular and the manta ray is another one in this so many different rays in the ocean. And specific to the manta rays is their size, they're the largest rays in the ocean. And then there's a distinction between smaller manta ray, which is actually called the reef manta. And just let that sink in the sizes of a reef manta in itself. When it's born, it's about two or three feet and we measure wingspan. Then you have a teenager manta ray at about six feet and the grownup males are nine feet. And then the grown up females for the reef mantas are 10 to 12 to 14 feet.

Pam Ferris-Olson (05:50): So the females are larger than the males?

Martina Wing (05:53): I think that would totally resonate with you. The girls are large in the chart, so. And then this is actually the smaller species of manta rays, and then there's the larger species. So just double down reef mantas, their habitat is the reef. In Hawaii our reefs are our backyard, they're really close to shore. And then when you have a pelagic manta ray and the other name would be oceanic manta ray or giant manta rays, they roam the big blue. They're out in the deep water. We would see them on an occasion if they just swim by the reef, but then they go back out with a hang out and the sizes of those could be 22 feet and more, you know?

Pam Ferris-Olson (06:37): That's as big as some of the whale, larger whales. Yes, wow.

Martina Wing (06:41): It's really big fish. Maybe another fact is that manta rays have no teeth, no stinger, no barb. So it's a harmless creature and their protection in the ocean's their sheer size. And they are creatures of perpetual motion. A manta ray swims its entire life, it glides and swim through the ocean because it needs the gills oxygenated.

Pam Ferris-Olson (07:02): So, you wrote a children's book about a real adventure that involved the rescue of a dolphin.

Martina Wing (07:08): Yes.

Pam Ferris-Olson (07:08): And I'm wondering, since you're so deeply inspired by manta rays, why didn't you write a book about manta rays?

Martina Wing (07:17): Well, this particular rescue took place at the manta ray dive site. So it was for me a natural thing to talk about the manta rays, and what happened. Actually, it was happened in 2013, and I'm not a really social media person back then. I went really late into the social media game. And I filmed this particular rescue. I'm underwater, I'm filming the gentleman who rescues the dolphin and think of it, I should start a little different. We're at the manta ray site, we're looking at manta rays that 12 manta rays flying around, they're all feeding on the plankton. And several groups out there. And one of the dive masters has a cut up, like something to cut lines with.

Martina Wing (08:05): And this particular dolphin is a bottle nose dolphin. And he said has been seen many times along the coast. And he used to come to the site maybe 20 times prior to this rescue with two other buddies. So they were always swimming in threes to come to the site. And that particular night he came by himself and he went really slow. And he's like really thinking, "What's going on here? Can someone help me?" And what happened is he had fishing line wrapped around his pectoral fin and his mouth. And he specifically chose this dive master that had the tool to rescue him. Now you can speculate, how did it know? I think it's, well, I do know it. You can see the video, it's still online. You can see how the dolphin swim around and looking around. And this particular gentleman started doing this for a very long time too. He let go of his camera and had his hands up and started to work the fishing line and the dolphin realize, "I should stay here and get rescued." And the rescue took place. I took the video.

Pam Ferris-Olson (09:10): So I'd love it, if you'd help us imagine what it's like swimming with a manta ray. Describe what the experience is like, what will we see and what would we hear?

Martina Wing (09:20): Well, you have to be certified. You jump in, it's all guided, it's all guided tours. And the concept of the dive is you sit on the bottom of the ocean about 30 feet of depth. We set up a campfire concept. Once several dive groups are there and then they have a big box with lights in the middle. It's a sandy patch and 30 feet. And then a dive group sit around that light box, like a campfire. And everybody has a dive light. Every diver has to have their own life light and then think of it from 30 feet up, the lights are shining towards the surface. And at the same time the bubbles are going up as well. And if the plankton is in abundance, the manta rays are classic condition to come from the reef and say, "Hey, I want to feed on that plankton."

Martina Wing (10:09): And how can you envision it? It's like a rock concert. It's like you have these beautiful, big fish swimming around and the divers are blowing their bubbles. The lights are going crossing. And at the same time the snorkelers at the site too, and they're hanging on the surface and they have lights and they're shining it down. There are surfboards with lights in it to keep the groups organized. But so you have all these, if you look at it as a diver, you feel like there's a stars up there and they're all moving around. So it's an incredible setup from visual. Emotional very impactful. And then you see angel-like beautiful, big fish swimming around.

Pam Ferris-Olson (10:53): So I know with marine mammals such as whales and dolphins there are rules for engagement. These were established to prevent marine mammals from being harassed or harmed. Mantas are fish. And I'm curious to know if there are rules for engagement with mantas, for example, how close should people get?

Martina Wing (11:14): Yeah, so on this particular manta ray experience, as an industry really back in '93, I believe already the group came together. The groups came together that were offering the tour and created the guidelines for the participants how to best behave around the manta rays. Because the whole concept is, well, it's food-driven concept, right? The manta rays are not there because of the people, the manta rays are there for the food. So it's the best benefit, everybody benefits if we don't interfere with the animal. And so there's no touching, the snorkelers have to stay on the surface, and they cannot free dive down. It's a concept of holding your breath and free dive down. We are not allowed to do that. And the guides all enforce that.

Martina Wing (12:01): And for the divers, you stay on the bottom, like in that sand patch where we have to divers. You settle down. And even if the ocean is a little rougher, we actually give people a little bit extra weight and some divers are more buoyant. They get a big rock, a lot of lava rocks laying around, and put a rock in someone's lap. So let's stay put because it's really important that we don't interfere with the animal and the goal that the animal has, which is simply wants to feed. And this is established for so many years in this industry. And it works well because we have consistent sightings. The manta rays are not scared of the situation of bubbles and lights, they actually get conditioned and feel trust, that they can trust to come to the site. Yeah, that's-

Pam Ferris-Olson (12:48): So you said that some of the manta rays have been around a long time.

Martina Wing (12:53): Yes.

Pam Ferris-Olson (12:53): How do you know the individual?

Martina Wing (12:56): If I just open my book for a second, the first page is about the manta ray. If you see it, all these manta rays here, there's a spot pattern on between that gill slits right here on the other side. And if you would look at all the other five in here, they all have a different spot pattern. That is a unique marking that we concentrate on. I mean, they're all unique to have personalities, individuality, and we name the manta rays. So if you look at that spot pattern between our gill slits, it's like a fingerprint. And then we can say, "Okay, this is this manta ray and this manta ray."

Pam Ferris-Olson (13:28): Okay.

Martina Wing (13:29): And the ones I referred to earlier is, the manta ray we see for 30 years, her name is Big Bertha, she was identified in 1992. She is about 12 to 14 feet. She's a really large female.

Pam Ferris-Olson (13:42): Big girl, yes.

Martina Wing (13:44): You bet. And she was Big Bertha back then in '92. For 30 years she's Big Bertha and not, she was named not Little Bertha or Bertha. She was a grown up female, reproductive, and is still seen at least 50 times a year on the coastline here. And she tells us, or she teaches us so much because she's around for so long. And I followed her pregnancies over the years and created a video how you can actually see her being chased by the boys. It's the first part of the mating process, and then all the way to 13 months later when they actually give birth. I didn't get the birth, of course, I mean, that would be, it's never been filmed. But the process of how she actually expand, her belly got bigger and bigger to have one pup at a time is rolled up like a burrito inside and it's live birth when the pup comes out. And I've created this pregnancy diary to show people how, what you look for when the manta ray is, and the female gets bigger and bigger and has this big pregnancy belly.

Pam Ferris-Olson (14:53): I think that's a testament to you as a diver and as an interpreter guide to keep people away. So they're watching at a respectful distance so that the manta rays, people are just background noise and not bothering them.

Martina Wing (15:13): Yeah, that's definitely the concept. And I purposely called my company Manta Ray Advocates, because I speak for the animal, you know? So, it was really important to me that there is a voice like this in our industry as well, because people are so disconnected from nature that it has to be someone speaking for the animals. It's like, and these are voiceless, gentle giants. It's really important that we keep telling the stories that we can keep them around for a long, long time. I mean, manta rays.

Pam Ferris-Olson (15:44): I think you're a wonderful, very clear voice, both in interpreting what people are watching and being an advocate for the manta ray. One of the previous guests was Cathy Sakas, an interpretive naturalist, author and filmmaker. I'd say that what you do has a lot in common with Cathy's work, but in your case you are interpreting Hawaii's underwater ecosystem. What are some of the more common questions you get?

Martina Wing (16:17): It always circles back to this question. Also, are they endangered or how many manta rays are in the ocean and stuff like that. And I always try to bring it full circle for my guests. It's yes, I'm a facilitator to show them something most beautiful. It stays with people for a long, long time to see manta rays. And at the same time we have to do the work, because manta rays are red listed. Actually, both species are on the red list. And one is in different categories, but we have to be careful. It's a very slow reproducing animal. 13 months gestation period with one pup at a time. Takes 10, 15 years to reach sexual maturity. And everything goes well, every two or four years there might be a pregnancy. That's what we've actually seen with Big Bertha.

Pam Ferris-Olson (17:09): Did you say one pup at a time? That's incredible.

Martina Wing (17:13): Yes, yeah. You know, we don't know enough actually about it. Maybe it could be two, but it's not like 50 coming out of it, you know? So, and just last, excuse me, just last November two days before Thanksgiving, I met the smallest pup I've ever seen. I've seen, I mean, I named 55 manta rays over the years. So I've really been involved in seeing different manta rays, different sizes, the males, the females and everything. And that was the smallest one. And she still had her fetal folds on her back. When a burrito comes out of this, a burrito pup comes out of and unfolds its wings, it had these fetal folds. And this little pup is now actually seen. She wasn't here at the beginning of the year, but I see her almost every second or third time. So she seems to get used to this area to be maybe her home range, to come to the lights at night.

Martina Wing (18:10): It's super exciting to see how these little ones grow up. And I don't, when you saw this one and she was about two or three feet, I cannot believe that Big Bertha, I'm not sure if she's the mother, but out of this big belly would come two or three or four or five. This was a brand new pup. And so yeah, we believe that it's one pup at a time, maybe two, and that's it. And if it's such a slow reproducing animal, we have to do the work to protecting.

Martina Wing (18:38): Asian fisheries hunt manta rays, because as a demand for their part of their body. And if we don't really speed up the process to make sure the natural world has a chance to survive, really it's the survival. We're going through an extinction process here. Then I don't know where this is going. I just know when my guests leave the, and that's my wish for them when they leave our activity, they're not only motivated to do better, they're invigorated to do better. The manta rays have a real impact. This whole experience has a real impact on them.

Pam Ferris-Olson (19:17): I think-

Martina Wing (19:18): And this-

Pam Ferris-Olson (19:19): ... interview's going to have a real impact on listeners too. Especially when I show the video that you've shared.

Martina Wing (19:24): Yeah, I love that. I love that. Yes, spread the word, spread the word.

Pam Ferris-Olson (19:27): Yes.

Martina Wing (19:28): In 20 years of doing this, I mean, I'm 24 years with manta rays now. And I felt always keep talking, keep talking. I mean, I feel like it's my purpose to do the work. So it's very, I've never get tired of something. Like people say, "That's your job." I'm like, "Yeah, it's my job. It's my business too." But there's so much inner energy from coming from me to do this. And for 20 years, I can say it was awareness work. Just trying people, shake people up, stay with us, make sure the natural doesn't go extinct. And now this is the decade where we actually have to do something. It's the execution of not putting ourselves always in the forefront as the species that needs to have all the needs we need to cater to the humans.

Martina Wing (20:20): No, no, no, this is now the time. This is the decade where we have to do the work to do things. Execute, not just have awareness work, execute. And I'm really, really happy when I see all the nonprofits set up, all set up over the last 10, 12, 15 years that actually have so many programs where you can get involved. And people can do work. We have to do a lot of stuff, but we can do it. We can execute now. And that's what I'm hoping for that my work brings to people.

Pam Ferris-Olson (20:52): I think you just answered my last question to you, which was, I wonder what sort of message you might share with listeners, especially those that haven't been to Hawaii, or maybe even to visit the ocean?

Martina Wing (21:05): If the ecosystem ocean collapses, we as a whole planet, we're done. I mean, it doesn't work any other way. So here's the thing, the statistics I want to bring in, it has to do with shark finning. And I hope your listeners are familiar with shark finning, but it's from the Chinese traditional meal there's a demand that is so outrageous high that for a soup that is being prepared for traditional meals they need a shark fin. And the shark are being killed in numbers of 70 million, 70 million sharks a year for demand for a soup. And let's make it graphic, it's a bloody stupid soup, right? So, if we cannot pull back on that and we take the apex predator of being sharks out of the ocean in these numbers, the system will collapse just from that concept.

Martina Wing (22:09): And when I tell people my guests that at night, I mean, they really step back and it have to swallow hard, but this is the message, we have to do the work. We have the numbers, we have the statistics, we have the groups that can do the work for you. Maybe you can just want to donate money. Maybe you want to volunteer, maybe get a job with these groups. Like for manta, for example, I really like It's a nonprofit in the Maldives specific to manta rays. They're doing incredible work. Then there is Sylvia Earl. Then there is, I could go and go on, list is really long, who does the work. And the groups are established. They have missions, they have programs, and we need to bring all the other folks in that just want to sit back and just live their life. We can't do it that way, because in 10 years the world will look very different if we don't do the work now.

Pam Ferris-Olson (23:12): Well, I think you've given us some wonderful insight into what it's like below the waters, and given us some good advice. I will post your websites on mine, so people can find you and hopefully want to come and experience it themselves. Martina, I want to thank you for being on the Women Mind the Water podcast. I hope you have enjoyed listening to Martina speak about the waters of the Big Island of Hawaii, and particularly giving us a better understanding of the fish known as a manta ray. I'd like to remind listeners that I have been speaking with Martina Wing for the Women Mind the Water podcast series. The series can be viewed on An audio only version of this podcast is available on the Women Mind the Water website, on iTunes and other sites. Women Mind the Water to Jane Rice for the use of her song, Women of the Water. All rights for the Women Mind the Water name and logo belong to Pam Ferris-Olson. This is Pam Ferris-Olson.

Asset ID: 2022.04.08
Themes: Manta rays, snorkeling, diving, scuba, photography, writing, fiction, authors, dolphins, shark conservation
Date recorded: June 17, 2022
Length of recording: 24:19 m
Related traveling exhibition: Water/Ways
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Women Mind the Water
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