History and nature appreciation don’t normally go hand in hand, but they should, because unless you know what used to live in Hong Kong waters, you don’t know what constitutes ‘good condition’ of the marine environment. So I love looking through old papers and spotting the ‘monsters’ of long ago.
And here is one the China Mail reported on its front page on 24th of June 1957:
MANTA RAY CAUGHT AT BIG WAVE
Chinese fisherman caught a 11-foot (3.35 m) Manta ray at Big Wave Bay yesterday afternoon. This was reported this morning by a Colony resident, Mr A S Dower. Mr Dower said there were two junks lying off the beach an it appeared that the Manta was caught from one of these. At about 7.15 p.m. , as the beach began to clear, the fisherman rowed a sampan to shore towing the ray behind. Then they beached the ray. Mr Dower said that when he left soon after it was still there. The catching of the ray was the climax of an exciting afternoon. The shark bell sounded four or five times. “It seemed to be dinging all afternoon”, one swimmer said. “I am not sure they were all sharks. I saw a fin once a good way out but I’m not sure it was a shark or a Manta.The Manta has a small fin – I noticed it when it was brought to shore,” he said. Big Wave Bay was crowded yesterday afternoon. Two rows of tents lined the beach and during the afternoon they were fully occupied. But the surf was flat. A porpoise was also reported to have been caught at Big Wave Bay last night.
So, 3.35 m wide Manta rays and porpoises at Big Wave Bay in 1957. We still have the finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) in HK, but I have never heard of anyone seeing or catching a Manta ray in my living memory. Nur according to other sources villagers in eastern waters caught manta rays in the 1960’s using the oil from the liver to light lamps and the gills as medicine. Manta rays are oceanic species and not really costal dwellers, so I suspect they would only pass through HK much like great whales, tuna and many shark in the summer months. According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department the species Manta birostris has been reported from HK waters and they can grow up to 8 m in width!
It’s my hope that someday some HK diver is going to post an amazing video online – like the one below from Bali (WikiCommons)- of Manta rays swimming through Hong Kong waters. And this is not an unrealistic hope either! The Thames river and estuary was delcared ‘biologically extinct’ in the 50’s but recovered following environmental protection legislation and efforts to rehabilitate it, and now it has dolphins, salmon, seals and even the occasional whale…right up to central London. And similar things have happened in other formerly polluted waterways near major cities. As long as we don’t cause species to go extinct (in the case of Mantas by eating too much of their gills and killing them as bycatch etc), there is always hope they will someday come back.