Where Do Manta Rays Live?
Mantas are found in tropical and subtropical waters in all the world’s major oceans and also venture into temperate seas. The furthest from the equator they have been recorded is North Carolina in the United States (31ºN) to the north, and the North Island of New Zealand (36ºS) to the south. Mantas also known as a giant devil ray or an Atlantic manta, the giant manta ray’s scientific name is Manta birostris.
They prefer water temperatures above 68 °F (20 °C) and M. alfredi is predominantly found in tropical areas. Both species are pelagic. M. birostris lives mostly in the open ocean, travelling with the currents and migrating to areas where upwellings of nutrient-rich water increase prey concentrations. Fish that have been fitted with radio transmitters have travelled as far as 1,000 km (620 mi) from where they were caught and descended to depths of at least 1,000 m (3,300 ft).
M. alfredi is a more resident and coastal species. Seasonal migrations do occur, but they are shorter than those of M. birostris. Mantas are common around coasts from spring to fall, but travel further offshore during the winter. They keep close to the surface and in shallow water in daytime, while at night they swim at greater depths.
You’ll often find manta rays swimming near the surface in warm waters off the coast of islands or continents. As their giant fins gently flap and their short, whip-like tails swish back and forth, they appear to be flying through the water rather than swimming. Occasionally, manta rays will jump completely out of the water as a form of play or communication.
Flat and wider than they are long, manta rays have triangular pectoral fins that resemble wings. When outstretched, those wings can span over 20 feet across. Some people have even reported finding manta rays as large as 30 feet across. Manta rays also have cephalic fins at the front of the head. They look somewhat like a devil’s horns and are used to direct food, such as plankton and small fishes, into the manta ray’s mouth.
If you encounter a manta ray while diving, don’t be surprised if it approaches you. They are not harmful to humans. In fact, they’re curious creatures that seem to welcome interaction with humans. This is perhaps because they are highly-intelligent creatures. Scientists have confirmed that manta rays have the largest brains of any fish, with enhanced abilities for learning, problem solving, and communicating. Some experts believe manta rays might also recognize themselves in mirrors, displaying self-awareness, a rare ability in the animal world.
Sadly, manta ray numbers around the world have been on the decline in recent decades. Experts point to the fact that fishermen in countries like Sri Lanka and India hunt manta rays for their gill rakers, which are made of cartilage that’s extremely popular in Chinese medicine.