Manta rays are filter feeders: that means they swim around trying to take in as much plankton as they possibly can.
The mantas use a variety of feeding techniques based on the type of manta ray, where they are feeding, and if they are feeding individually or with a group.
When individual manta rays feed on plankton, they engage in Straight Feeding, Surface Feeding, Somersault (or Barrel Roll) Feeding, Sideways Feeding, and Bottom Feeding.
When groups of manta rays get together to feed, the techniques they use are called Chain Feeding, Piggyback Feeding, or Cyclone Feeding. And it’s precisely this last technique that results in a manta ray cyclone – an impressive phenomenon that doesn’t happen very often, and not many manta ray lovers get to witness!
You can read a brief description and see a photo of each technique in this article from MantaTrust.org.
What is a Manta Ray Cyclone?
A manta ray cyclone is one way a large group of reef manta rays feeds together.
Cyclone feedings start small – often with individual manta rays that form a line while chain feeding. The cyclone begins as more manta rays join in and loop around until the lead joins the end of the trail of manta rays.
Up to 150 feeding manta rays organize into a large, tight circle around a dense group of plankton. It looks like an underwater cyclone as the reef manta rays rotate together anti-clockwise for up to 60 minutes.
Cyclone feeding creates a great spectacle and is also being observed with Mobula Rays; a true phenomenon!
How Manta Rays Feed in a Cyclone
Cyclone feeding results in manta rays taking in a lot of food with little effort and little energy use. Through the use of body force, reef manta rays feed cooperatively by pulling in the plankton.
Typically known for orderly feeding rituals, the cyclone is more frenzied as the manta rays try to take in the most plankton possible. The manta rays bump into each other – and occasionally, whale sharks may join in as well.
According to Dive Into Life, as more manta rays join the cyclone, some mantas break out of the circle and spiral in any direction. This has been called chaos feeding because the manta rays appear to lose their coordination.
When and Where do Manta Ray Cyclones Take Place
Most reef manta rays can be found in reefs and atolls in the Indian and Pacific Oceans; but you won’t often find them in the Eastern Pacific.
Manta ray season in those areas is between May and November. Manta rays migrate seasonally based on the monsoon season to take advantage of the high concentrations of zooplankton. Although we don’t know a lot about their migration patterns yet, we know they have the ability to travel great distances and often return to the same areas each year.
The Maldives is where cyclone feeding has been witnessed most often. However, researchers only encounter cyclone feeding about once or twice a year. You can read more about manta rays in the Maldives in this article from Clean Waves.
More about Manta Ray Feeding Habits
Did you know that manta rays often twirl while they eat? You can learn about why they do this (and how manta ray feeding techniques have been used for inspiration by the aviation industry) in this article. For even more information about what and how manta rays eat, check out this article.
Manta rays are really interesting ocean creatures! If you’d like to become a manta ray advocate and learn more about the gentle giants of the sea download the free Manta Ray Facts & Figures ebook here.