Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the March 11, 2006 Newsletter written at Hacienda San Juan Lizárraga one kilometer east of Telchac Pueblo, Yucatán, MÉXICO and issued from Hotel Reef Yucatan 13 kms to the north

Folks at Hotel Reef are good about letting me know if they spot an unusual plant or animal. This week I was told that a fishing tour had just returned with a Manta Ray caught with a rod and reel about three miles offshore.

Immediately I set off to the pier the fishing tours return to, but by the time I got there all that was left of the ray was a four-ft-wide, somewhat rhomboid sheet of flesh with an elliptical hole cut in the middle. The sheet of flesh, with a skin texture like rubbery, dark-gray sandpaper, was the ray's wings, and the hole was where the now-discarded body had been. White cartilage showed at the pink flesh walls of the ragged cut. A rope through the hole bound the remains to a pier post, and the choppy water's currents caused the wings to undulate, but not in the coordinated manner of a living thing. It was just a sheet of dead flesh drifting aimlessly back and forth, back and forth.

It was a sad first encounter with a Manta Ray. On TV I'd seen them gracefully flying through blue water. I was stung by the moment, finding myself standing there both thinking how wonderful it was that such an exotic life form existed just offshore the hotel, and at the same time witnessing its degradation, there, tied bodiless with a dirty, plastic rope to a pier.

Back at the hotel I told one of the watchmen that I'd never seen a Manta Ray, and that I was surprised how large it was. He laughed and said that not far offshore there was a submerged rock, probably the remains of a coral reef, where divers always saw one a little over 4 meters across -- 13-½ feet. I wasn't sure whether I should believe this so I Googled the matter and was astonished to learn that Manta Rays get up to 9 meters across -- 29.5 feet! You can see the fine webpage I got, from the Florida Museum of Natural History, all about Manta Rays, including a map showing their pantropical distribution, at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Gallery/Descript/MantaRay/MantaRay.html.

Inlander that I am, I was not at all sure how to classify Manta Rays, though the sandpapery skin suggested a kinship with sharks. All became clear when I read in Vladimir's biology textbook that rays, MANTA BIROSTRIS, are "...flattened sharks that live on the sea bottom." Even though Manta Rays are sharks, the above page says that they are of minimal danger to humans. We're not talking about stingrays here; that's a different story. The textbook went on to say that today there are about 275 shark species.

What other wonders lie right off these beaches I walk each week, and what other outrages? That Manta Ray, obviously a young one, deserved to live, if only in terms of "diving tourism," to be visited by people willing to pay to see it alive and free.