The Manta ray is the largest of more than 500 species of rays. The name manta means blanket in Spanish and was given to these animals due to their large, flat, diamond shaped bodies that resemble the spreading of a blanket as they gracefully glide through the water.
There are currently two recognized species of manta rays; the Giant oceanic manta ray (Mobula birostris), and the Reef manta (Mobula alfredi). Both live up to 50 years and are known for being highly intelligent. Their ability to memorize and map terrain through sight and smell is an indication of highly developed long-term memory. Manta rays can also recognize their own reflection and are believed to be self-aware.
Reef Mantas, the smaller of the two species, are sighted far more often than Giant mantas because they stay close to shore and tend to be curious and social. They usually grow to around 3.5 meters, but some get as big as 5.5 meters.
Giant oceanic manta rays have a wingspan of up to 9 meters and can weigh as much as 3000 lbs. Wary of human interaction, they live offshore in open water and are believed to migrate much farther than reef mantas.
If you see a manta in the wild the best way to ensure a positive interaction is to hover away from their cleaning station and wait for them to investigate you. These curious beauties will normally swim quite close to check you out if you’re patient and non-aggressive, but if you chase them their powerful pectoral fins will carry them away in a flash.
The patterns on the belly of each manta is unique, just like a fingerprint. Researchers use these patterns to identify and track mantas. You can help researchers by photographing the underside of mantas you encounter and submitting the photos online at MantaMatcher.org
All mantas are currently listed as “vulnerable to extinction” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. There numbers have decreased significantly over the past 20 years due to overfishing and the use of their gill rakers in traditional Chinese medicine. We photographed this manta ray during a dive at Laughing Bird Caye. Read more in our post Scuba Diving, Placencia, Belize.