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Brian Hall, the R.V. Odyssey's science intern swims with a magnificent manta ray! Manta Rays may attain a wing span of more than 6 meters, but for all their tremendous size and power they pose no threat, unlike some rays their whip like tail lacks a sting.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

October 30, 2000
Manta Rays
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Log Transcript

Manta rays are the largest of all rays and are the distant cousins of sharks, both of which are cartilaginous fish. The giant black and white manta ray may attain a wingspan of more than 6 meters. But for all of its tremendous size and power it poses no threat, unlike some rays its whip like tail lacks a sting, in fact the manta is as harmless as a shadow in the sea.

The only way I can describe these animals is magnificent, we watched in awe as they materialized out of the hazy blue, flying by us on giant silent wings. We watched them in groups of 3 and 4 gliding together with such grandeur and elegance as to have us completely mesmerized. The stark counter shading of the manta may act as protection against predators such as sharks or Orcas. The dark pigmentation of the dorsal surface, when viewed from above allows them to blend into the dark background below. Conversely, the light ventral surface makes them difficult to distinguish from the ambient light above.

The pectoral fins of these giants propelled them through a series of turns and dives with emaculate grace, the purpose of which appeared to be to assist in feeding. Gliding into our midst with cavernous mouths agape and rows of gills flared, the long maneuverable lobes in front of the head were being used to guide a broth of plankton into the mouth, where the krill and small fishes could be filtered out. Just like some species of whales these immense rays are dependent on multitudes of the smallest animals in the sea for their survival. Feasting on the plankton alongside the rays were several milkfish, an important fish for human consumption here in Kiribati and much of Southest Asia.

Following the tides, these rays feed along the edges of reefs, where the ebbing tide carries eggs and larvae into the open sea. These large docile fish will often hang in currents allowing cleaner fish such as wrasses to enter their enormous mouths and pick parasites from the gill arches. This symbiotic relationship provides food for the wrasse while protecting the manta from potentially fatal infection.

Much about these placid behemoths remains a mystery, including breeding, birthing cycles and lifespan. Unfortunately manta rays are killed in large numbers in many fisheries around the world. In fact one of the rays we swam with today was trailing part of a fishing line from a lure that was firmly embedded in its left pectoral fin.

By gaining a better understanding of these creatures, hopefully we can learn to appreciate the significance of their place in the world's oceans. Flying through the water with a majesty that was breathtaking, our encounter concluded as the mantas faded from view, turning toward the open sea, they disappeared into a blue oblivion.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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