Courtship of the Marbled Rays
by Peter Tyson
October 13, 1998
The very moment the breakfast bell clanged this morning, Michele Hall and
Conlin returned from a scouting dive at Manuelita. As the panga pulled
alongside the Undersea Hunter, Conlin called up to Howard Hall on the deck,
"It's happening right now, we gotta go right now."
Hall didn't need any convincing. He stepped inside, told those of us
preparing to settle down to a leisurely repast to grab a bite and suit up.
Three pieces of French toast went down my gullet as fast as greased
and minutes later I found myself bending my knees for balance as we made a
beeline for the roughened channel between Manuelita and Cocos.
"I think this will be a three-roll day," Bob Cranston had said
back on the Undersea Hunter. In fact, it would be more than twice that.
We got the tip last night from the captain of the Okeanos, another dive
whose scuba clients sampled Manuelita yesterday afternoon. Marbled stingrays
were massing along the southern tip of the island, he said, dozens and
of males going after a single female in heat. Michele Hall told me the film
crew had waited since January to film this spectacular courtship ritual.
"That was the fastest IMAX yet," Conlin said of our turnaround time. From
moment Hall had interrupted breakfast to the moment Lance Milbrand plunged
over the side to deliver the IMAX camera below, no more than 20 minutes had
elapsed. Things continued to move quickly after that. It can take an hour
half or more to shoot a single three-minute roll of film, but Hall was
for a reload less than 10 minutes after we dispatched Milbrand with the PIG
(see The PIG and the Process). By 10 o'clock, Hall had shot all four rolls
had on board the panga, and gave the order to return to the mother ship for
That was my cue. Within a minute, I was over the side, finning toward the
bottom with Milbrand. We had waited three hours for this, watching squalls
sweep down off Cocos and into our faces, and listening to our resident Merry
Prankster, Billy Holdson, recite lines from his favorite movies and
keep us entertained.
As we neared the bottom at a depth of 75 feet, the first marbled rays began
coming at us. When they realized we weren't rays, much less female ones,
lost interest and swerved off to find the source of the pheremone—or
whatever it was that drew them to the lone female like G.I.'s to a visiting
starlet. We followed their lead, and soon arrived at the center of the
It was the underside of a massive boulder lying on edge like a submarine
Tower of Pisa, where a pancake heap of rays lay stacked.
I settled down on another boulder not ten feet away. Marbled rays are named
for the pattern on their dorsal surface, which in these rays ranged in color
from brownish to ashen gray. As round as flying saucers, they averaged about
three-and-a-half feet in diameter. Their eyes, so thoroughly camouflaged in
their mottled heads that at first it took me a second to locate them, had a
bluish cast and were very hard to read. Somehow I couldn't see into them,
though they were wide open.
Most arresting, however, was their graceful glide. The way their pectorals
described perfect S-curves as they swam reminded me of that famous shot of
Marilyn Monroe with her white dress rippling above an air grate. I was
mesmerized by their fluid movement. So mesmerized, in fact, that I slipped
into that wonderful mental space—usually brought on for me only by
concentrated writing—where I feel like I've stepped for a moment out of
flow of time.
Every time I pulled my eyes away from the slow-motion frenzy taking place
around the hidden female, I'd see male rays above, around, and beneath me.
Again and again I found myself so captivated by a ray sliding past me on one
side that I'd fail to notice, until I felt a swish, that another was
past me on the other side. The experience was never startling, only
delightful. They were so pacific it seemed impossible that their barbs could
inflict severe pain.
Without warning, the space under the boulder where the female lay began to
boil. Sand and sediment filled the water column, obscuring the view. What
going on? Had one of the males gotten lucky? Or was the female feeling
trapped? Neither I nor Michele Hall, who was busy shooting photographs next
me, could see a thing, and for several moments we just waited. Suddenly, a
huge ray swam out of the cloud—straight for me. It was the female, and
was easily twice the size of the male clinging to her back.
She wasn't moving fast, and I had time to ease back to give her room. At
first I thought the male had scored, but the female soon shucked him off.
a swarm of newly hopeful suitors hovering over her, she settled down on the
very spot I'd just vacated. Her spiracle, the silver-dollar-sized gill
just behind her eye, puffed out particles of sand, which drifted down to
onto her mottled gray back. I noticed she had lost her barb. To what, a
I could have stayed down there for hours, but Hall had requested we remain
for only 20 minutes. Michele and I stretched it to 25, then reluctantly
for the surface.
By two this afternoon, we had shot seven rolls. Hall, Cranston, and Thurlow
had been down a total of five hours and 20 minutes. By the time we'd all
regrouped for a 3 p.m. lunch—when the filming's good, you don't stop for
anything, even the epicurean miracles of Eliu and Alvaro—everyone was
charged up. A lively debate ensued about which sequences would now have to
come out of the film because of this new addition. Even though that
task was his, no one was more satisfied than Howard, who lives to capture
fascinating animal behavior on film.
"I love the way she'd lose the males," he said, his eyes alive with
amusement. "She'd be swimming along with them in hot pursuit, then suddenly
double back straight into the pack, scattering the males." He chuckled.
they'd stop, looking all confused."
The courtship of the marbled rays is just the kind of wondrous event that
occurs as regular as rain at Cocos—and promises to make "Island of the
Sharks" a memorable film. For me, it was particularly thrilling to realize
that, beginning next spring in IMAX theaters, millions of people will get
chance I had this morning to rub noses with such exquisite creatures.
Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.
Hammerheads or Bust (Sept. 23)
Get Used To It (Sept. 25)
Nature Reigns at Cocos (Sept. 27)
The PIG and the Process (Sept. 29)
Hammerheads Sighted (Oct. 1)
Assault on Cocos (Oct. 3)
The Director's Cut (Oct. 5)
Swimming with Whitetip Reef Sharks (Oct. 7)
The Magnificent Seven (Oct. 9)
The Search for Lake Cocos (Oct. 11)
Courtship of the Marbled Rays (Oct. 13)
Of Booby and Beebe (Oct. 15)
Taken by Surprise (Oct. 17)
"This is Cocos, This is Cool" (Oct. 19)
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