Galapagos Rays are a highlight for snorkelers and divers alike, gracefully gliding along the ocean floor as if flying in slow motion with gently flapping fins. At Galapagos it is common to enjoy a close encounter with whole schools of these elegant creatures of the deep, so be sure to pack your underwater camera.
In total there are 15 different species of Galapagos rays, globally listed as Near Threatened, but safely protected within the waters of the Marine Reserve. Read on to learn more about these majestic animals, and where you are most likely to find them during your Galapagos vacation.
Rays are closely related to sharks, with a skeleton formed of cartilage rather than bone. They have flat, circular bodies and a long tail that in some species can cause a deadly sting. They swim in an unusual flapping motion, rising their fins up and down, almost as if flying through the water.
Most rays, like stingrays, golden and spotted eagle rays are carnivores, feeding on molluscs, worms, small fish, squid and octopus. Other species, like the Manta ray are filter feeders, gulping mouth fulls of sea water to sieve out tiny plankton. Like sharks, rays can detect electrical currents from other animals when they move, helping them to find prey and avoid predators.
When can you see rays at Galapagos? They are present year round in Galapagos waters, but are easiest to spot between December and May when water temperatures are warmer and ocean visibility is clear.
Where to See Them: North Seymour, Santa Cruz, Tortuga Islet (Floreana), the channel between Santiago & Sombrero Chino, as well as at various day dive sites such as Gordon Rocks, Daphne or Beagle, or on a live-aboard dive cruise to Darwin & Wolf islands.
Manta Rays are the largest and most imposing of the ray species; sighting one of these giants underwater is awe-inspiring, rising from the depths in a scene out of a deep-sea thriller movie. They are also known as Devil Rays due to the two horns on their large heads that they use to shovel plankton into their huge mouths.
Their enormous bodies can stretch to lengths of 23 feet and reach weights of more than 600 pounds. Despite this bulk, they are speedy swimmers, capable of topping 22mph when in the mood, or cruising at 9mph – that is twice the speed of a professional olympic swimmer!
Manta Rays are filter feeders, swimming along with mouth wide open to fill up with water, and using special gill plates to sieve out plankton and krill in the deep, or fish larvae in shallow waters. Manta rays can also be acrobatic, leaping spectacularly out of the water to remove parasites from their bodies.
Manta Rays have played a role in folklore worldwide. The 18th-century Hawaiian creation chant, the Kumulipo, mentions them in the early pages. Centuries ago, sailors believed that the huge creatures had the strength to sink ships. Ancient Chinese mythology and medicine thought that the different body parts of the ray would heal, a practice that is still being discouraged to this day.
The Spotted Eagle Ray is one of the most attractive of the ray species for their polka dot spots that span the top half of their bodies. Although smaller than the Manta Ray, an eagle ray’s impressive wingspan can reach 10 feet, and lengthwise they can stretch up to 16 feet from nose to tail.
They are often spotted in shallow coastal waters, feeding on small fish, crabs, shrimps, octopus, squids, sea urchins, and mollusks. They catch prey by digging in soft sand with their long snout that resembles a duck’s bill, and crushing the shell of their prey with sharp teeth.
Most active during high tides, spotted eagle rays travel in groups, matching each other’s speed and breaching the waters of the open sea in unison when chased. If you do come across them while diving then take care of the venemous barb in their long tail – although shy creatures by heart, they have been known to react if sensing agression from humans or sharks.
Where to See Them: Los Tuneles (Isabela), Black Turtle Cove (Santa Cruz), Cormorant Point (Floreana) and Santiago Island.
Golden Rays, also known as Golden Cow-nose Rays, grace the waters of many snorkeling sites in the Galapagos – gently swimming in shallow waters of quiet coves and mangrove lagoons. Keep your eyes peeled while snorkeling, because these curious creatures use their fantastic sandy colored camouflage to blend in effectively against the sea floor.
Considerably smaller than Eagle and Manta rays, this species grows up to a 2 to 3 feet wingspan. Named for their brilliant gold coloring on the topside of their body, they tend to be in the greatest numbers when the waters of the Galapagos are warmer, appearing in large numbers in the open sea before their migration north.
The famous Stingray is a bottom dweller that lies in wait for its prey hidden in the shallow sands of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Diamond and Marbled Stingrays get their name from the venemous spike on their tail; this is their self-defense mechanism, used against predators like sharks, or occasionally against humans if they feel threatened. They are usually a docile and curious species, so don’t be surprised if they swim up to you during a dive.
This grey colored ray’s wingspan can stretch to 8 feet. Stingrays spend much of the day buried under the sand with just eyes peeping out of the surface, and hunt at night. They feed mostly on small bony fish and molluscs, extracted from the sand by sucking or digging them out.
Happy snorkelling or diving!
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