One of the main reasons scuba diving is so popular is because it offers divers an opportunity to see marine life in their own world. And while every animal is wonderous in their own right, few can match the effortless gracefulness of those belonging to the ray family. Fortunately, several species make their home off the coast of Florida—and Jupiter Dive Center can help you see them for yourself!
First off, what is a ray?
Rays are cartilaginous fishes—and it’s that lack of a skeletal structure that allows them the flexibility that makes them appear as if they can fly underwater. Unlike their close cousins, the sharks, rays have flatter bodies and large pectoral fins on their sides that give them a disc-like shape.
Rays use their pectoral fins to propel themselves through the water like birds use their wings. They tend to tolerate curious divers, but many rays have venomous spines in their tails that can pack a wallop if they feel threatened.
Broadly speaking, rays can be divided into two distinct categories: bottom-dwellers or fliers. Most of the local rays are considered bottom-dwellers and are distinguished by having mouths on the underside of their bodies. Stingrays are the most common in the group. But this category also includes two rays most divers think of as sharks: sawfishes and guitarfishes.
Guitarfishes are rare in this area. They occasionally lurk by shallow reefs, but they prefer shallow inshore areas and so diving encounters are infrequent. Sawfishes, are endangered, but sightings by divers of these odd-looking animals are on the rise! Even if you’ve never encountered a sawfish before, it is an easy species to identify—unsurprisingly their elongated snout (rostrum) looks like a saw with sharp transverse teeth lining the edges and can be as much as one-third the entire length of the fish. A NOAA Fisheries initiative encourages divers, anglers, and boaters to report sawfish encounters by calling 1-844-4SAWFISH. The information they gather helps scientists learn more about sawfish behavior and track population growth or decline.
Stingrays, on the other hand, are frequently spotted by divers in the flats next to reefs where they use their pectoral fins to cover themselves with sand. Yellow stingrays are nearly round, covered by small yellow spots, and can change color to blend with their surroundings. They can reach fifteen inches (this measurement is the diameter of the body and doesn’t count the tail—which is often as long as the body). Southern stingrays have a more pointed snout and wings. They commonly reach three to four feet in diameter but can reach five and a half feet and vary in color from brown to gray to black. Atlantic stingrays have a pointed snout, but rounded wings, max out at two feet, and are tan to brown.
Flying rays, such as Eagle Rays and Mantas, spend the vast majority of their time swimming—and seeing one wing past the reef is often the high-point of a dive. One rare occasion, these typical solitary swimmers school, and watching a dozen or more swim past is truly a magical moment.
From above, Spotted Eagle Rays have black skin heavily dotted with white spots. From below, they have a white underside. Their head is more pronounced and tapers to the snout. Flying rays are measured from wingtip to wingtip (not the diameter of the body like the stingrays) and Spotted Eagle Rays have a wingspan of up to eight feet.
Atlantic Giant Manta Rays may be the most exciting rays to encounter, and sightings off the Florida coast are on the rise—which led researchers to discover a nursery of juvenile mantas in Southern Florida. 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!
The largest of the rays, the 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.”
Regardless of the type of ray, they’re all fan favorites, and encountering one or more makes any dive special. So grab your gear, pack your sense of adventure, and call Jupiter Dive Center at 561-745-7807 or go online to book your dive today. Even if you don’t encounter one, you’re still diving in Jupiter—then again, you may just get to check something off your bucket list!