An Ode To The Manta Ray : Short Wave A few months ago, on a trip to Hawaii, Short Wave host Emily Kwong encountered manta rays for the first time. The experience was eerie and enchanting. And it left Emily wondering — what more is there to these intelligent, entrancing fish?

Today, Emily poses all her questions to Rachel Graham, the founder and executive director of MarAlliance, a marine conservation organization working in tropical seas.

Have you been completely captivated by an animal too? Share your story with us at shortwave@npr.org.

An Ode To The Manta Ray

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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KWONG: ...From NPR.

So a few months ago, I went to Hawaii on vacation with some friends, and we decided to go nighttime snorkeling, which is exactly like snorkeling during the day, except you need giant LED lights to see by. And the whole design of this tour was kind of a happy accident. Basically, a hotel on the Big Island had put LED lights in the seafloor to - I don't know - create ambience. And what they discovered is it attracted plankton, and plankton attracted fish.

So I am wearing a wetsuit and snorkeling gear. I drop off the back of the deck of a boat and paddle over to this surfboard that is resting on the surface of the sea kind of being held in place by a guide. And he tells me to, like, grab on to these ropes and float on the surface with my face stuck down in the water. So I'm completely flat and staring down at this, like, oceanic highway of fish. There is yellow tang. There's butterflyfish. They're all eating.

And then all the sudden, like, off to our right, there comes this, like, floating shadow specter of a fish. It's like a cloak moving towards us. And it is eerie and silent and huge - like 7 feet across. And it has wings that tip it towards us and then eventually barrel roll beneath us in a somersault. And I realize I'm staring down the mouth of a manta ray, like, inches from my face as it pulls plankton into its belly. And I can't breathe. I'm actually sucking my stomach into my rib cage because I'm so afraid of bumping the manta ray. But the manta ray - it seems very, you know, spatially aware. And I realize we're kind of in its turf. You know, so often we encounter creatures in - I don't know - built environments, zoos, et cetera. Here, we're in their home, and I just need to be silent and watch.

And that's what we do. For an hour, we watch manta rays feed on plankton. There's this one area of the seafloor called the campfire, and there are maybe 20 manta rays just circling around like ghosts. And they're so big that they block the light with their bodies, so the lights are blinking in and out like a momentary eclipse.

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KWONG: And it's this beautiful, graceful manta ray ballet of these fish gliding over and above and between each other, eating.

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KWONG: And my friends and I are just in awe. I don't want to blink. I don't want to miss a moment of it. And I'm filled with so many more questions about them. And I kind of start to wonder, you know, why didn't I know about these before? How did I not realize that a fish could be so intelligent and social and curious? Then I can't tell what I'm anthropomorphizing and what is real, and I just realize I have so many more questions about them.

So today on the show, I'm going to get some answers about what makes manta rays so magical and so smart and what has put them on the endangered species list. I'm Emily Kwong. This is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

All right, of all the cartilaginous fishes - this is a hot take - sharks get all the glory. I get it. Sharks have teeth. They're cool and big, and they have a week on Discovery Channel. But come on. We need to show manta rays some love, people. And you know who's a big fan of them, too? Rachel Graham.

RACHEL GRAHAM: Wow. Such spectacular species. And it's worth noting that their name, manta, means blanket in Spanish, and that's what they really look like. They look like flying blankets or carpets. Some of us in the manta world also call them magical sea flap flaps.

KWONG: Very scientific.

GRAHAM: Very scientific, 'cause that's what we are. We're all about the science, 150%.

KWONG: Rachel is the founder and executive director of MarAlliance, a conservation organization based in Belize. She's been working with threatened marine wildlife for a long time. And when I called her up, just, like, full of manta ray fervor, she totally understood because she had her own manta ray meet-cute at the Flower Garden Banks Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico.

GRAHAM: I had never seen a manta ray. And I just remember the first time I did, I was smitten - absolutely smitten. They are some of the most graceful creatures you can imagine, and they grow to be over 7 meters in width. So imagine that, 23 feet wide. However, the ones that we saw at that first instance in the Flower Garden Banks were about 6, maybe 7 feet wide, so 2 to 3 meters at most. And the cool thing is that what's come out is that this looks like this is potentially a nursery area for these manta rays. And that's one of the reasons why they're so small, because they're actually born at about between 4 1/2, 6 feet, maybe. They look like a rolled-up carpet when they come out of their mother, and they just unfurl, and off they flap.

KWONG: A little baby burrito manta ray.

GRAHAM: That's exactly it. You can't get any cuter than that. You really, really can't.

KWONG: And you said they flap away on their own.

GRAHAM: They do. They have to. There is no parental care. So they really have to be self-sustaining from the word go. And that is one of the traits of all chondrichthyans, or cartilaginous fish. That includes the sharks, the rays, the skates and the deep-dwelling chimaera fish as well. They all have these cartilaginous skeletons. They have internal fertilization. They tend to have very long lives and really long gestation. But when they're born, they're on their own.

KWONG: So in addition to being very unique, Dr. Graham, I've also come to realize that manta rays are extremely intelligent. So I wanted to bring up the work of scientist Csilla Ari, who's done research on manta ray brains. And for one of the studies that she and her colleagues did, they took two captive manta rays at Atlantis in the Bahamas, and they placed a mirror in the tank and observed the behavior of these manta rays over an extended period of time.

GRAHAM: Yes.

KWONG: And they noticed that the manta rays spent more time in front of the mirror than other portions of the tank...

GRAHAM: Right.

KWONG: ...And demonstrated some odd behaviors. The manta rays performed these unusual and repetitive movements that they describe in the study as contingency checking, where they're basically checking themselves out in the mirror and doing things like blowing bubbles at the mirror and flipping to look at their bellies, which I also do in the mirror. I look at my belly. I see how big it's getting from all the treats I'm eating during the pandemic.

GRAHAM: (Laughter) We all do that.

KWONG: Yeah. And this was cool, too. Giant manta rays, at least, have this behavior where when they meet new individuals, their white spots expand and contract. But these two manta rays in front of the mirror didn't display that behavior, which suggested to the scientists that they didn't register the reflection as another manta ray with whom they should be social.

GRAHAM: That's right.

KWONG: And this suggested there was some kind of, like, evidence of self-awareness, though I talked to Dr. Ari, and she said, you know, it doesn't prove self-awareness. And she wanted to be really clear about that.

GRAHAM: Absolutely. And what the manta rays were doing was very similar to - we will maybe pass by a mirror and then kind of take a step back and go, wait, what?

KWONG: Yeah.

GRAHAM: And you might've thought that was somebody. Or you were passing by a glass window, and you get confused as to whether that's somebody on the inside or that's you. So is it proof of self-awareness? Not entirely. However, all indications show that they have an incredibly complex brain.

Dr. Kara E. Yopak is a kind of top brain researcher as well who's looked at cross-comparative work with a whole range of different shark and ray species. And the manta ray has a really well-foliated or developed brain, which also reflects how incredibly social these animals are as well.

And one of the aspects that - you know, when you were asking me about how was my first encounter with manta rays and I mentioned the Flower Garden Banks, it was there that I actually had one of my most insightful and arresting encounters with manta rays.

KWONG: What happened?

GRAHAM: Well, it was literally snorkeling next to a manta ray that I had actually just tagged. It then kind of did a loop around to see what was that - somebody did something in my back there - came around and then hung with me for 40 minutes. And it was this wonderful, incredible dance and curiosity where it would move ahead, and then it would wait for me. And it then literally brought me back towards the boat that we were diving off of. And I could've easily swum with it for another two hours.

KWONG: Yeah. You know, it's interesting to hear you talk about this because, you know, SHORT WAVE - we've reported on the mirror test and the work of the person who developed it, Dr. Gordon Gallup Jr. You know...

GRAHAM: Oh, yes, in 1970.

KWONG: And I don't know. For me, I think the bigger question is, do we even need to prove self-awareness in order to care about the future of an animal?

GRAHAM: Absolutely. And you start looking at more and more of these animals very closely. Look at octopus - incredibly smart, sentient being. And now they're talking about putting restrictions on octopus fisheries, for example, just because they know how intelligent these animals are. And I would say that it's the same thing that people - a lot of people are actually proposing to curb any fisheries that have a significant take of manta rays, be they targeted or bycatch. And unfortunately, manta rays do not do well in nets, and they do not do well when they are released from nets. The mortality after they've been caught is incredibly high. And so we're seeing a big loss from manta ray populations via targeted and bycatch fisheries.

KWONG: Yeah. It's rough. There are two known species of manta ray, and they're both in trouble, right? So we've got the giant manta ray. It's endangered. The reef manta ray is classified as vulnerable, both by the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And broadly speaking, shark and ray populations have declined by around 70% since 1970, mainly due to overfishing. So given all of this, what do you want people to know about the relationship between humans and rays?

GRAHAM: So there's a couple of things I'd love to tell people. One is if you do ever get the opportunity to travel to a tropical country where manta rays form part of a community-based tourism, do so because by showing communities that you are putting money into their coffers and that you're doing it because you want to see manta rays elevates the value of manta rays, and it brings money across the communities to many families, boat captains, guides and more, if you're able to do that.

If you're not, then my big desire is for people to really think hard about the seafood that they eat and to potentially eat less of it because, really, many of the threats that we're seeing facing manta rays are due to fisheries. That will make a huge difference to manta rays and all the other large, long-lived marine wildlife in our seas.

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KWONG: Dr. Graham, thank you so much for coming on to talk about manta rays with me.

GRAHAM: It's been such a privilege, and they really are the most magnificent, thought-provoking animals.

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KWONG: Hearing about manta ray mortality from overfishing and other human-led causes was tough, especially after swimming with them. But moving forward, I want to hold both realities in my memory, to marvel at the manta and to also take responsibility for the impact we humans have on our oceans. Dr. Graham told me that swimming with mantas connects her to the sea, giving her purpose in the work that she does, that conservation is hard, but mantas make it all worthwhile.

This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Sara Sarasohn and fact-checked by Rasha Aridi. The audio engineer was Josh Newell. Special thanks to Erin Fulton, Adrienne Wilber and Big Island Divers in Hawaii. Shoutout to Captain Mike, Justin, Cosmo, Casey and the rest of the crew. I also want to thank Csilla Ari, who has contributed groundbreaking research to our understanding of manta ray and Mobula brains and behavior. I'm Emily Kwong, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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