Creature Feature: Flying Mobula Ray

Posted on Tuesday, Oct 17th, 2017

Genus: Mobula

Trips: Islands of Loreto Bay Kayaking Tour, Espiritu Santo Kayaking Tour

Likelihood of Sightings: Moderate - High

Famed for their spectacular breaching, “flying” Mobula rays are found in tropical and warm temperate seas around the world. They are closely related to sharks, with long, flat bodies and pectoral fins that resemble wings, making them suited to both cruising through the water and “flying” through the air. Mobula rays appear very similar to manta rays and can grow to disc widths of up to 5.2 meters (17.1 feet), although much less is known about them and their behavior than their manta counterparts.

Exactly why Mobula rays “fly” from the sea is still unknown but they appear to do it more regularly when gathered in large groups. They are known to reach heights of more than two meters (6 feet 6 inches) above the water’s surface and can remain airborne for a few seconds. Their re-entry is not so graceful, however, with Mobula rays bellyflopping and making a loud splash as they hit the water.

Because Mobula “flying” rays are elusive and often skittish in front of divers, it has been difficult for researchers to observe them in the wild and determine exactly how they breach. Studies of large manta rays have shown that these marine species start their leaps in deep water so that they can build up enough speed to seemingly fly out of the sea.

All mobulid rays and myliobatid (eagle rays) are known to jump, with researchers believing it may have to do with ridding their bodies of parasites, courtship or as a means of communication. Some have been observed jumping at the start of a feeding frenzy, so they may be using the behavior as a signal to inform other individuals that food is available. It’s highly likely that they jump for a variety of reasons, with both males and females known to jump.

Being surrounded by a shoal of Mobula “flying” rays is an incredible experience, with the animals continuously leaping out of the water for extended periods as long as 24 hours. The waters around Baja California in Mexico are particularly renowned for sightings, with the rays often flipping and twisting in the air as they breach. May is one of the best times to witness this natural phenomenon when hundreds of Mobula rays congregate in the Sea of Cortes.

Because Mobula rays like to congregate in large shoals, it makes them incredibly vulnerable to human impact. It is not uncommon for them to end up as by-catch in gill net fisheries and ongoing research into their behavior is hoped to reduce the devastating impact such events can have on these “flying” rays.