TWO Malton businesses have been involved in a world-first research project - scanning a pregnant wild reef manta ray, underwater and without touching her.

The technique was the brainchild of Ray Rochester, managing director of Malton firm Vetsonic.

He said the project came about because so little was known about the breeding, mating or birthing of manta ray species off the coast of the Maldives in the Indian ocean.

He met with the Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI) at Six Senses Laamu, a marine conservation initiative.

“The challenge was put down; could we scan them just like any other animal?” he said.

Ray is an expert in ultrasound scanning, and established Vetsonic in 1989 to be one of the pioneers in the field.

“They said it couldn’t be done - I said that sounds like a challenge,” he said.

The threatened reef manta rays (Mobula alfredi) live below the surface of the ocean, so any scanner would have to contend with pressure at 30 metres depth, currents and seawater, as well as the challenge of being used on a live animal always moving at speed.

“We had to find a way of scanning it without touching the animal,” he said, saying they wanted the process to be as unobtrusive as possible.

“It was like juggling with jellyfish,” he added.

In order to obtain clear ultrasound images of the manta fetus, there were huge challenges, including the fact that underwater, wi-fi only travels five or six centimetres.

Experts at IMV Imaging in Scotland 3D-printed a cradle for the scanner and smartphone, and an aluminium version has also been created by engineer Paul Wales of Hy-Tech Engineering in Malton.

It was demonstrated on a sea cucumber first, then moved on to some fish species, then mantas.

Before long, in addition to working with MUI, Cambridge University researchers were on board, making it a co-operative partnership and exploring new applications for the technology.