Reef manta rays can be found around the world, but they’re not as well known as their larger relatives, the oceanic (giant) manta rays – even though they often get confused with them.
When you join us for a manta ray moonlight swim, the gentle giants you encounter will be reef mantas.
Manta rays have been around forever. The oldest manta fossil is around 28 million years old! However, since the 1970s their numbers have dwindled due to overfishing and other human-made threats. Reef manta rays are particularly vulnerable, as they inhabit shallow waters that are easily disturbed by humans.
The majestic manta rays are known for their graceful swimming movements and endearing personalities. But there iss much more to the species than meets the eye! Let’s take a closer look at these remarkable animals, exploring their diet and habitat, how they differ from other rays, and what we can do to protect them.
How Big can a Reef Manta Ray be?
In Hawaiian waters, we encounter reef manta pups with a wingspan of 2-3 feet and reef manta adults up to 12-14 feet. Mature males are up to 9-10 feet; females tend to be slightly larger than males.
Despite their large size, reef mantas are gentle giants who pose no threat to humans.
Where Do Reef Manta Rays Live?
Reef manta rays are found in temperate and tropical seas around the world. They prefer warm, shallow coastal areas near coral reefs and seagrass beds, often congregating around cleaning stations where fish remove parasites from their skin.
They can be found in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as in the Indian Ocean near Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Thailand, and Australia.
Find out more about where reef manta rays live (and where you can witness them in their natural habitat) on this page!
What do Reef Manta Rays Eat?
Reef manta rays primarily feed on zooplankton.
They feed by filtering water through their gills and mouth while swimming slowly forward, a behavior known as filter-feeding. Their feeding techniques are quite extraordinary, and the way they twirl has even served as an inspiration for engineers in the aviation industry.
How Are Reef Mantas Different From Giant Mantas and Mobula Rays?
Reef mantas are part of a larger family of marine life called mobulids. This family includes pelagic/oceanic/giant manta rays (Manta birostris) and devil rays (Mobula rays).
Mobula rays are well known for their “breaching”, where they jump out of the water and seem to fly for several moments – something reef manta rays also do at times.
Reef mantas prefer shallow waters
As the name suggests, oceanic mantas typically reside in deep open ocean habitats offshore whereas reef mantas prefer shallow waters near coral reefs or seagrass beds. That’s why some people refer to them as “reef-dwelling” mantas.
Mobulas too typically inhabit deeper waters than reef mantas which makes them harder to spot when you’re snorkeling or diving along the coast.
Size comparison: reef manta vs giant manta vs mobula ray
Reef mantas are smaller than oceanic mantas; while oceanic mantas can reach sizes up to 22 feet wide, reef mantas usually don’t exceed 12-14 feet (which is still huge!).
Mobula rays are the “smallest” of the species, usually measuring up to 10 feet.
Differences in their physical appearance
The easiest way to distinguish a reef manta from a pelagic/oceanic manta is the mouth area and the cephalic fins. Pelagic mantas often have a very dark month, and there’s a lot of black around the eyes, even the inside of the cephalic fins is often black. A reef manta has more white around the cephalic fins and around its eyes.
The main difference between a reef manta and a mobula ray is that the cephalic horn (that’s what we call it when they roll up their cephalic fins) of a mobula ray is much pointier than that of the reef and pelagic manta rays.
Our Mission: Protecting the Reef Manta Ray in Hawaii and around the world
Reef manta rays may look intimidating with their huge wingspan and powerful swimming capabilities but these gentle giants pose no threat to humans. From their majestic appearance to their graceful swimming movements, the species has an incredible presence in our oceans that all ocean advocates should work to protect.
In fact, all three species of manta ray (reef manta ray, oceanic manta ray and mobula ray) are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. With proper conservation measures in place, we can ensure that future generations have ample opportunities to observe these remarkable animals and experience the true magic of mantas in their natural habitat for years to come!
Looking to do your part? Find 5 ways you can take action to save the ocean now on this page!