Flying with Sea Eagles

Swimming out past the shore break, I head south from the beach towards Round Rock. Venturing away from the safety of the shore, Annie and I remain parallel to each other, keeping our kicks unhurried to lessen the amount of noise generated at the surface.

Passing over a reef covered in fan corals, I see a sandy arena 25 feet in depth. Diving down, I let myself free fall to the white sandy floor. I pick up a handful and look skyward where the sunlight filters through. Striking lapis and turquoise hues break up the water column. Feeling the burning need for oxygen, I push off the bottom and float slowly upwards to the surface. Letting the sand fall slowly through my fingertips, Annie captures this moment with her camera just as a lone eagle ray glides between us. Mesmerized by the intricate spot pattern and expansive wingspan of this lone eagle ray, I am no longer focused on what is behind me.

Annie gestures excitedly for me to turn around and look at the scene that is upon us. A fever of 30 eagle rays was flying towards us. Don’t you dare move I tell myself. I literally froze where I was in the water column. Rays are incredibly sensitive to friction and noise in their environment. If we had any chance of seeing them again, Annie and I knew we could not chase them. This first encounter we wanted to appear as non-threatening as possible. Seeing this many eagle rays together in one location is incredibly rare.

“It Was All a Dream” – Photo by Annie Guttridge (@sharksneedlove)

Gliding effortlessly beneath us, I counted 33 rays in the array. They formed a wide band across the bottom that spanned 40 feet. From this vantage point I could finally focus on their spots. There was such a diversity in size and patterning between each individual ray.

New Research conducted by Maria del Socorro González-Ramos, a doctoral candidate at Mexico’s Insituto Politécnico Nacional, revealed that eagle ray’s spot pattern are not just eye-catching, but unique. Analyzing images of 192 individual spotted eagle rays from the Chacahua Lagoon in Oaxaca, Mexico, researchers found they could accurately ID a ray from a photo of its spots 88.2% of the time. To prevent eagle ray identity theft, a unique tag was fastened to each ray. Using photo ID software, the team was able to calculate how reliably a ray’s spots could be used to identify it. Often caught as fisheries by-catch in Mexico, Socorro González-Ramos and her team are optimistic that they can use their photo ID program to acquire more data on these beautiful animals.

“The spotted eagle ray population at Chacahua Lagoon still has many things to show us about the biology, reproduction, and demography of this species,” said Socorro González-Ramos. Despite promising results so far, “so many things remain unknown,” she said in an interview after the study was published.

I have had the opportunity to dive with great hammerheads, reef sharks, bull sharks and tiger sharks. I have collected biological samples from several different species of elasmobranchs, and been able to handle juvenile lemon and nurse sharks, but nothing has been quite like this. These rays were not baited or chased. Our encounter was a stroke of luck and entirely natural, which is what made it so special.

“Flying with Eagles” – Photo by Annie Guttridge (@sharksneedlove)

I did not expect them to make a second pass. But when they did Annie and I were in position. A single ray led the herd of eagles and began to do what is called taurusing. Allowing them to approach me, these eagle rays encircled me in what could only be described as a ray-tornado. I felt the urge to twirl alongside them. I could feel the pressure of my lungs, burning for oxygen, but I did not want to rocket to the surface and spook them. As gracefully as I could muster, I began to ascend. I could not think of a more beautiful way to interact with marine wildlife. It’s the kind of thing marine enthusiasts dream about, to be accepted as one with the very creatures we seek to protect.

“Cyclone” – Photo by Annie Guttridge (@sharksneedlove)

Although eagle rays are globally distributed, they rarely interact with people or divers. Worth more alive than dead, they are prized attractions for dive operators in the Caribbean.

In Florida waters, it is illegal to fish or harvest this charismatic species. Despite the lack of commercial value for harvesting eagle rays, it is still legal to fish and land them in The Bahamas. Not protected under federal fisheries laws, and internationally laws governing their catch limits are limited as well. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an organization that determines the conservation status of species worldwide, lists them as Near Threatened with its population in decline.

In 2008, Kim Bassos-Hull and Robert Hueter of the Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, Florida began a conservation research program with Save Our Seas Foundation to acquire more information into the life history, reproduction, ecology, and population status of the spotted eagle ray in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. In other regions of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, such as Mexico and Cuba, spotted eagle rays are caught in targeted fisheries. Mote has taken data and photographs of over 400 spotted eagle rays (as of September 2013).

“We are filling the gaps in research data needed to protect the species and build international bridges for its conservation,” Hull said. “Our project addresses urgent concerns about the ray’s biology and status in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea and serves as a model for collaborative study and protection of this and related species worldwide,” she said.

There is something so awe-inspiring about interacting with wildlife on a single breath of air. Within that small window between breaths you are a part of their world. The eagle ray closest to me noticed my presence but did not power off. Instead, it swiveled its head towards me and held my gaze. Eagle rays possess the largest brains of the cartilaginous fishes. Brain to body weight ratios establish these elasmobranchs just below birds and mammals, and well above amphibians, reptiles and bony fishes.

“Through a collaboration with dive shops, for two years we have been collecting spotted eagle ray sightings from divers throughout the Florida Keys,” Hull said to Save Our Seas. “These divers list spotted eagle rays in their top three list of creatures to see while diving the reefs (sharks and turtles being the other two). Our next step is to engage further with these dive eco-tour operators (in Florida, and we’ll initiate a program in Mexico and Cuba too) and set up a dedicated survey to learn more about these large, beautiful rays – the queens of the reef,” she said.

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