May 27, 2016
Keller Laros B.S. ’85
On a night dive off the coast of Kona, Hawaii, Keller Laros maneuvered slowly underwater in his scuba gear.
Around him, giant manta rays—some with wingspans over 20 feet—glided gracefully, feasting on plankton that shimmered in the bright beam of his flashlight.
“Suddenly, I heard a piercing sonar burst as a large bottlenose dolphin swam past me,” says Laros. He noticed a fishing line wrapped around its left pectoral fin. Gesturing with his index finger, Laros motioned for the dolphin to return. “It swam back and presented me with its fin, as if asking for help,” he says.
Using a special diving tool, Laros removed the hook from its mouth and began cutting the fishing line. For the next eight minutes, the dolphin moved slowly, as if dancing with Laros, surfaced for air, and reappeared until its fin was free.
“If I hadn’t cut the line, it would likely have lost a fin and not survived,” he says.
An underwater photographer and videographer, Laros has logged more than 11,500 dives. After identifying and cataloging manta rays for over a decade, he founded the Manta Pacific Research Foundation with his wife, Wendy, and a team of other enthusiasts in 2002.
“Our mission is to study mantas in their natural habitat, conduct scientific research, educate the public, and promote global manta conservation,” says Laros, whose expertise has earned him the moniker Manta Man.
Concerned about the rapid growth of manta tourism in Hawaii, Laros embarked on a six-year campaign to protect these graceful creatures. In 2009, he succeeded in getting a law passed that makes it illegal to kill or capture manta rays in state waters.
“I couldn’t wait to share that success with Curtis Johnson, my former political science professor and advisor at Lewis & Clark,” he says. “Majoring in political science and history paid off for me.”
Laros began his journey as an undergrad at Lewis & Clark, intending to later study law. During his junior year, he joined a scuba certification class taught by Gary Emblen, who was an associate professor of physical education at the time. He also participated in an overseas study program to Grand Cayman and the Bahamas, with Emblen and then biology professor Tom Darrow.
“Those early diving experiences led me to choose a life lived in a wetsuit instead of a business suit,” he says.
After graduating from Lewis & Clark in 1985, Laros earned his scuba instructor certification from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and taught in California. In 1991, he moved to Hawaii and joined Jack’s Diving Locker, where he taught scuba certification courses and guided divers on the Kona Coast. By 1993, Laros had created the PADI-authorized Manta Ray Diver Specialty course, which remains the most popular specialty certification offered at Jack’s. That same year, he worked with other diving professionals to create guidelines for manta ray tours. In 1995, he married Wendy, also a PADI scuba instructor at Jack’s. They have three children, all of whom are certified divers.
While filming manta rays on his night diving tours, Laros found he could identify individual mantas by unique spot patterns on their undersides. “We’ve identified more than 250 around the island of Hawaii,” he says. “The oldest is Lefty, who’s over 40. I’ve known her longer than my children.” Eventually, he hopes to get DNA samples from manta rays around the islands to determine whether they are from the same population. The results could influence management guidelines.
Laros fears that without ongoing efforts to protect and preserve manta rays, who mature slowly, don’t migrate, and produce only one pup every few years, these gentle giants could become extinct—victims of their own popularity. “Manta ray tourism has exploded in Hawaii,” he says. “On any given night, there are 200 to 300 divers and snorkelers in the water. One of my goals is to help create a sustainable management program that will ensure the safety of humans, manta rays, and the environment.”
Laros remains committed to education, preservation, and the promotion and regulation of eco-manta tourism as an alternative to the fishing and killing of manta rays that takes place for profit in other parts of the world. “I’ve lived a meaningful life,” he says. “By simply doing what I love, I feel I’ve helped to make the world a better place.”
—by Pattie Pace