Similar in appearance to the manta ray, the mobula ray (the two belong to the same family, Mobulidae) is also often referred to as the "flying ray", due to its aerobatic behaviour as it breaches the water, making it appear as if it is, indeed, able to fly. These mysterious marine creatures can be found in warm, temperate and tropical coastal and oceanic waters, but while there's plenty of data on the manta ray, far less is known about its more diminutive cousin.
The elegant underwater movements of the mobula ray were captured for the first time at night in an episode of the popular BBC series Blue Planet II, the astonishing footage revealing the entrancing bioluminescent trail it creates with its slow moving "wing" beats.
The Mysterious Mobula
M. mobula can grow up to a width of 5.2 metres, depending on the species. Their bodies are long and flat, with disc-shaped pectoral fins that have the appearance of wings and give them their amazing ability to "fly".
Scientists have plenty of theories for why the rays launch themselves out of the ocean (including for communicating, feeding, courting, and dispersion of parasites), but in reality we just really don’t know. They can reach elevations of up to two metres and remain in the air for several seconds, sometimes executing airborne flips and twists, before loudly belly flopping rather less elegantly on their descent.
What researchers do know is that the rays breach the water at top speed, meaning they would have to come from quite deep in order to gain such velocity. When the rays gather in huge aggregations, the behaviour can last for up to 24 hours at a time, often at the onset of a feeding frenzy
A World First
Sir David Attenborough's Blue Planet II series magnificently captured the very first nocturnal footage of the mobula ray. The superb piece of filming was shot in Mexico's Sea of Cortez, which is a popular place for wildlife cruises due to its high concentration of marine species, particularly cetaceans.
This abundant body of water is situated between the Baja California Peninsula and the Mexican mainland. The coup by the Blue Planet team was not without its risks because the area is also a popular habitat for bull sharks, and in order to capture the footage the cameraman had to shoot in pitch darkness.
Using a complex diving cage and sophisticated slow light technology (featuring a camera able to capture the most delicate light in existence), the cameraman descended into the ocean amongst hundreds of rays. He was unable to see a thing and only the camera could capture the vision. It wasn't until later that its full beauty was revealed.
As the rays pass through the water, their movement causes plankton to glow in an incredible bioluminescent lightshow emerging out of the inky darkness of the ocean. The effect of the phenomenon, as countless rays glide in and out of the camera's vision, is utterly mesmerising. The groundbreaking footage is powerful, intimate and a vital resource in terms of research.
Wildlife Cruises to the Baja Peninsula and Sea of Cortez
There are few destinations to rival this part of the world in terms of its sheer concentration of marine species. While many people choose wildlife cruises to the region specifically for the opportunity to encounter the wide variety of whale species that inhabit the ocean, there are also over 650 species of fish and a host of other fascinating marine life - including the mobula rays.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in marine species. For nature lovers interested in dedicated wildlife cruises, Marissa recommends the itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of species in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.