You have most likely seen footage of the majestic Manta ray as they gracefully glide through the ocean waters. These gentle ocean giants are indeed an incredible sight to see and understandably swimming with these beautiful creatures is at the top of many peoples bucket list. Here in the Whitsundays we are lucky enough to get the opportunity to see these amazing animals at ease as they glide over the local reefs.
Currently there are two distinct species of manta ray, the oceanic manta ray and the reef or coastal manta ray. Oceanic manta rays are the larger of the two species, they can reach up to 8 metres from wingtip to wingtip. The oceanic manta ray roam the world’s ocean typical around the equator and tend to spend most of their time far from land. Reef or coastal manta rays as they can be known are smaller than their relatives, generally having a wingspan of around 4 metres but reaching up to 5 metres at times. Reef manta rays are found in tropical and subtropical regions, predominantly in the Indo-Pacific region and happen to be the species that we see here in the Whitsundays.
Often people are curious as to what the difference between manta rays and the more commonly encountered stingray are, and though they are similar in appearance there are in fact several marked differences. For starters while manta rays glide through the ocean and spend their life in the water column, stingrays instead spend a majority of their time resting on the ocean floor. With this large difference in lifestyle comes another clear difference between these two groups of animals, their mouths. A manta ray’s mouth is located at the front of the head and possesses two lobes that point forward to help guide food inside, stingrays however have their mouth located on their underside as they forage for food on the ocean floor. The final major difference is in the tail of the two creatures. Stingrays as their name suggests have a “stinger” also known as a barb on their tail that they can use for self defence, manta rays however have no barb on their tail and are completely harmless.
Manta rays as mentioned above are no threat to humans, though onboard we are sometimes asked if people might look tasty to such large creatures. I can assure you we are of no interest to these gentle giants. The food that manta rays chase is in fact only a fraction of our size, they feed on tiny plankton! Manta ray have teeth but only in their lower jaw, this is no problem for them however as they are in fact filter feeders. They possess special structures in their gills known as gill rakers and with the help of the lobes on the front of their head they are used to collect the manta rays food. The lobes are often seen when rolled up and in this position can look a little like horns. When unrolled they sit below the mouth and guide plankton rich water directly in the mouth and gill rakers.
Manta rays are solitary animals however it is not at all uncommon to see them grouping together. They may gather for multiple reasons including being serviced at cleaning stations, large plankton concentrations, and for mating purposes. Courtship in manta rays is quite an interesting process, multiple males will gather around a mating female forming a chain and following her movements over several days. After this time the female will choose a suitable male and they begin the mating process. Gestation is roughly one year and the female will then give birth to a live pup.
What’s quite incredible is each manta ray has a unique pattern of spots and marks on its belly, it has these from birth and carries them its whole life. The marks on the manta rays underside act much like fingerprints do for people. As the marks are unique and lifelong they can be used to identify and track individual manta rays allowing scientists to gather important information about the species and their habits.
So if getting to glide through the ocean with the magnificent manta ray is on your bucket list join us in on an adventure in the Whitsundays for the experience of a lifetime!