One of my favorite sea creatures is the much-maligned ray. If I have an animal totem, it might well be a member of the super order Batoidea for they have a habit of appearing when I most need a photo subject or reassurance that all is well.
I was raised to believe the world is a deadly place full of mammals, reptiles, birds and fish lying in wait to attack and eat me. As a young child who spent summers on a beach in Florida, an excited voice yelling "stingray or shark!" quickly cleared the water and sent swimmers, including me, running for the safety of our beach blankets. Even seeing a ray in an aquarium sent chills up my spine, more so than the sharks on display.
Many years later, I regularly worked around terrestrial wildlife without harm so decided it was time to go to sea. As a brand new open water diver with ten fresh water dives in my log, I planned a solo trip to islands off the coast of Central America to test my skills in the deadly ocean.
The last off the boat, I quickly decided that I was fine at 15 feet and would follow the other divers from some distance above their 50-foot depth. The dive master returned for me, taking my hand and sympathetically guiding me a few feet deeper as my breathing and heartbeat became more rapid. Suddenly, from behind, a small Spotted Eagle Ray glided not three feet over my head and descended toward the reef.
I was captivated and followed the little ray downward where I joined the group excitedly signing 'ray'; my apprehension was gone and I felt so very much alive and in a place where I was meant to be.
Several dive trips later to the same dive resort, I was considered a 'regular' with excellent dive skills and thus, was allowed to dive solo from both shore and boat. One evening at twilight, I was exploring the bottom under the bow of a sunken freighter when abruptly the sand began to boil, dropping visibility to zero and sending me tumbling backwards as a large wing brushed my mask. I had disturbed a large Southern Stingray (Dasyatis Americana) as he lay buried in sand, waiting for his next meal. The adrenaline rush was one of 'way cool' rather than fear.
The Batoidea are fascinating and odd-looking fish that first appeared in our seas some 65-140 million years ago. There are more than 500 species of Batoidea with new species only recently discovered. They are cartilaginous fish with skeletons not of bone but of elastic cartilage and, therefore, closely related to sharks. Both rays and sharks lack ribs for support and protection thus, if removed from water, the weight of their bodies will crush their internal organs.
Like sharks, the rays have pectoral fins; however, rays' bodies are flattened with pectoral fins fused to their heads creating their wing-like appearance. Rays' mouths are on the underside of their bodies and depending upon the species, they may have crushing teeth or boney plates for feeding upon crustaceans, shellfish, and occasionally fish, all generally found on the bottom and along reefs. The one major exception to these feeding patterns is the Manta Ray (Manta birostris) who swims the open oceans and feeds upon plankton.
Over the next few months, we will be covering some of the Batoidea species living in the Caribbean and Eastern Atlantic that swimmers, boaters, and divers most often encounter. Odd-looking fish that glide through the water with such grace and beauty they are a wonder to behold.
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.