What is your favorite marine critter and why?
For Mantagirl, it’s….well…manta rays of course!!! Why? I’ll explain, but first there seems to be a lot of confusion over different species of rays. Let me try to clear that up.
The three rays you are most likely to see snorkeling or diving in tropical oceans are the sting ray, spotted eagle ray and manta ray. They are very easily distinguishable from each other. Scientifically, they are all the same down the line of scientific classification through Order. They are all Elasmobranchs (cartilaginous fishes) and are all of the order Myliobatiformes. At the family level they split. Ah…yes, so many families split up these days…….
Sting rays are named for the barb at the base of the tail and are the animals of stupid Steve Irwin fame. They feed mostly on mollusks and crustaceans and use smell and electro receptors to detect their prey in the sand. You can find them on the bottom often concealed in the sand. They are not aggressive and use their barbs only in self defense. These are the rays that people “swim” with at Stingray City in the Cayman Islands.
Spotted Eagle rays are named for their white spots on the top of their bodies and reach a length of 8 feet measured wingtip to wingtip. They also have a defensive barb at the base of their tail. These magnificent rays have large heads and powerful mouths for crushing the shells of their main prey, mollusks and crustaceans. They are not bottom rays but powerful ocean swimming rays. While they skim the bottom for food, you will not see this ray laying on the bottom of the sea.
Manta rays, in my opinion are the most stunning member of the ray family. And also the largest. The largest ocean going Pacific manta has been measured at 22 feet across!! They do not have barbs on their tails and do not feed in the sand. These rays are plankton feeders and use two fins on either side of their mouths to scoop and filter planktonic material out of the water. These cephalic fins are rolled up when not in use and open when the rays are either feeding or being cleaned at cleaning stations. Most mantas are countershaded for protection with white bellies and black tops, however mostly or all black mantas are not uncommon. Each manta has a distinct pattern of spots and splotches top and bottom.
So now that you can identify the different rays, let me tell you why I LOVE mantas. To me, they are the ballerinas of the sea. They are incredibly graceful and I get the feeling that they simply love life, making great loops and turns in the water. This is how they feed, by making huge back rolls scooping up plankton. It just looks like so much FUN! When they come into a cleaning station, they make long lazy turns like a 747 in the sky, allowing the cleaner fish to do their job.
They have these incredible piercing eyes behind their cephalic fins which seem to stare into my eyes whenever I am watching them. But it’s a kind stare, more of a gaze than a glare. I can, and do watch them for hours!
The best way to observe mantas is to go to a cleaning station. Give them some space around the station and stay outside of their “circle”. Then just settle in on the bottom and wait. The mantas become easily relaxed with you watching and will often become curious. Often, they will circle over your head and at times, I’ve even had to duck!! Each time they circle past those eyes captivate me! THIS is why manta rays ROCK!
Like all humans, when we have these kind of encounters, we like to think that we’ve made a special connection to an animal, that perhaps we’ve “bonded”. Maybe we do and maybe we don’t but the lasting memory of the experience leaves an impression for a lifetime.
What’s your favorite critter? Share your story!!
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