Stingrays and Eagle Rays are common fish life we see at Goat Island. They are my favourite part of a dive! I am always trying get that perfect photo.
In the Cape Rodney to Okakari Point Marine Reserve (Goat Island) or The Reserve - as we call it we see mostly Eagle Rays, they love the shallow, warm water it provides. These rays can grow to one and a half meters, with the females being the bigger of the sexes. Just this season we had one huge pregnant female that we kept spotting (Assuming it’s the same one). One day we saw a couple of the youngest eagle rays we had seen in a while (see pic below) and the large female had lost her big hump she previously had. BABY EAGLE RAYS ARE THE CUTEST!!!
Rays often chill out in the sandy areas scanning for small crustaceans or worms underneath. I’ve seen some in the middle of a tasty morsel, you can audibly hear the cracking of shell and the munching of their little mouths. Speaking of mouths, no matter the species of Ray, they all have the cutest little mouths! They look like they’re always smiling!
The other place you are likely to see Rays in the reserve is flying gracefully a top the kelp forests, making us divers feel floppy and clumsy. After dolphins and Kingfish, Rays are my favourite marine creature to watch swim! Whenever I come across a Ray whilst diving, it’s such an exciting moment, I try not to move too suddenly or exhale too deep as to not scare it with my bubbles. I move very slowly closer. If they can see you and aren’t cornered and you are calm, they don’t tend to take off. Although if you do get close to a Ray you must always make sure there’s a clear exit route for them as some individuals can be shy. You can tell if a ray is feeling uncomfortable as they will lift themselves up on their wings to look bigger and get ready to swim off, if they do this I’ll just back off a little until it relaxes again.
Stingrays also come into the Reserve, but they are a little less commonplace. We occasionally get Short Tail and Long Tail Stingrays, both easy to differentiate from their cousin the Eagle Ray. They swim very differently for a start, undulating their wings instead of flying like the Eagle Ray. They’re also much more rounded. You can tell the difference between the Short tails and the Long tails by... umm... duh? The length of their tails! Short tails also have pretty speckles along their back! Short Tail Stingrays can also grow much larger than their relatives reaching sizes of up to 2 meters wide and 4 meters long. I remember once while diving I entered a cave thinking, “Wow the floor is really dark” it turned out to be a massive Short Tail Ray.
Rays are unfortunate in New Zealand due to the fact that one of their predators is the most impressive Apex predator of the ocean. Nope not the Sharks but the biggest of the dolphin family - Orca!
These predators have honed their communication skills with their pod to work together in order to find and predate Rays to eat their highly scrumptious liver! I’m sure this makes a lot of sense to the Orca just like how humans may enjoy a bit of pate! Now if only there was an ocean equivalent of a nice pinot they could pair with it! As seen below they leave most of the Ray behind, just going for the innards.
Anyway! Although these predators are a tough match for the much smaller, less intelligent Rays they are by no means defenceless. Dr Ingrid Visser, “who studies NZ Orca” recorded a dead Orca in the Hauraki Gulf with multiple Ray barbs imbedded in her body. All Rays have a small barb at the base of their tails which they use for self defence. Often outsmarted by the Orca, who can usually avoid this barb using highly specialised techniques, the Orca aren’t always the winner in these battles. Eagle rays have also been recorded to fly out of the water when involved in a chase. How badass is that?!
Ray’s are one of my favourite animals to see whilst snorkelling and diving. They are not something to be afraid of but rather respected, which is why whenever I approach one while diving or free-diving, (Usually to snap a picture). I will ensure the ray can see me and that it has an open escape route if it feels uncomfortable. Some rays are shy while others will allow you to get really close and let you watch them, it’s an awesome experience and humbling to be close to such a captivating animal!