If you want to see some giant manta rays, lots of them, head to Ecuador this summer. A new study says that more than 2,800 of them gather there in August and September, more than ten times the number of rays found anywhere else in the world.
A recent study by the Marine Megafauna Foundation and the Manta Trust said the overall population of oceanic manta rays could be as high as 22,000, if you counted those off the coast of Ecuador and neighboring Peru.
Oceanic manta rays are indeed giants. They grow to be as large as 29 feet long with a wing span of 22 feet, and weigh as much as 6,600 pounds. Fortunately, they seem to be friendly, and have approached divers, apparently out of curiosity.
The rays are drawn to the waters off Ecuador by the food supply there, particularly around the offshore islands and seamounts. They eat krill and zooplanktons which they find in the cold, nutrient-rich water there. They often gather around the Isla de la Plata, just 17 miles off the coast, a diving center.
“Ecuador is hands-down one of the most exciting places to dive with and research giant oceanic manta rays in the world,” says Andrea Mitchell, co-founder of the Marine Megafauna Foundation.
Each oceanic manta ray has a unique spot on its belly, like a fingerprint, which enables researchers and divers to track them.
Capturing the rays has been illegal in Ecuador since 2010 and in Peru since 2016, but they still are vulnerable to getting tangled in lines or hit by boats. They have been listed in the “threatened” category of the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 2018.
The rays are smart, with a large brain. In fact, they have the largest brain-to-mass area of any fish, and they have few natural enemies, primarily large sharks. Despite their bulk, they can swim at a 15-mph escape speed when they’re threatened. Read more: