SACRILEGE, SOME MIGHT SAY, but I have to admit that I often find whale sharks a bit boring. I always feel lucky to see one, especially because I have read that Jacques Cousteau swam with only three in his life, but to be honest the biggest fish in the sea doesn’t usually do much apart from steam on past like a submarine.
The biggest ray in the sea is something else entirely. Give me mantas every time.
Mantas and their cousins the devil rays soar through the big blue with balletic beats of their wings, yet have the power to leap clear of the water.
But my addiction stems from their brains, not their brawn. These are intelligent animals that have complex cleaning, feeding and mating behaviours, fascinating social interactions and are often as curious in looking at us as we are in them.
Mantas have unusually large brains for fish. In fact their brain-size to body-size ratio more closely matches that of large mammals.
This is something that won’t surprise any diver who has been fortunate to stare into the dark eye of a manta and felt that clear connection with another thinking being looking back.
This is also a group of rays that we are only just starting to learn about, even on the most basic level of how to classify them. It was only in 2009 that we realised that all mantas weren’t a single species, and that they were separated into reef and oceanic mantas. And now there is talk of a third species being resolved – the Caribbean reef manta.
Furthermore, recent genetic studies have shown that mantas are very closely related to other devils rays, and late last year their Latin name was changed from Manta to Mobula to reflect this.
Far more exciting than systematics is that scientists are really starting to build some proper insight into how they live their lives.
Much of this knowledge has just been published in a superb new book by Dr Guy Stevens of the Manta Trust and his co-authors (Book Review, July). It is a goldmine of information and insight for the underwater photographer, and has me booking up some manta trips ASAP.