I love everything in the ocean. Really. But I do have to confess to a very special feeling about rays. Stingrays, Eagle Rays, Manta Rays….they are breathtaking to watch, and I get excited every time I see one. My love of the ocean I credit to my parents, as they took my brother and I to Florida every single year for at least two weeks during my childhood. My love of marine animals began with Jacques Cousteau, who introduced me as a child, through his tv specials, to a mysterious, underwater realm with incredible, colorful creatures. Sincerely, the ocean and its inhabitants make me happy, fill me with childlike wonder, and I can never, never get enough. I love to photograph them even though I am strictly an amateur.
The first experience I ever had with rays was with Manta Rays. They were seen every summer off of Ft Lauderdale, Florida, and we were called out of the water immediately when they were sighted. I remember looking through the binoculars at a “devilfish” I found enthralling and graceful, though I was told they would “eat” me. As I began snorkeling and diving as a young adult, whenever a ray came near I was mesmerized. They fly through the water with graceful, undulating wings (flaps), and I have always found them beautiful. I love coming across them when they are buried in the sand, with just their eyes and spiracles visible. What a great photo that makes!
When our children were small, we took them to the Cayman Islands several times. Of course we went to Stingray City. I went to Stingray City when I was pregnant, both times actually, and snorkeled above my husband while he was covered in Southern Sting Rays. They feel so very soft, especially underneath. Like velvet. Stingray City was every bit as much for me as the kids… It always amazed me, to snorkel, float, or to stand near so many beautiful rays.
I saw my first Eagle Ray in Cozumel, and I was so excited I could barely breathe. Eagles are big and glorious as they fly through the water, and have “cheerios” markings. They all fascinate me, from the small Yellow Rays to the Southern Stingrays, to the Eagles, the blue spotted, and the Queen of them all, the Manta. I saw a documentary on Manta Rays a few years back, and the biologist on the show, Dr. Andrea Marshall, was absolutely charismatic in her passion for Mantas. She was the first person to do a doctoral thesis on the Manta, and she has traveled all over the world trying to save them as they are very endangered (thank you Chinese medicine). Based in Tofo, Mozambique, I thought about going over there to see them for myself. I actually ended up volunteering with a group called All Out Africa and went to Tofo to search for the rays. I also met Andrea Marshall, briefly, and I admire her spirit and devotion to these animals. She is truly Queen of the Mantas! Here is a link to my blogs about being in Tofo, Mozambique!
Seeing many new rays in Africa, I only saw two Mantas! Only two. Actually, my diving in Tofo was disappointing to me, but perhaps it was just the wrong season. For whatever reason, my visions of being surrounded by manta rays while diving did not materialize, at least not in Tofo. I did see Blue Spotted Rays, a Torpedo Electric Ray, one Mobula, a Jenkins Whiptail and a Honeycombed Whiptail, but I never saw the rare Small-Eye Stingray. I enjoyed seeing new and different rays, though.
My desire for Manta Ray encounters continued, and I finally achieved a dive trip where I saw several Giant Mantas, Black Pacific Mantas, Reef Mantas….it is almost indescribable, diving with these curious, beautiful, mysterious giants. You can tell from their eyes that they are intelligent, you know they are “checking” you out. I took a million photos, and each dive was more thrilling than the next…rays and sharks! What could be better? That was our trip on the Solmar V to the Revillagigedos Islands…I want to do that again! I turned my photos over to the Pacific Manta Research Group, and I photographed one they hadn’t seen in 10 years! They graciously allowed me to name it, so I named it Jedi. May the force be with you.
My last encounters were just a week or so ago, on Stocking Island in the Exumas, Bahamas. They swarm the beach, AJ, the conch man, has been giving them scraps of conch and they gladly swim all over you in search of it! I loved feeding them, touching them, and taking pictures. One of the rays was different, definitely NOT a Southern Stingray as the rest of them were. It felt sandy on top, not soft, and had very small eyes with a large head and thick tail. I’d never seen it before. After a few days of research I found my ray: the Caribbean Whip Tail Ray! I had never even heard of it. I’m always excited when I see a new animal!
My next search for rays will be in Thailand and Myanmar…I am doing a live aboard on the Mergui Archipelago. I will certainly blog about that trip! And in September, I will be in Ecuador with Dr. Marshall’s team, doing volunteer work with Mantas for 2 weeks. I can’t wait!
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No one really knows for sure about the ray populations except for the Manta Ray. Mantas are endangered. The Marine Megafauna Foundation works very hard, as do other great organizations, to change that. I urge you to take a look at their website and learn about these amazing creatures. I adopted a Manta and named her Daenarys Targareon, from Game of Thrones. Adopting a ray or a whale shark helps to protect these animals from extinction, and ending up in Chinese medicine and Shark Fin Soup. I urge you to visit them at http://www.marinemegafauna.org/. You will fall in love! I certainly did.