Skinny Water Manta Ray
Divers travel around the world spending thousands of dollars to swim with manta rays in exotic locations. Who knew that they occur in our own backyard? I cannot account for why Florida's mantas have been overlooked, but when Jessica Pate began her Florida Manta Project in collaboration with the Marine Megafauna Foundation there was next to no scientific information about mantas in Floridas waters.
I believe that Florida's mantas have been overlooked because they use local habitats differently and because they occur in low densities. In other parts of the world mantas are regularly seen by divers on coral reef cleaning stations. As of yet, there are no known cleaning stations in South Florida and divers rarely encounter the rays. Where they do occur they are still not common and though researchers have developed a multi-pronged approach to locating rays, the average boater would be lucky to notice one.
Though we may not encounter these rays often, they definitely notice us... that is we are impacting them. One of the most interesting and positive research findings thus far is that South Florida's mantas appear to be juveniles meaning this area is an important nursery habitat where the rays are safe to mature. Another of the most interesting though negative findings is that the rays are heavily impacted by humans. A third of the rays documented have been entangled in fishing line, and many others appear to suffer from boat strikes. Even coastal development may alter this important habitat. Adding insult to injury these local factors are just a small part of the threats to mantas globally, including plastics and climate change. Around the world mantas are listed as threatened and if we want to keep our mantas in this wealthy and developed corner of the world we will need to support research and conservation like that being done by the Florida Manta Project and MMF (look both up on facebook!).
Once located, photographing mantas in Florida is challenging. Their behavioral state may range from interactive to avoidant. An interactive ray may approach a diver allowing for photographs. An avoidant one will easily out swim even a fit snorkeler. We carefully position ourselves in the water to intercept a ray and snap an identification shot. If a ray chooses to interact more photos can be made, but if the ray is avoidant we allow it to move on without touching, chasing, or in any way harassing it. These photos were made with a Tokina fisheye lens, a Canon Rebel SL1, and available light.
If you are lucky enough to encounter a ray, please be respectful, do not chase, touch, or harass it from the water, or with a boat. Keep an eye out while boating and fishing, do not cast at or hit large dark shapes in the water. It is little known that mantas, turtles, and even dolphins suffer from boat strikes just like manatees. And, as always, clean up trash and minimize single use plastics while outdoors!