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A Courting Ray Ballet

A Courting Ray Ballet

Beneath me in the murky darkness of a blizzard of tropical krill I could see a formation of many dark winged silhouettes like bats flying out of hell, and indeed they were devils, but by name only – a large shoal of spinetail devil rays coming to join the feast just outside Puerto Princesa Bay in Palawan, also attended by whale sharks, manta rays and bottlenose dolphins. I dived down to meet them on their upward ascent and became surrounded on all sides as if flying in a squadron of fighter planes; the white tips on their horn-like cephalic fins that gave them their devilish name shone like headlights in the gloom. As they ascended above me they were transformed into angels flying up into the rays of light as they ploughed through the krill creating waves on the surface. I was excited by all the diners in this amazing three-day feeding event in 2009 but it was my first encounter with these magical creatures that was the most memorable.

 

Shoal of spinetail devil rays feeding on tropical krill in Honda Bay in 2009

 

 

After a few more isolated encounters with these normally elusive creatures, sometimes with whale sharks, I had to wait until last July before another close encounter, and this time the distraction was sex rather than food. I was on the same banca boat heading out to Honda Bay to look for whale sharks as I had been doing since 2007 when we saw a disturbance on the surface ahead…. fins were slicing through the water, but these weren’t the dorsal fins of sharks: they were the unmistakable pectoral fins of spinetail devil rays. I have never lost my excitement of entering the water with whale sharks but with a much rarer opportunity like this my excitement was at fever pitch.

 

 

When I entered the water with the guests I expected to have to swim like a torpedo to keep up with the rays as they swam away as they usually did, but to my amazement I could see that they were completely preoccupied with what looked like a cat and mouse chase or a frenetic ballet as they swept up and down and gyrated around us. I wanted to express to the guests, who were seeing these rays for the first time, that this wasn’t normal and that they had unknowingly won an amazing jackpot bonus on their whale shark trip. But I was well aware what a rare opportunity this was so I had to quickly switch from amazement to focussing on capturing some photos and get into top gear. The conditions were just about perfect with the lighting and visibility, but I didn’t just have to contend with trying to capture these mercurial subjects but also avoid getting people in too many photos, especially as some of them were obviously as fired up as I was and armed with highly visible white selfie sticks!

 

 

 

 

It was fortunate that I wasn’t encumbered with scuba gear or else I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with their whirlwind ballet. The performance started of with five players, which I later discovered included just one female as the object of the males’ amorous desire. Eventually it appeared as if there were just two males remaining as the primary suitors as they twisted and turned in close proximity to me on the surface. They went down, and then to my amazement they ascended right in front of me and came together in a perfect yin and yang formation. I was within touching distance of them, but I was the one that was touched because one of the males suddenly veered towards my housing and swept down my body touching my chest. It may have been aggression, sexual arousal or curiosity with his reflection in my dome port, but whatever it was that was the climax of a truly remarkable encounter with these bewitching creatures.

It wasn’t until some time afterwards that specialist researchers who had seen my photos emphasised just how rare and unique an encounter it was. This was a special gift, and a reminder of how threatened these elegant angels of the ocean are and how important it is to protect them.

 

 

Winner of the fish behaviour category in the Ocean Geographic Pictures of the Year Competition 2017/18

 

 

The female is the upper one and that was determined by the teeth marks inflicted on her pectoral fin by a male

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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