Manta Ray Day!

manta ray named Cherilyn
Manta Ray named Cherilyn (yes, after me!)

Manta Rays!

Meet the Pink Manta Ray!

pink manta ray, manta ray Australia
Pink Manta Ray from Australia photo by Kristian Lane/Instagram

Yes, I’m really a pink manta ray

My belly is pink, whereas in “normal” manta rays their belly is white with black spots and splotches on it. I’ve been nicknamed “Inspector Clouseau” from the movies and tv program called the Pink Panther. You clever humans!

Why am I a pink manta ray?

I don’t know, I think I was just born that way. You intelligent humans have ruled out stress. From a small skin sample (a biopsy) they have ruled out a diet full of red food, it’s not an infection or a genetic mutation.

My pink pigments

So now you humans guess that it’s a “unique expression of melanin” or that my skin pigments are just “off”. Duh, I could’ve told you that! After all there are “strawberry blonde leopards,” and “fuchsia grasshoppers,” due to something called erythrism. That causes animals to appear reddish or pinkish.

I’m a boy!

I was first seen in 2015 off of Australia’s Lady Elliot Island. I’m now 11 feet wide (wingtip to wingtip) and yes, I’m a boy. I was last seen as part of a courting train, which is when a line of males (in this case 8) chase a female to try and mate with. Her pheromones are quite irresistible! If she’s looking for unique, I’ve got all the other boys beat–I’m a pink manta ray after all!

My biggest predator…

Even though as a pink manta ray I stand out in a crowd of manta rays, I’m relatively safe from killer whales and great white sharks due to my size. In fact, my biggest potential predator is you humans!

Devil rays

Yes, all manta rays are at risk at being targeted and hunted by humans. Fishermen nicknamed us devil rays because our curled up head fins look like devil horns. We would often get tangled in their fishing nets and ruin them. They really didn’t like that or us because of that.

What are gill rakers?

Now us manta rays are targeted for our gill rakers. They are thin, comb-like strings on our gills that capture all the yummy plankton from the water I strain through my gills. In other words, my gill rakers are what keep me alive!

Even pink manta rays can’t outsmart humans though…

Unfortunately, a new not-so-traditional and controversial formula of Traditional Chinese Medicine utilizes gill rakers and humans now target us gentle and giant beings. We manta rays have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any fish, but alas, even our intelligence cannot keep us from being hunted, possibly someday to the point of extinction. Coupled with our lack of defense (we have no stingers) we have little hope of surviving unless humans stop targeting and killing us faster than we can reproduce. Its no wonder females have a train of males trying to court them—they only mate every two years and have pups every 2-5 years.

Also see Moby the Manta Ray: Happy Manta Ray Day!

For more on how you can help manta rays, visit these ocean conservation non-profits:

Manta Pacific Research Foundation

Manta Trust

Marine Megafauna Foundation

Wild Aid’s Manta Ray Program

Articles used in this blog post:

Rare pink manta ray spotted near Australia’s Lady Elliot Island

How manta rays gill rakers filter water without clogging

Manta ray reproduction

Manta Rays Have Social Lives!

manta ray, reef manta ray, Manta alfredi
Reef manta ray (manta alfredi) photo by: Shiyam ElkCloner, Wikimedia Commons

Hee, hee. Did you know manta rays have a social life? I know about manta rays social lives because I AM a manta ray. My name is Molly. Humans have only studied manta rays in depth (probably) for decades. Before we were admired for being a gentle giant, fishermen called us “devilfish.” Our curled up head fins look like devil horns, hence the name. Never mind most of the time we’re feeding and our cephalic fins are uncurled. We’d often get caught in fishermen’s nets by accident. The fishermen would get angry that not only did they have to untangle us, but they often had to repair their nets.

In any case, humans have come out with a research study showing that female reef manta rays (Manta alfredi) “show preference” to other female manta rays. I’d say we’re friends, or acquaintances at least for the short-term. We also remember our contact with each other.

We form bonds with other female manta rays over weeks and months but not necessarily longer. That’s okay as many times after a feeding frenzy, or a stop at a cleaning station, we go our separate ways. We don’t vocalize like whales, who keep in touch at long distances. When we get excited socially we can brighten the white splotches on our black backs. But we do have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any fish so it’s no wonder we can use some of our brainpower to recognize others.

The boys, well they’re on their own unless they group with other males, females and juveniles. The main times we all come together are for feeding (plankton for all!), at cleaning stations (ahh…), and for mating. A train of males will trail a female for a long time until she gives in and mates with one. It’s fun, up to a certain point. Who doesn’t like all that attention?

So although scientists study manta rays social lives, we are in trouble nowadays because of our gill rakers. The very body parts that keep us alive are now threatening our lives. Gill rakers are a covering on my gills, which not only help me breathe, but also feed. The gill rakers act like strainers. They filter ocean water as I swim. Plankton in the water stick to the gill rakers. Plankton are the tiny plants and animals that live in the ocean and are at the bottom of the food chain. The plankton builds up on my gill rakers and yum, time to swallow!

Unfortunately many humans covet our gill rakers for the Traditional Chinese Medicine market. There is no traditional formula that contains manta ray gill rakers, just a controversial new one.

I only have 1-2 pups every 2-5 years. That’s not very often, and we certainly can’t keep up with the fishermen killing us.

Other threats to manta rays, which are making us become endangered, are injuries from being entangled in discarded fishing nets, pollution (especially microplastics) and habitat destruction.

For more information on how you can help visit:

Marine Megafauna Foundation’s work with manta rays

Manta Trust and threats to manta rays

Wild Aid’s work in China to save manta rays

Paper published on 22 August 2019: Rob Perryman et al, “Social preferences and network structure in a population of reef manta rays” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

Also see Meet the Pink Manta Ray

Mirror Self Recognition Test and Ocean Animals

dolphin mirror test, mirror self recognition test, self aware animals
Dolphin reacts to own image in mirror

With recent news that the cleaner wrasse might have mirror self-recognition (MSR), I thought I’d write about the ocean animals that have MSR. Bottlenose dolphins and killer whales have MSR for certain. Possible mirror self-recognition ocean animals include manta rays and cleaner wrasses. An ocean animal that failed the mirror self-recognition test is the octopus.

So what is self-recognition? With a mirror, self-aware animals such as chimpanzees and bottlenose dolphins recognize themselves and don’t react as if the image is another animal of the same species. Some animals that don’t have self-recognition react to their image in a mirror with aggression or other more positive social behaviors.

The mirror self-recognition test is when a human researcher places a mark somewhere conspicuous on a captive animal. With human babies, they place a paint mark on their foreheads. Starting at 18 months, human babies investigate the mark when they see themselves in a mirror.

Then the researchers place the test animal in front of a mirror and judge from their actions (usually curiosity) if they recognize themselves or not. Here are some examples from the ocean:

Bottlenose dolphins in captivity react to a mirror image by “opening their mouths, sticking out their tongues and showing novel behaviors.” When marked, they investigate the mark on their bodies by moving the marked area towards the mirror.

Killer whales in captivity were shown themselves unmarked in a mirror. Then they were marked. The whales behaved like they expected their appearance to be altered. This showed that they have self-recognition.

Manta rays possibly show mirror self-recognition. When captive manta rays had a mirror placed in their tank, they blew bubbles, which they normally don’t do. They also appeared to investigate their image in the mirror by turning their belly towards the mirror and swimming by the mirror repeatedly.

Cleaner wrasses were injected with a mark, which is how scientists mark fish in their studies. When their throats were marked and a mirror placed in their tank, the cleaner wrasses would rub their throats against the tank. Throat rubbing is not behavior seen in wild cleaner wrasses. When the mirror wasn’t in the tank, the wrasses didn’t rub. So seeing the mark in the mirror caused the throat rubbing and hence cleaner wrasses possibly have self-recognition.

As a side note, the inventor of the mirror self-recognition test, Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York, doesn’t think cleaner wrasses have self-recognition and that the study was flawed. What do you think?

Octopuses haven’t passed the mirror test, but in studies they do orient themselves towards the mirror. Octopuses rely on their sense of touch and don’t rely on vision as much as mammals do, so it makes sense they don’t show mirror self-recognition.

On a personal note, I have gone on scuba dives with manta rays off the coast of Hawaii. I looked them in the eye and saw straight into their soul. It was no different than looking into a dog or cat’s eyes. I knew something was going on behind them. I don’t doubt that manta rays are thinking beings and that they may be self-aware.

Websites consulted:
List of Animals That Have Passed the Mirror Test
Article, “Is this Fish Self-Aware?”

My Manta Ray Encounter

manta ray
Close encounter with a manta ray (notice the plankton in the water) photo by: Cherilyn Jose

This blog post won second place in the 2016 San Mateo County Fair’s Literary Contest for best blog entry!

My Manta Ray Encounter

From the back of the boat, I made a giant stride into the black nighttime water. Underwater, the cumbersome SCUBA equipment strapped to my back was weightless. Warm water crept into my wetsuit. Exhaling, I descended into the pitch black. Pinching my nose and blowing out through it cleared my ears every few feet, and the pain in my ears felt like when ascending in an airplane. Exhaled bubbles surrounded and reassured me. My only lifeline underwater was working properly. I paused to marvel at breathing underwater.

My descent stopped near the bottom of the coral reef. Narrow beams of light danced around as other divers searched for life on the night coral reef. My highlighted view showed motionless fish sleeping. Multi-legged critters scampered out of my light. A hungry moray eel caught an unwary squirrelfish.

Ten minutes of swimming brought me to the “campfire.” Placed in the center of this underwater campfire was a bundle of dive lights so the insects of the sea, tiny plankton, swarmed together. Swarms of plankton attracted various hungry sea animals including fish, and the guests for the night. Divers pointed their lights towards the surface to attract more plankton. Settling down on my knees in the moderate current, plankton surrounded me. Little white dots darted to and fro in front of my dive mask. My dry mouth came from breathing the arid air from my tank and made me cough into my regulator. My eyes watered from the coughing, then cleared. Something emerged in the distance.

From the muted black darkness, and through the backdrop of the bright Hollywood lights of videographers, came an alien behemoth that glided over the all the divers. She was the star attraction for tonight, a manta ray. Her black back with white patches looked spray painted. Her flattened head and head fins swayed in her swim path. Her head fins unfurled to help funnel water into her cavernous mouth.

Her diamond-shaped body measured at least 6 feet across. She flapped her triangular pectoral fins in unison like a bird’s wings. Each powerful flap of her wings sent her flying within inches of divers’ heads.

The manta ray’s black back contrasted with her stark white underbelly. Her belly was full of black splotches. Splotch patterns are as unique as a human fingerprint and they allow scientists to identify and name individuals over time. The manta ray I saw was named Shirley. She gracefully flew inches over my head. I was reminded of the opening scene from the original Star Wars movie when an Imperial Star Destroyer appears to fly over the audience’s heads.

We divers are not supposed to hold their breath underwater, but in a briefing on the boat we were told not exhale bubbles directly onto a manta ray. I unconsciously held my breath as having Shirley so close to me took my breath away. I looked straight into one of Shirley’s eyes. They reflected such depth and soul that I couldn’t help but feel a deep connection with this alien being. It was like looking into a mammal’s eyes. Only manta rays are fish. They have the largest brain of any fish in the ocean, and a similar brain to body ratio as mammals. There is no doubt in my mind that manta rays are thinking beings. What they are thinking is a mystery to us humans though.

With her mouth agape, Shirley’s wide throat was visible. Her gills reverberated from the passage of water through them. A manta ray’s gills not only extract oxygen from the water around them, but also extract food like plankton. She closed her mouth periodically, presumably to swallow the plethora of plankton caught in her gill rakers.

I watched in awe as Shirley did loop de loops to gather plankton. The barrel rolls that manta rays perform are a magnificent underwater ballet. They are elegant and graceful. I could watch them for hours barrel rolling.

Later, another manta ray showed up. His name was Uhane Nui, which means “Great Spirit” in Hawaiian. Estimates placed his wingspan at eight feet across. Manta rays are the largest rays in the ocean. This one was huge. Shirley stayed in the lights, but Uhane Nui faded into the darkness and emerged from the bright videographer lights. Each appearance was a surprise and delight. The manta rays could come within inches of the divers and never bump into them. They could turn on a dime.

That magical night off of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii was my first encounter with manta rays. Upon arriving home, I devoured all the information I could find about them. I was dismayed to find out manta rays are killed when they get stuck in fishermen’s nets. Historically, fishermen would exact revenge on any manta rays that got stuck in their fishing nets and kill them.

I was later horrified to learn that today manta rays are now being targeted by fishermen. I got involved in the fight for California to ban the sale, trade and possession of shark fins. Now, much like sharks being targeted only for their fins, manta rays are now being hunted solely for their gill rakers. Gill rakers are used in controversial new formulas of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Often those hunting for shark fins will fin a shark alive and toss it back into the ocean to die a slow and agonizing death. Similarly, those hunting manta rays will kill them, cut out the gill rakers, and throw out the rest of the manta ray. Killing them that way is inhumane and wasteful.

A live manta ray is worth more alive than dead. Experts estimate a manta ray is worth one million USD over its lifetime due to ecotourism, but worth only five hundred USD when dead. Globally manta ray tourism is estimated to be 100 million USD annually. I’m hooked on SCUBA diving with manta rays-I will add to that total!

What it’s Like to SCUBA Dive: Part I

manta ray cleaning station
Me and a manta ray at a cleaning station

I have returned from a SCUBA diving trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, and I am inspired to share the joy of diving with those that may never learn to dive. PADI, a leading SCUBA diving organization that certifies divers, has certified over 23 million SCUBA divers. That means (assuming most of the certifications from PADI were in the USA) less than 1% of people in the USA have gone diving.

Here’s a description of what it’s like to suit up on a boat dive and actually enter the water:
(This assumes that the gear is already setup, which also takes time to do and will be a part of a different post)

Gearing up for me starts with a fleece-lined dive skin. This layer helps keep me warm, and it helps the wetsuit slide on more easily. Then it’s the farmer john wetsuit layer (think overalls). After sliding it on, I get help with the Velcro shoulder straps. The shortie part of the wetsuit (it covers the chest, arms, crouch and part of thighs) is next. I put on the booties on my feet under the leg portion of my farmer john wetsuit.

It’s time to defog my mask with defog drops (others use spit, dilute baby shampoo or defog gel). I rub them on the inner windows of my mask, and rinse in water. It’s then time to sit down on the bench in front of my gear. I check that my tank and dive computer are on. I put my flippers on. I strap on my BCD (Buoyancy Compensator Device) on like a backpack, and clip or Velcro several straps to me. I shimmy my way out of my seat and shuffle to the back of the boat. Take a giant stride off the dive platform, signal I’m okay to the boat, and get camera from crew member.

I let all the air out of my BCD and start to descend. I clear my ears frequently (it’s the same as when you pop your ears on an airplane). Near the bottom I add air to my BCD so I don’t hit the bottom, especially if it’s a coral reef. I always marvel at some point during my dive at how I’m breathing underwater. It’s a weird yet exhilarating feeling. I look around at all the fish and coral, and look around frequently for large visitors such as dolphins and tiger sharks that prove quite elusive.

I usually follow a dive guide so I don’t get lost. More experienced divers, especially photographers, go off on their own. I take lots of pictures even though I know they aren’t good. They serve as a reminder of the fish and coral I’ve seen. I check my dive computer frequently to monitor depth and air consumption. By 500 psi I signal to my buddy and dive guide that I need to surface (a thumbs up) and the guide points up to the boat above and waves goodbye. I do a safety stop for 3 minutes at 15 feet. Then I kick up to the boat’s ladder and take off my fins. I give them and my camera to a crew member on the boat. I haul myself out of the water and waddle over to my spot on the bench. Once the tank is in place, it’s time to unstrap myself and share what I saw with my fellow SCUBA divers!

10 Amazing Manta Ray Facts

manta ray facts
Manta Ray Silhouette photo by: Jackie Reid NOAA

10 Amazing Manta Ray Facts

1. There are two species of Manta Rays: The Coastal or Reef Manta Ray (Manta alfredi) and the Oceanic or Giant Manta Ray (Manta birostris).

2. A Manta Ray’s spot pattern on its belly is as unique as a human fingerprint. (There is an international database of Manta Ray belly pictures called Manta Matcher)

3. Manta Rays feed on the smallest denizens of the oceans, the microscopic plankton. (Manta Rays feed by filtering seawater through their gill rakers).

4. Manta Rays may have self recognition, something only higher primates, elephants, dolphins and humans have. See previous blog entry, “Moby the Manta Ray and Self-Recognition”

5. Manta Rays have the largest brain/body ratio of any fish in the ocean.

6. Despite that their prey is so small, Manta Rays can have wingspans up to 23 feet (7 meters) and weigh 2,980 lb (1,350 kg).

7. When courting, a train of up to a dozen males will follow one female.

8. Manta Rays swim constantly and only occasionally stop to be cleaned of parasites at a cleaning station on a coral reef.

9. Manta Rays like to breach (jump high out of the water), but the reason why is still unknown.

And the last manta ray fact is an important one:
10. Manta Rays are at risk from fishing for their gill rakers. (Manta Ray gill rakers are used in a controversial new formula of Traditional Chinese Medicine)

What is CITES, and how does it affect sharks and rays worldwide?

CITES Appendix II listing
Good news for Manta Rays!

March madness came early for ocean conservationists yesterday (9am March 11,2013 local time in Thailand) as the twitterverse was abuzz with the hashtags #CITES #CITES4sharks

So what is CITES, and how does it affect sharks and rays worldwide?

In short, CITES is a treaty between 178 countries to help regulate the worldwide trade in wildlife, much of it endangered. It is especially important for ocean animals, as many of the larger species (like sharks) are migratory and move from various countries’ waters to international waters (the high seas) which are not under the jurisdiction of any country.

The (slightly) longer explanation is that CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (of Wild Fauna and Flora). CITES started in 1975 from a proposal at a 1963 meeting of the International Union (for) Conservation (of) Nature (IUCN). CITES helps to regulate the worldwide trade of over 34,000 plant and animal species.

Right now the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties is meeting in Bangkok, Thailand from March 3rd to March 14, 2013.

What interests the ocean conservationist community is the shark and ray proposals. There are different appendix listings depending on how endangered a species is.

Appendix I lists 1200 species that are threatened with extinction and are affected by worldwide trade, like Asian elephants, tigers, and rhinoceros.

Appendix II lists 21,000 species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction, but could become so if worldwide trade is not monitored or regulated. Great White Sharks are listed here.

Appendix III lists 170 species that specific countries have asked for CITES’ assistance with (and is not mentioned much as Appendix I and II).

Oceanic whitetip sharks, hammerhead sharks, porbeagle sharks, and manta rays are up for Appendix II listing. It is important because currently trade in those animals is up to individual countries to regulate. An Appendix II listing would show the world that those species (and hopefully sharks in general) are in danger of becoming extinct. Sharks are in danger of becoming extinct almost solely because of the shark fin soup trade. Manta rays are becoming endangered because their gill rakers are used in a controversial new formula used in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

What happened was that the proposals for Appendix II listing (oceanic whitetips, hammerheads, porbeagle and manta rays) and Appendix I (sawfish) were voted in! Those animals are not out of hot water yet, as the proposals still need to be ratified on Thursday March 14, 2013. But it is good news overall for those sharks and manta rays!

UPDATE: As of March 14, 2013 all the proposals were ratified so all the shark and manta ray species mentioned are (potentially) regulated worldwide!

Moby the Manta Ray and the Mirror Self-Recognition Test

”manta
Manta Ray investigates itself in a mirror

My earlier posts ended pretty grim because I wanted to share how manta rays are being overfished. But today I just want to share one really cool fact about us manta rays. Did you know that manta rays have the largest brain/body ratio of any fish in the sea? Yup, that includes all other rays, elasmobranchs (sharks and rays), and any other fish you can think of. I’m surprised it took humans so long to figure that out, but it is not like we are the easiest of the marine animals to study.

There is one human, Dr.Csilla Ari, who is running experiments on two of my buddies living at the Atlantis Aquarium in the Bahamas. She recently put a large mirror into the manta rays’ tank to test their ability to recognize themselves. Self-recognition in a mirror has only been shown in very large-brained and “smart” species such as dolphins, higher primates, and elephants. In those experiments a mark is placed on the animals’ forehead, and when the animal sees themselves in the mirror they soon investigate the mark. Animals without self-recognition may charge at the “intruder” or show their normal social behavior towards another animal of the same species.

Unfortunately the mark that the scientists placed on the manta rays did not stay, but maybe in the future I should loan them some of the remoras that are forever stuck to me to use as markers! The two manta rays did spend a lot more time than usual in the area where the mirror was. They also blew bubbles in front of the mirror, which manta rays don’t usually do. They also turned their underbellies towards the mirror. It will be monumental when humans finally figure out how smart we manta rays really are!

Please visit Dr. Ari’s blog for more information on her research.

Why Manta Rays Are Becoming Endangered (Moby the Manta Ray Part 3)

Manta Ray & Traditional Chinese Medicine
Manta Ray (photo by Cherilyn Jose)
It has been brought to my attention that even though I am a very fascinating animal, many humans do not understand why us manta rays need their help to gain protection worldwide. Here are the reasons why:

1. Manta rays are now being targeted by fishermen and killed for their gill rakers, as opposed to being killed by “accidental” by-catch.

2. Gill rakers (the feathery part of my gills that helps me sieve out microscopic food from the seawater around me) are used in a controversial new formula of Traditional Chinese Medicine. That formula is not listed in the classic textbooks.

3. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) reports that the worldwide catch of manta rays has quadrupled in 7 years.

4. As the IUCN (International Union for Conserving Nature) states, we “are easy to target because of (our) large size, slow swimming speed, aggregative behavior, predictable habitat use, and lack of human avoidance.”

5. In short, we are highly migratory due to the seasonal and geographic variability of our food source, plankton. We are not protected in international waters, nor off the waters of many heavily fished countries.

6. One of the most important reasons we are vulnerable to extinction is that female manta rays only give birth to one pup every 2-3 years, and over her lifetime will only produce as many pups (14) as a great white shark does in one year (16).

7. The good news is that manta ray tourism worldwide brings in $100 million in revenue versus $500 per kilogram of gill rakers. We are worth more alive than dead, duh!

You can help me and my fellow manta rays by visiting Manta Ray of Hope and watching their convincing video and by visiting Project Aware to sign a petition or donate money.