My absolute favourite animals in the entire animal kingdom (yes I do have a favourite) are the magnificent and exquisite manta rays. These angels of the ocean are the largest of all ray species, and from the moment I swam alongside my first manta ray, I fell completely head over heels in love. Never have I ever felt so ponderous and inelegant in all my underwater career, than when swimming next to these gentle giants.
All rays are actually fish belonging to a specific group of fish called the Elasmobranchii, and believe it or not, they are the distant cousins of sharks. Both sharks and rays are cartilaginous fish with skeletons made from cartilage rather than bone, the same material as human noses and ears. This adaptation means their flattened bodies are much more flexible, lighter and resistant to disease yet cartilage is weaker than bone. Rays can have up to seven gills, a motionless upper jaw, and teeth-like scales functioning as a suit of armour when they are under attack. However, the most striking feature of rays in general are the pectoral fins which are the wing-like appendages allowing them to “fly”.
Although there are no regular sightings of manta rays here in Grand Cayman, I am enlightened and fully appreciate the ray species we do see: both the southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) and the spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari). Not only are rays the birds of the sea, they are armed with super senses completely inconceivable to the human mind. Both sharks and rays share ours senses; smell, touch, taste, sight and hearing but inhabit a world entirely different from ours. In the vast ocean, light and sound moves at different angles and speeds than in air. Therefore, such creatures have evolved special adaptations to allow them to travel the globe, locate both mates and prey underwater. Both stingrays and eagle rays don’t rely on their vision to navigate the oceans and find their prey on the seafloor instead, they have highly sensitive, gel-filled electroreceptive pores. Using these specialised sensory organs, they are able to detect the minute electrical sensations that all living creatures generate. This ability would be equivalent to humans detecting electrical signals of a flashlight battery from 10,000 miles away.
Rays are graceful and majestic creatures which come in many different shapes and sizes. The short-nose electric ray will grow to just 10cm (4in) and will only weigh about 400g (1 pound). Compare this to the giant manta ray which can weigh 1,630kg (3,600 lbs) when they’re fully grown, and their wingspan can reach a grandiose size of 7m (23ft)! Despite their impressive presence, rays have received bad press in the media. Both stingrays and eagle rays have barbed stingers located near the base of the tail, which are absent in manta rays. The sting contains a sharp spine with serrated edges and there is a venom gland located at the base. However both these docile creatures are completely misunderstood and undeserving of their dangerous reputation; the stingers are solely used to protect the individual against predators and they do not attack aggressively. Come to think of it, both rays and their sharky cousins are equally misunderstood.
Every single day I remind myself it is an immense privilege to swim with these animals as part of my work, and I am driven by my innate passion to teach, educate and show people the world that I am so lucky to explore everyday. Rays are at greater risk of extinction with each day from threats such as targeted fisheries, bycatch, habitat destruction to marine debris, unregulated tourism and ultimately climate change. Considering humans interact with fish, even without the aid of scuba tanks, on many levels and in greater numbers than they do with mammals and birds on land, it is now time to protect and conserve the “birds” of the oceans.
Written by: Lauren Arthur