Lemons and Turtles and…Manta Rays? Oh, My!

The lure of warm weather, coral reefs, and shipwrecks draws both divers and marine life to the coast of our Sunshine State—especially when much of our nation is cloaked in snow. The travel of some species, such as the arrival of lemon sharks in January and February, are well-documented. But did you know that sightings of manta rays off the Florida coast are on the rise? And that there is a research project right here in South Florida studying juvenile mantas?

From below, a manta ray’s silhouette resembles a diamond-shaped UFO as it glides above divers. While encounters are still extremely rare, locally. Manta rays have been sighted near Lighthouse Reef (and all the way down to the Keys) and even in the shallows of Blue Heron Bridge!  

Silhouetted reef manta rays (Manta alfredi) swimming around an underwater

A Bit About Manta Rays

Manta ray from underneath

The largest of the rays, manta’s triangular pectoral fins can reach an amazing 29 feet from tip to tip. As is typical in the ray family, the manta is darkly colored when viewed from above, and lighter on its underside. Its long tapering tail is not barbed. Unlike other rays, the manta ray’s mouth is located at the front of its head, rather than on the underside.

Two distinctive horn-shaped lobes (called cephalic horns) extend from either side of the mouth—which explains its nickname “devil ray” or “devil fish.” 

Manta rays live in tropical, subtropical and temperate ocean waters. Adult rays travel huge distances in search of the best feeding grounds. Like many of the largest sea creatures, the manta subsists on plankton and small fish. The cephalic horns help funnel food into its mouth, which is sifted across rows of feathery gill plates.

Divers often spy them swimming above the highest points of reefs where currents push plankton toward the surface. When in a nutrient rich environment, they are often found cruising back and forth, sometimes somersaulting on their turns.

Relative to its body size, manta rays possess the largest brain of any fish. Studies have determined that some of that brain power is dedicated to learning, problem solving and communication. They are incredibly inquisitive and have been known to interact with divers. 

manta migration

A Manta Ray Nursery?

Reef manta ray (Manta alfredi) swimming around an underwater pinnacle north of the Yucatan Peninsula to be cleaned of parasites by labrid fish

Sadly, like many large marine animals, manta rays are an endangered species—which makes the discovery of a manta ray nursery even more exciting! In September 2020, the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) published a study that identified a potential manta ray nursery located along the South Florida coast.

During the study, researchers identified 59 individual manta rays which were then added to the online global manta ray database. In the press release, Dr. Andrea Marshall, cofounder and principal scientist of MMF said, “Very few nursery habitats for manta rays have been identified and this is the first to be found in such an urban environment.”  

The proximity of the nursery to the shore is a boon for researchers, but life along a highly developed coastline places the animals at higher risk of fishing line entanglement and vessel strike injuries.

The Marine Megafauna Foundation conducts research that informs conservation efforts to protect threatened marine megafauna, which are large marine species that include sharks, rays, marine mammals, many fishes and sea turtles. According to their website, “MMF’s vision is a world in which marine life and humans thrive together.” That’s a goal that divers across the globe can support.

World Manta Day is September 17th, but a chance encounter with these incredible creatures is possible any day with Jupiter Dive Center.

And this time of year, there’s still plenty of lemon sharks to make your dive even more spectacular! What are you waiting for? Book your dive today!

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