Rays and stingrays identification guide

Rays are majestic fish, which can be distinguished by their flattened bodies and their winglike fins. There are as many as 500 ray species in the world.

While some rays, such as the oceanic manta ray (the largest ray species, which can reach 7m in wingspan) generally “fly” in open water, some others are bottom swimmers.

A snorkeler interacts with a Southern stingray in Belize
Stingray feeding is practiced in many tropical locations, like here at Shark Ray Alley, in Belize. Ecotourism-provided food is unfortunately drastically changing the behavior of these stingrays, causing local environmental issues.

This is particularly the case for stingrays, which also have one or more poisonous stings at the base of the tail, which can cause serious injuries. Some other species, like torpedo rays (however much rarer), can produce an electric discharge in case of danger.

What are the rays and stingray species I’m likely to see when snorkeling?

It is relatively easy for snorkelers to spot rays. The reef manta ray, which lives in all tropical seas of the world, is common in the Maldives reef drop-offs, in the Tuamotu Islands passes, or on some specific spots in Big Island and Indonesia.

Aetobatus ocellatus (found in the Indopacific, and really abundant in Seychelles), Aetobatus laticeps (which occurs in the Eastern Pacific) and Aetobatus narinari (found in the Caribbean), the spotted eagle rays, are almost indistinguishable from each other.

A manta ray at a cleaning station in the Tuamotu Islands
The “cleaning stations”, where the mantas come to get their skin, gills, and teeth cleaned by small cleaner wrasse, are some of the best spots to swim with these spectacular fish. Here at Maupiti Cleaning Station, French Polynesia.

The Southern stingray is the most common ray in the Caribbean. You can see it randomly almost everywhere in the archipelago. In some snorkeling sites in Cayman Islands, Belize or Antigua, they are even tamed and fed by local tour operators.

In Tahiti and Moorea, the pink whipray is common in the lagoons. Finally, recognizable by its colorful pattern, the bluespotted ribbontail ray is common at reefs in the Red Sea, Southeast Asia, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Circumtropical/widely distributed rays

Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean rays

Indian and Pacific Oceans rays

Eastern Pacific rays

Eastern Atlantic & Mediterranean rays

Do you like rays?

Check out our top10 snorkeling spots to swim with rays!

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