From above the Maldives intense rays shine down – but not all Maldives rays are from the sun. From below, rays of another kind fly, swoop, swirl, and creep through the water. Unlike the bright sunshine, you can stare directly at these marine rays that come in different shapes, sizes and each with distinct, intimidating features. Divers and swimmers alike will need to be aware of rays and their characteristics.
What these species of marine rays have in common are the flattened body shape, with more or less rounded, triangular “wings” or pectoral fins stretching from their heads along their bodies, tapering into a thinner tail. On the other hand, the type of ray can be distinguished by its body shape (whether more round, diamond, or triangular), swimming style, tail thickness, and the trait of having a sting or barb. For example, some rays use a wave-like rippling motion while others use an up-and-down flapping motion of the fins to move gracefully around the water, still others use their tail for movement.
Fly Like an Eagle Ray
An expression generally used for airborne flight can easily be transferred to the eagle ray of the Maldives, as the spotted ray does “fly like an eagle” through the water of the tropics. When spotted, you might forget for a moment that you’re floating in the sea. These stingrays are even known to fly out of the water, jumping into the air. They are often seen in group formations, in open tropical waters, and relatively close to the water surface. This puts them in the swimming stingray category.
As for the name “stingray”, their venomous tail spines make them part of this group, though they differ from the bottom feeding stingrays. Eagle rays grow to a range of sizes from 48cm to 9m, with a long thin tail up to 5 meters long. Thanks to their unpleasant skin, they are captured generally for aquariums, rather than for eating.
Eagle rays are particularly interesting when it comes to their eating and breeding habits. They are proficient in separating their food in their mouth after digging it out with their duck-like nose. They are able to separate shell from flesh of the molluscs and crustaceans that they eat so well that shell has not been found in the stomach of any eagle ray. Even humans with their hands, lips and tongue still manage to eat a fish bone from time to time, so pretty this is impressive.
As for breeding, they produce young in up to 6 eggs per cycle, which stay inside the mother until after they’ve hatched and come into the world as live young. It’s how the babies get there that is more unusual. The eagle ray mating ritual involves the pursuit of one female by a number of males at one time, and once caught, up to 4 males will mate with her successively. Each male inserts, for 30-90 seconds, one of a twin pair of claspers (male organ located at the base of the tail on underside of body).
We can learn more about eagle rays by comparing to its relative, the stingray.
Stealthy Stingrays – Masters of Camouflage
Rays are fish that are similar to sharks with their skeleton of cartilage, not bone. Their skeleton they have in common but otherwise stingrays are quite different in their habits from eagle rays. For example, stingrays are bottom feeders and swimmers that glide among the sand rather than swim in the open water.
Since they become like the invisible man when under the sand, divers and swimmers should be careful where they step – though if they have enough time stingrays will swim off to avoid contact. Shuffling and stirring up some sand while walking on the sea bottom will help avoid any run-ins with the masters of camouflage – so do the runaway-ray-shuffle!
The characteristic barbed stinger on their tail is a defence mechanism and the strike motion is involuntary, rather than a real attack. Their stinger is located away from body, down the tail, in contrast to the eagle ray which has its stinger located more near the base of the body, to help protect vital organs while it’s in the open sea.
Their stinger is the only thing with “bite” on this toothless animal. They hover just above the sea bottom, moving with their wave-like rippling motion. They look a bit like a grey velvet cape, with a rounded diamond shape, different from the more bat-like shape of eagle and mantas roaming the open waters.
Stingrays are also special in their reproduction methods. They produce more young in a cycle than eagle rays, up to 13, but it’s how they produce them that is most interesting. They have a sort of “rainy day sperm insurance” which allows females to keep sperm in storage within their bodies, then put it to use and produce a litter at a later time – in recorded cases up to 2 years later (shown in stingrays in captivity). Like eagle rays, stingray females develop their young inside their bodies, giving birth to live young after the eggs or “yolk sac” diminishes.
Unlike eagle rays, stingrays are eaten widely, mainly in Asia.
Massive Manta Rays
The manta ray is to the Maldives as the panda is to China. This gentle giant is a draw for visitors to the Maldives, especially for scuba divers.
Unlike stingrays and eagle rays, mantas are a gentler kind without the tough edge of a stinging tail. They are strangely also referred to as “devil rays”, unbefitting their gentle nature and lack of stinger. Their size, on the other hand, is enough to intimidate. They grow up to 9 meters (25 ft) wide and weigh up 3,000 kg (3 tons) though on average they measure about 6.5 m across.
Instead of a crushing beak like the eagle ray, they have flap-like paddles on each side of the mouth aka “head lobes” that direct food into their mouths. The gaping broad rectangle of a mouth is on the front of the head and acts as a sieve, filtering in plankton as they swoop through the water. This is in contrast to other rays that have mouths on the underbelly.
Manta rays are pelagic in nature. Like eagle rays, they are active swimmers in open water and even breach the water surface at times. They also share their winged shape. Mantas are more solitary swimmers than eagle rays but sometimes swim in loosely defined groups.
One other type of ray to note is the more rounded shape rays that are less tapered, with thicker tails in proportion to their bodies. These are known as electric rays, which are seemingly less common in the Maldives. They use their tails to swim and have no stinger. Instead they have an organ that gives them their name. On either side of the head they have tissue that can generate an electric shock – 50 to 200 volts – enough to shock or injure a human and take out small prey. No injuries have been reported in the Maldives but divers should be aware of their capabilities.
Many come to the Maldives to catch some rays but divers will have a different perspective. Watch for stingrays, eagle rays and manta rays among the sea creatures in the ocean waters. Divers can even take a ride on a Stingray – the name of one of the liveaboards offered by Maldives Dive Travel. April and May deals are on now for MV Orion, check them out here.