Rays and stingrays identification guide

The rays or batoids, are distinguished by their flattened bodies and disc-like shape, which are the result of their solid wing-like fins. They include torpedo rays, guitarfish, wedgefish, stingrays, eagle rays and manta rays.

The latter two groups are majestic fish which fly through the water using a graceful flapping movement and can also leap into the air. The stingrays swim by undulating the edges of their discs. The other species use their tail to swim and the guitarfish and wedgefish, in particular, resemble the sharks from which they evolved. There are as many as 600 ray species in the world.

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. Feeding is unfortunately drastically changing the behavior of these stingrays, causing local environmental issues.

The largest of the species are the manta rays. In the case of the oceanic manta ray (Mobula birostris), they have a 7m wingspan. The eagle rays have a much smaller wingspan but, in many species, have a very long tail, up to 5m in the case of the spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari).  The eagle rays, although swimming in open water, feed on the invertebrates in seabed sediments.  The stingrays are, in this respect, similar to the eagle rays in that they feed on prey species found in or closely associated with the seabed.  It is not uncommon to see a stingray agitating a sandy seabed to release buried invertebrates.

Eagle rays and stingrays have an interesting defensive mechanism in the form of venomous spines at the base of the tail.  Injuries due to the sting of these species is described as excruciatingly painful, but they are generally a result of the fish being trodden on. The torpedo rays have a different form of defensive mechanism through the generation of an electric shock, which they employ to stun predators and prey.

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

It is relatively easy for snorkelers to spot rays due to their significant size. One of the largest is the reef manta ray (Mobula alfredi), which lives in all tropical seas of the world.  This species is common in the Maldives near reef drop-offs, in the Tuamotu Islands passes, or on some specific spots in Big Island and Indonesia.

The spotted eagle ray is the most frequently observed of the eagle rays, and comprises several species that are almost indistinguishable from each other.  The ocellated eagle ray (Aetobatus ocellatus) is found in the Indopacific, and is really abundant in Seychelles, the Pacific white spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus laticeps) occurs in the Eastern Pacific and the spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) is frequently found in the Caribbean.

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 (Hypanus americanus) is the most common ray in the Caribbean. You can see it almost everywhere in the archipelago where flat sands occur. If you want to see them feeding in shallow waters then a great spots can be found in the Cayman Islands. However, on these islands, as well as Belize and Antigua, tour operators have adopted, the ecologically dubious practice, of taming this species by feeding them by hand.

Of the other stingrays, the pink whipray (Pateobatis fai) is common in the lagoons of Tahiti and Moorea and finally, recognizable by its colorful pattern, the bluespotted ribbontail ray (Taeniura lymma) is common on 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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