I love everything in the ocean. Really. But I do have to confess to a very special feeling for rays. Stingrays, Eagle Rays, Manta Rays… they are breathtaking to watch, and I get excited every single time I see one. My love of the ocean I credit to my parents, as they took my brother and I to Florida every year for at least two weeks during my childhood. My love of marine animals began with Jacques Cousteau, who introduced me, through his tv specials, to a mysterious underwater realm with incredible, colorful creatures. As a child, I watched spellbound. Sincerely, the ocean and its inhabitants make me happy, fill me with childlike wonder, and I can never, never get enough. I love to photograph them (even though I am strictly an amateur).
The first experience I ever had with rays was with Manta Rays. They were seen every summer off of Ft Lauderdale, Florida, and we were called out of the water immediately when they were sighted. I remember looking through the binoculars at a “devilfish” I found enthralling and graceful, though I was told they would “eat” me. As I began snorkeling and diving as a young adult, whenever a ray came near I was mesmerized. They fly through the water with graceful, undulating wings (flaps), and I have always found them beautiful. I love coming across them when they are buried in the sand, with just their eyes and spiracles visible. What a great photo that makes!
When our children were small, we took them to the Cayman Islands several times. Of course we went to Stingray City. I went to Stingray City when I was pregnant, both times actually, and snorkeled above my husband while he was covered in Southern Sting Rays. They feel so very soft, especially underneath. Like velvet. Stingray City was every bit as much for me as the kids; it always amazed me, to snorkel, float, or to stand near so many beautiful rays.
I saw my first Eagle Ray in Cozumel, and I was so excited I could barely breathe. Eagles are big and glorious as they fly through the water, and have “cheerios” markings. They all fascinate me, from the small Yellow Rays to the Southern Stingrays, to the Eagles, the blue spotted, and the Queen of them all, the Manta.
Seeing many new rays in Africa, I only saw two Mantas! Only two. Actually, my diving in Tofo was disappointing to me, but perhaps it was just the wrong season. For whatever reason, my visions of being surrounded by Manta Rays while diving did not materialize, at least not in Tofo. I did see Blue Spotted Rays, a Torpedo Electric Ray, one Mobula, a Jenkins Whiptail and a Honeycombed Whiptail, but I never saw the rare Small-Eye Stingray. I enjoyed seeing new and different rays, though.
My desire for Manta Ray encounters continued, and I finally achieved a dive trip where I saw several Giant Mantas, Black Pacific Mantas, Reef Mantas… it is almost indescribable, diving with these curious, beautiful, mysterious giants. You can tell from their eyes that they are intelligent; you know they are “checking” you out. I took a million photos, and each dive was more thrilling than the next… rays and sharks! What could be better? That was our trip on the Solmar V to the Revillagigedos Islands… I want to do that again! I turned my photos over to the Pacific Manta Research Group, and I photographed one they hadn’t seen in 10 years! They graciously allowed me to name it, so I named it Jedi. May the force be with you.
On Stocking Island in the Exumas, Bahamas, rays swarm the beach. AJ, the conch man, has been giving them scraps of conch for years and they gladly swim all over you in search of it! I loved feeding them, touching them, and taking pictures. One of the rays was different, definitely NOT a Southern Stingray as the rest of them were. It felt sandy on top, not soft, and had very small eyes with a large head and thick tail. I’d never seen it before. After a few days of research I found my ray: the Caribbean Whip Tail Ray! I had never even heard of it. I’m always excited when I see a new animal!
And the epitome of my Manta Ray diving so far has been a Citizen Science trip I went on with Marine Megafauna Ecuador. Hundreds of them! I was in heaven! It is essential that we help these creatures; Mantas are endangered. The Marine Megafauna Foundation works very hard, as do other great organizations, to change that. I urge you to take a look at their website and learn about these amazing creatures. I adopted a Manta and named her Daenarys Targareon, from Game of Thrones. Adopting a ray or a whale shark helps to protect these animals from extinction, and ending up in Chinese medicine and Shark Fin Soup. I urge you to visit them at www.marinemegafauna.org. You will fall in love! I certainly did.
For more from Tam, visit www.travelswithtam.com.