Flying Creatures of the Deep

THEY glide gracefully within coastal waters and around islands of the sea. They can be found in the depths of the oceans, whether cold or warm, and even in some lakes and rivers. What are they? They are members of the ray family, creatures of the deep that appear to fly!

You don’t have to be a deep-sea diver or a fisherman to enjoy the flying beauty of the ray, and you don’t have to be in the water either. As Bart, a marine biologist, points out, beach goers are often treated to the sight of winged rays leaping out of the water.

There are several hundred species of rays, ranging in size from a few inches to many feet. You can see their resemblance to their relative the shark. Ray eggs, unlike those of most other fish, are fertilized inside the female’s body. Skates, members of the ray family, lay the fertilized eggs, while other rays’ eggs are hatched within the female and the young are born alive—miniatures of their parents.

Among the best known are the stingrays, which have a boneless body made of cartilage, with a fin on each side that extends from the head to the base of the tail. Stingrays can be diamond-shaped or circular, or they may look like a kite with a tail. Their flattened bodies offer very little resistance to the water. Wavelike movements of their fins give them the power to glide through the sea as if flying effortlessly. When not swimming, rays will lie hidden on the sandy bottom.

The eyes of stingrays are on the top of their head, while their mouth is underneath. They have hard teeth and a strong jaw, which enables them to tear into shells. This is why they are not a welcome sight at an oyster bed, as shellfish are their favorite food. Stingrays are themselves edible to humans and are sometimes used as a substitute for scallops in recipes.

 Their distinctive name stingray comes from the venomous spines on the upper side of their long tail. The tail is capable of inflicting a painful, poisonous stab if the ray is stepped on, mishandled, or threatened by enemies. The spines frequently break off deep in the wound, making them hard to remove, and they can cause serious infection if the wound is not treated properly. If you are ever stung by a ray, wash the area thoroughly with water—seawater if necessary. As soon as possible, soak the wound in hot water, as hot as you can tolerate. Hot water destroys the venom and relieves the pain. Then get to a doctor without delay.

Although their barbed tails may instill fear in you, stingrays are not generally aggressive and usually use their tails only when threatened. Bart, mentioned at the beginning of the article, found stingrays quite friendly when he and his wife swam with them in the Cayman Islands at a local spot known to be a feeding area for friendly rays. He reports: “We were kneeling on the bottom, in about 15 feet [5 m] of water. When we began feeding them, the stingrays besieged us! There were probably 30 or 40 stingrays of all sizes surrounding our party. Searching for food, the rays started at our knees and went up our fronts and backs and over our heads, gently swimming along and nudging us for even a tiny bit of food. It was astonishing how docile these beautiful creatures were. They even let us rub their stomachs as they went over us.” Bart mentioned that these rays have become so tame that in all the years that people have been swimming with them, there have been no recorded attacks.

Those of us who are not experienced divers can enjoy the rays in shallower water or at aquariums throughout the world. Many aquariums have petting pools with stingrays in them, but their barbs have been removed as a precautionary measure. Says Ron Hardy, owner of Gulf World, in Panama City, Florida: “One of the best examples of the power of displaying live animals is our stingray petting pool. People seem to have a fear of stingrays—almost a phobia—but you should see their opinion change as they learn the facts from our narration! After they touch one, they start to admire the ray’s grace and beauty. In fact, some miss the dolphin show, which is next, just to continue to interact with the stingrays.”

Perhaps now that you have learned something about the rays, your apprehension has lessened. However, remember that they often conceal themselves on the sandy bottom of shallow, warm waters. So while wading in such places, shuffle your feet instead of lifting them. In this way you will warn the rays of your approach and thus avoid stepping on a ray and perhaps feeling the sting of this beautiful flying creature of the deep.

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People seem to fear stingrays, but their attitude changes when they learn the facts about them

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Manta ray

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© Francois Gohier/Photo Researchers