The giant oceanic manta ray (Manta birostris) is the largest species of ray in the world. This huge fish can grow up to 7 metres across, dwarfing any nearby diver. They are distributed globally around the equator, found in tropical and subtropical waters, and their magnificent beauty is unmatched.
I was lucky enough to see a manta ray whilst I was in Tobago in the Caribbean. My brother and I were looking down into the sea when we saw this large, greyish-black object moving steadily through the water. At first, we thought it was a rock but then we wondered ‘why is the rock moving?’. Once I saw those iconic cephalic fins at the front of its head (which are forward extensions of their pectoral fins) I knew it was a manta ray.
Manta rays are filter feeders, they use these cephalic fins to funnel zooplankton (mainly shrimp, krill, and planktonic crabs) into its mouth as it travels through the ocean. They are often accompanied by small cleaner fish which consume bits of dead skin and parasites lying on the manta’s smooth skin; they have a nice symbiotic relationship with one another. The manta ray’s stay free of parasites and disease whilst the cleaner fish get a nutritious meal.
I adore the colossal size and elegance of this species. However, they are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and they are threatened by human activity, particularly fishing. Sadly, it is often the youngest manta rays which are caught and killed in the fishing nets – their cephalic lobes become easily entangled in nets. This is especially damaging to this species because manta rays have a 13 month gestation period and only birth one pup at a time meaning it is difficult to maintain their population, and this struggle will only increase as the demand for fishing industries grows.
The manta ray is an exceptionally unique species which deserves our protection.