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Living and Writing in the Natural World

In Search of the Elusive Spotted Eagle Ray

Aetobatus narinari, called hihimanu by the Hawaiians

          You remember that opening scene from the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, when the Empire's Star Destroyer heaves into view pursuing Princess Leia's craft, and fills the screen seeming forever as it just keeps coming and coming?  Or even better, the same opening scene in the John Candy/Rick Moranis spoof Spaceballs, when the Star Destroyer passes before you for an endless minute and forty seconds? 


          Well—that's what it was like when I saw my first spotted eagle ray last January off the southwest shore of Maui.  I was snorkeling, alone, off the broad lava-flow point just south of the Kihei seawall.  I had just dived down some ten feet to get a closer look at a bed of Wana sea urchins, the poisonous kind with the long, black spines, clustered within a larger bed of slate-pencil urchins, their own spines a bright red.  The mixture of colors pleased me.  Coming up, I sensed something large on my right, about two feet under the surface. 


          Another green sea turtle was my thought as I swung my eyes that direction, having seen half a dozen of them this dive, mostly resting on the bottom sand, though.


          It wasn't a turtle.  Not even close. 


          I wasn't sure what the heck it was.  It looked like a prehistoric bird swimming through the water with effortless ease, long "wings" rippling smoothly and rhythmically, propelling it along at a decent clip.  It was something flat, a roughly rhomboidal shape, the wingspan about 5 feet, and maybe 3 feet snout to tail. 


          Or rather the start of the tail.  As it glided by me, the thin black tail stretched forever.  Three, four, no, five feet at least, making the entire beast some 8 feet long with its 5-foot wingspan. 




         Only 4 feet from me as it pulsated by, the thing dipped down a bit and then arched up, and I saw the sheer black back spotted with dozens of the whitest circles, maybe a half inch in diameter each. 


          Then it struck me; this was a ray of some sort.  I had seen one materialize from covering sand some 5 feet below me off Jamaica 45 years ago, and it had frightened me then, being almost as big as this one, but straight under me.  And more recently, a year ago with my buddy Al, snorkeling off Scorpion Beach on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara.  But that one was just a little guy, pulsating by my mask in a bed of brown kelp.   


          This was bigger and more beautiful by far than either of those.  Soon he was by me, and I was left staring in astonishment and admiration.  I remembered to breathe, for the first time in perhaps a minute, choking on water that had leaked into my snorkel. 


          Shaken, I swam quickly back to the north end of Keawakapu Beach, where I had put in, and staggered out of the water like a drunken sailor (these days, my inner ear balance is always scrambled after snorkeling).  Another several minutes lurching down the beach, I caught up Tammy and Ash (wife, and daughter #3) who had commenced their morning beach walk as I waded into the ocean.  Incoherent explanations ensued, their concern for my sanity soon replaced by amusement.


          Well, who wouldn't be a bit suspect, describing an encounter with such a beast?  Rays are ancient, the basic "modern" model of the one swimming by me having been established early in the Jurassic, some 200 million years ago.  (By contrast, the basic hominid model is, oh, maybe 8 million years old, when we and various now-extinct versions of humans split off from chimpanzees.)


          Not only ancient, rays are grouped with sharks (yikes, again) in being the only cartilaginous vertebrates; their skeleton is made entirely of cartilage (whereas the rest of us calcify a cartilaginous start into good solid bone).  Almost all fishes are bony—except for the far older sharks and rays.


          These things I more or less knew, being a biologist.  But I had no idea how my eagle ray made a living.  A filter feeder, I guessed, like its (even) larger cousin, the manta ray?  Nope.  Get this.  The eagle rays have (in those 200 million years) fused the teeth in the upper jaw, and the lower jar, and beefed up the muscles grinding the two together.  They shuffle this formidable apparatus through the sand on the sea bottom until they scoop up some molluscs (clams, oysters, augur or cone shells, often). Whereupon they spit out the sand, and proceed to pulverize the shells with their incredible jaws, at which point they spit out (mostly) the shell fragments and gulp down the tasty molluscan flesh. 


          Oysters Rockefeller, without the Rockefeller. 


          But augur and cone shells are venomous, you say?  No problem, apparently.  The venom never leaves the ray's gut, and either gets evacuated at the far end, along with leftover shell fragments, or the rays have evolved intestinal enzymes to detoxify the venoms. 


          Speaking of venoms:  yes, the rays have barbs along those tails which can dispense agonizingly painful "stings."  My friend Kyle stepped on a stingray in a tidal flat in Baja California some years ago, and he (who was quite tough and had a considerable variety of pain inflicted upon him throughout his life) claims he never suffered as he did that day (and the whole ensuing night).  I was too stunned to notice, but "my" spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari, it turns out, called hihimanu by the Hawaiians) has several barbed spines at the base of its tail dispensing an unpleasant experience to whatever gets too close. 


          Pretty cool, eh?  And there's a lot of these flat, winged cartilaginous fishes and their kind.  Nearly 600 species (versus only 250 sharks in their separate group) comprise the superorder Batoidea, with 4 orders:  223 species of eagle, sting, and manta rays; 270 species of skates; 69 species of electric rays (used by the ancient (in human terms) Greeks to treat headaches); and 6 of the peculiar shovel-nose rays.  Hawaii has only 3 of these kinds of Batoids:  my spotted eagle ray; the manta ray so often lured beside piers at night with bait, so tourists can gape at them; and a brown sting ray. 


          And those awesome, pulsating and rippling "wings" that propel the eagle rays through the water?  Greatly enlarged pectoral fins, flattened and muscled up into the things of grace and beauty that they are today. 


          So when I waded into the same waters last month, I was keenly anticipating another encounter with "my" wide-winged friend.  I needed it; in the half-year since, the fossil fuel corporations bringing us worsened droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, rising sea levels, and millions of climate refugees had posted victory after victory, turning back science-based proposals to switch their billions of dollars of subsidies to clean energy solar and wind technology, already proven to work.  Pipelines hurrying dirty, polluting oil had been pushed through land whose owners vehemently objected but were overruled by the money funneled to politicians.  Established EPA rules to protect the well-being of people were abolished to increase the profits and ease of doing health-wrecking "business" by corporations large and small.  All discouraging; I needed a reminder that not everything was ugliness and money overruling health and scientific findings.


          It was a fine snorkel that summer morning; 4 green sea turtles leisurely glided by me, ignoring my friendly nod; I was getting better, too, at spotting these creatures dozing at the bottom, half-covered with sand.  Their flippers have distinctive yellow patterns against the brown background, which can be noticed if you know to look for them.  I had spotted another 5 turtles in the sand.   The fishes, as always, were myriad, brightly colored, swimming about the corals and the dozens of kinds of seaweeds and sponges and tunicates perched in bright patches of color on the black lava that had flowed fiery red into the water here and frozen solid 5 million years ago.


          As I was about a third of the way along the broad lava point, half an hour in and where I typically turn to swim purposefully back to Keawakapu beach, I spotted movement along a coral head below me, and yes!  It was a lovely Snowflake moray eel, shown in the right column, its white background decorated with curving rows of black diamond shapes (reminding me of the patterns in Diamondback rattlesnakes back home in the Sierra foothills), with a final yellow touch on the head of the thing.  I dove down, played (respectfully, with restraint) with the creature for a breath, then surfaced. 


          I had never ventured to snorkel the entire breadth of the lava flow; it was nearly half a mile long if swum in a smooth arc; snorkeled by the inquisitive snorkeler, curiously exploring all the canyons looping into the arc, the journey would be very close to a mile. 


          But I hadn't met my spotted eagle ray yet.  He (or she) could be gliding just minutes ahead of me!  I forged on.  I got to investigate "Tammy's Turtle Cove," where from the shore we very frequently saw adolescent sea turtles body-surfing, riotously tumbling over in the waves.  Still no eagle ray.  Finally I found myself at the seawall, and had to concentrate maneuvering through the large, jagged lava rocks that led to the little beach (yes, "Tammy's Turtle Beach", named for the adult turtles who frequently hauled out and enjoyed the sun there) abutting the seawall. 


          I was tired; midway through your 8th decade of life, a mile snorkel in the ocean pushes you more than—well, than in my younger days.  I crawled up onto the beach, removed the mask and snorkel, and sat there as the waves broke gently around my legs and lower torso on the sheltered beach.  Wave in, washing gently around me; wave out.  A half-minute later, another wave.  Another.  I shrugged out of the top part of my wet suit, and the sun felt terrific on my bare shoulders and chest.  I warmed up, and soon the cool water felt good swishing around my stomach. 


          Disappointed?  Yes, but as I sat there in the waves, I noticed butterflies fluttering across the narrow beach, toward the jetty on my right.  Some of the cosmopolitan Painted Ladies, it appeared; then an orange and black Monarch sailed by.  I smiled.  Then a couple of dragonflies whizzed before me, typically purposeful as they patrolled their territory scarfing up flying insects. 


          The sun was really very nice; the cool waves on my stomach felt great.  It was as if—well, as if I was a part of the whole thing, sitting there on the beach.  In the middle of the old coming and going of the waves, the butterflies and dragonflies doing their things, the sun beaming its energy down upon me and the rest of the planet, the corals and seaweeds along the lava point using its solar energy to make carbohydrates out of the plentiful carbon dioxide and oxygen and minerals in the water. 


           And, in that moment, tired and a bit disappointed as the waves broke about me, I felt a part of the whole thing. And that thing I was part of was a lot bigger, and infinitely more beautiful, than polluting fossil fuel companies and money-corrupted politicians.  Those were important, but this—the sea and its creatures—this was bigger, and nothing human could destroy it; harm it in the short run, yes, but not destroy it.  Our kind would disappear from geologic time, but this and its beauty would endure.


          The sun warmed my shoulders, the waves gently pushed and pulled at me, the butterflies and dragonflies glided above me as the turtles had earlier glided beside me and, half a year ago, a spotted eagle ray had pulsated beside me, seeming forever.  It all felt great.  Even if I had missed my gorgeous eagle ray today.  I knew the creature was out there, doing its thing, along with the sea turtles and corals and the thousands of fishes I'd just seen. 


          All good. 



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