What diver doesn't dream of swimming alongside majestic manta rays? These charismatic and gentle fish, whose relatives include sharks, sawfish, electric rays and stingrays, certainly deserve a place on every diving bucket list.
Characterised by a cartilage skeleton instead of bone, they eat microscopic organisms, called plankton, through filter feeding and are split into two species: the reef manta (Manta alfredi) and the giant manta (Manta birostris). Reef manta rays live in the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in tropical and subtropical waters. Giant manta rays are the largest of the two manta species (the biggest on record had a whopping 30 foot wingspan) and prefer to be found offshore at depths of up to 120 metres. Sadly, mantas are listed as a vulnerable species due to fishing, habitat degradation and global warming effects, but can happily live for up to 50 years if circumstances allow.
Take a peek at our top ten manta ray facts below to enlighten yourselves as to why we love this remarkable species so much…
1. The name ‘manta’ comes from Spanish
The name 'manta' comes from the Spanish, meaning 'blanket' or 'cloak' which is an apt description, given that mantas have large, diamond-shaped bodies and triangular pectoral fins. They also have two structures (called cephalic lobes) protruding from their heads, which are used to push plankton-rich water into their mouths for feeding, but remain coiled up when navigating. They are also the reason that mantas are known as 'devil fish' in some parts of the world.
2. Mantas are different to Devil Rays
Contrary to some beliefs, mantas are different to 'devil rays' and are not to be confused with their relatives. Both belong to the wider category of 'mobulids', but devil rays are more pointed in shape than mantas and feed on small schooling fish as well as planktonic crustaceans. Devil rays are most prevalent in the Mediterranean Sea and the Eastern Atlantic Ocean. The two species of manta are larger and can be nearly nine feet wide, with giant mantas reaching up to 30 feet, while the largest devil ray is thought to be more like 17 feet wide.
3. Mantas are found in both the tropics and sub-tropics
Mantas have been observed both north and south of the equator in the tropics and sub-tropics, and most frequently gather in areas like Indonesia, Fiji, Yap (Micronesia), Tanzania, the Maldives, Socorro (Mexico) and Australia. The furthest north a manta has been recorded is South Carolina, USA, whilst the furthest south was North Island, New Zealand.
4. Mantas have the largest brain-to-weight ratio of any fish
Mantas have one of the largest brain-to-body mass ratios of any fish. Similar to primates, elephants and dolphins, manta rays have demonstrated high intelligence levels and long-term memory abilities. They are able to map their environment, using sight and smell and can pass the 'mirror test', commonly used to determine whether an animal can demonstrate self-recognition.
5. A Manta’s spot pattern is like a fingerprint
Similar to leopard sharks, manta rays are individually identified by the spots on the underside of their bodies, which remains largely unchanged throughout their lives. It is thought that, during early stages of development, random genetic mutations of the stem cells result in these varying patterns. Amazingly, even if a manta were to give birth to genetically identical twins, the patterning on the two would still be different!
If you're lucky enough to see manta rays on a dive and get some good photos, you can submit your underbelly images to the Manta Trust and contribute to the growth of the manta database, which reveals migration patterns and the habitats critical to feeding and reproduction.
6. Mantas love to be clean and are covered in mucous film
Deemed 'clean freaks', mantas repeatedly seek out cleaning stations and allow smaller fish to remove parasites and dirt from their bodies. They can spend several hours a day being cleaned and patiently wait in line for their turn if the cleaning station is busy.
Their bodies are also covered in a mucous film that protects them from harmful bacteria, so it's important never to touch a manta (or any other marine species for that matter), as a human hand can remove the film, leaving them vulnerable to illnesses and infection.
7. Mantas can jump high and dive deep
Manta rays have the ability to 'leap' out of the water, and the reasons they do this are largely unexplained, but experts believe it could be to do with mating rituals and the removal of parasites.
Giant manta rays are also deep divers, diving more than half a mile below the ocean surface. To keep their large brains warm at these depths, they have a counter-current heat exchanger which allows heat exchange between the veins and arteries so they can consistently maintain their internal temperature.
8. Mantas are devoid of a poisonous sting
Perhaps one of our more reassuring manta ray facts - while some believe that mantas have a venomous stinger, this is not the case. Stingrays possess a venomous barb, but mantas are harmless and can be safely dived next to without worry.
9. Manta mating is quite a spectacle
Manta mating is a sight to behold! The courtship process may take several days, and during this time several males will congregate around a receptive female. They compete to mate with her and form a 'train' of 20-30 males, one behind the other, following the female as she leads them.
At the end of this ritual, the female will choose a male and he bites her to hold on and position himself so their undersides are bonded. After mating, the male will glide away and never returns to partake in parental duties!
10. Mantas give birth to live young
Perhaps our favourite manta ray fact is that they are ovoviviparous, which means they grow an egg inside of them, but this egg hatches internally to yield live-born young. In contrast, animals bearing live young from the start are mammals and those animals that lay eggs are oviparous.
Female mantas reach maturity at eight years old and usually give birth to one, maybe two, 'pups' every two to five years. Pregnancy lasts between 12-13 months and baby manta are born (usually at night and in shallow waters) looking like mini-mantas!