While on a dive trip off the coast of Central America a small group of us were given a 'special' course before we headed off to a dive that was restricted to experienced divers only. The dive required above average skills due to the delicate nature of the marine life and the restricted overhead environment we would encounter while traveling through a crevasse in a deep wall.
We were diving from a boat and were to swim through the crevasse to a small, protected bay.
Unaware of a violent storm coming off the mainland, we entered the water and made our descent. Just as we entered the narrow crevasse the storm unleashed torrential rains, creating a flash flood, that tore down the mountains and into the bay where the force of the water multiplied as it ripped through the cut in which we were diving.
Most of our group was blown backwards out of the cut and then scattered over a large area of sea. Unable to turn round, those of us who survived the violent flushing fought our way to the exit in zero visibility.
In addition to our boat, there were several other boats in the area whose divers were now scattered over a large expanse of sea.
An emergency was declared and all available boats made their way to the area in search of divers. Everyone was quickly collected and returned to their boats with the exception of two divers. Unfortunately, I was one of the missing divers. Having found a panicked diver who was too exhausted to swim, I began towing him towards the boats.
Eventually, someone spied us and we were retrieved.
Although my group was scheduled to do a second dive everyone voted to return to the docks. I was the only one to vote yes to a second dive. Since I was outnumbered, the captain asked if I would like to be dropped off on a wreck inside the bay and make my way back to the resort's beach solo.
"Yes," I said and into the water I went.
Visibility was still zero and I was beginning to think that staying on the boat would have been the better choice. Hoping that visibility would get better as I descended, I saw indistinguishable dark shapes moving below.
Visibility gradually began to clear and just above the wreck, to greet me, was an entire school of Spotted Eagle Rays flying along in the water off the wreck's bow.
Spotted Eagle Rays are a sub-family of the Myliobatinae that also includes Common, Longheaded, Banded, Mottled, Bat, and Bull Eagle Rays. Spotted Eagle Rays, my favorite, are dark inky blue with white spots. Their wingspans can reach up to eight feet and they can achieve an overall length (including long, slender tails) of 30 feet. The heaviest documented weight of an Eagle Ray is 570 pounds, although the ones we see most often are much smaller.
Like other rays, Spotted Eagle Rays give birth to live, perfectly formed rays ready to hunt. They have distinct, rounded heads with large eyes and beak-like snouts used for digging up mollusks and crustaceans that they crush with somewhat flattened teeth.
Though Spotted Eagle Rays are found in depths up to 260 feet and in open seas, they are more likely found gliding along reefs and near shore. They are frequently seen swimming lazily along just under the surface with their wing tips curled above the water. Spotted Eagle Rays may also launch themselves several feet into the air.
While considered a nuisance around oyster and clam beds because they can wipe out the beds in short order, Spotted Eagle Rays pose little direct threat to humans. They are generally shy and avoid human contact. If cornered they will defend themselves with their whip-like tails. Their stings are said to be quite painful, however, because their venomous barbs are located closer to the base of their tails than other ray species, they are much less likely to cause serious injury.
Spotted Eagle Rays are some of the most beautiful rays in our seas but, aesthetics aside, how do Eagle Rays and their relatives benefit man? That question has some surprising answers to be revealed in the next chapter of Much Maligned Rays.
Becky Bauer became a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean after 30 years as a wild and domestic animal rescuer, rehabber, and educator in the States. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.