by Natalie Novak
I had heard that they were not here. I had heard that I would never see one here, but what I had heard was wrong. I have often heard local kids swimming in Akumal Bay call any tiny ray they see a Manta Ray, but a manta ray is something very different from other rays.
In the shallow grassy waters of Akumal bay, I have found small electric rays. They are timid creatures under a foot long fully grown. They have blue circles on them and they are cute blinking back at you. They are not mean or and they wish us no harm. They are a joy to watch when I find them. They are cool, but they are not Manta rays.
Sting rays are mesmerizing creatures to watch. When they swim their sides ripple like laundry hanging on a clothesline in a light wind, and although they like they are barely moving, they can outrun you with ease. These are shy creatures, they often bury themselves in the sand and can be spotted by their tail and gills sticking out. They are circular in shape and when we approach, they slowly move away. Sometimes they do not notice us when they are eating. They scan the sand below them and when they find the electromagnetic signals of something small they would like to eat, they dig it out with their mouth in the center of their bodies and you can see the sand being filtered out through their gills. They are amazing creatures. I could watch them all day, but they are not manta rays.
Eagle rays have a face more like a manta ray. Their face is in front instead of in the middle of their body like a sting ray. On dives in Akumal, I have seen eagle rays that were up tp 10 feet across. There are often young ones in Akumal bay and Half moon bay. You can recognize them by their diamond shape and white dots on their black backs. These rays are something special to see, but they are not manta rays.
Last week, I was a private guide for two divers. We were diving in front of Akumal bay at about 45 feet of water. We had just glided down to the reef, and we were less then 5 minutes into the dive when I say it, it moved like a ghost drifting gently towards us- a Manta Ray! I looked back at my divers and no one had seen her yet, so I banged on my tank to get my their attention. And then, they saw her too.
The manta was so far away that she looked foggy, but the animal was clearly there and hard to miss as she approached. She was well over 14 feet across. Looking straight on at the Manta, you could see down her mouth as she sifted the water. Manta rays eat microscopic animals in the water as it drifts through them. They have no teeth and can not close their mouths.
About 40 feet in front of us, the manta banked and we could see her white belly as she slowly drifted by and then away. It was only a few minutes, but I will remember those minutes for the rest of my life. The day I saw a Manta Ray in Akumal.
Unfortunately, no one with us that day had rented a digital camera or requested a photographer. There was a camera with us that used film, but as far as I know the pictures did not turn out, so for the first time, I will include stock photos as examples. Enjoy!
If you are lucky enough to see one of these rays, move slowly. Quick movements cant be felt by rays and this often scares them away. Also give the the animal space. Though most rays do have stingers, they take a lot of time to grow back and the animal will only use them if it feels trapped or in danger so do not crowd around them. If you have a group with you, approach slowly from one side, leaving the animal an easy exit so it never feels threatened.
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