The 3 Main Differences between the Giant Manta Ray and the Reef Manta

Mar 10, 2018 | About Manta Rays, Manta Rays in Hawaii

A question we often get about manta rays is what is the difference between the mysterious giant manta ray – and the reef manta ray we encounter daily when we take guests to swim with mantas.

These two manta rays are very different, namely when it comes to

  1. Their size – the giant manta ray is bigger than the reef manta. Even though reef mantas are huge already!
  2. Their habitat and distribution – we’re still learning about their migration patterns, but there are very clear differences between both types of manta rays
  3. Coloration – each type has its own distinctive color pattern.

Names for Reef & Giant Manta Rays

There is much confusion about the types of manta rays out there, even though there are only two. And even though both types are huge, only one of them is called “giant manta ray” 🙂

Reef manta = the type of manta ray who stays closer to the reef. Latin name: Mobula Alfredi.

Pelagic manta = giant manta ray = oceanic manta ray; they usually roam the “pelagic” zones of the ocean. Latin name: Mobula Birostris.

Reef manta ray

Reef manta

Pelagic manta ray

Pelagic manta

Difference #1: The Giant Manta is Bigger than the Reef Manta

No surprise there: reef mantas are a little “smaller” than oceanic mantas. Big Bertha is one of the biggest grown-up females we see regularly here along the coast of Kona. She measures about fourteen feet (five meters) wingspan which is wider than a basketball loop is high!

However, a large manta ray like Big Bertha is still a lot smaller than your average pelagic manta ray; the latter’s wingspan can measure up to 22 feet (seven meters). However, as they roam the deeper “pelagic” zones of the ocean, we don’t see them as often during our moonlight swim adventures.

Graphic showing the differnce in wingspan of giant manta ray and reef manta ray

Difference #2: Their Habitat and Distribution

As its name already gives away, the common habitat for the manta ray is the reef. Along the Kona Coast, the reef is right along the shoreline which makes sightings a frequent event, both at night and during the daytime. Although they’re seen more often at night around the manta ray viewing sites, where they come to feed.

“Pelagic” means that the fish lives neither close to the bottom nor near the shore, although sometimes giant manta rays do also swim inshore. You are super lucky if you encounter an oceanic manta; I’ve been diving and snorkeling around the coasts of Hawaii for over 25 years now and I’ve seen plenty of reef mantas, but only a handful of pelagic ones.

Both types of manta rays live in the tropical and subtropical, although pelagic mantas might also be found in moderate waters.

Difference #3: Manta Ray Colors and Patterns

Pelagic mantas have a darker black-greyish topside with more dark on their underside and on the cephalic fins than reef mantas do. You might run into a “Black Ray”; here is an awesome example of one filmed by Justin Summers. The picture below shows the pelagic manta ray with a lot of black coloring around the eye and the inside of the cephalic fin versus the reef mantas which is all white on those areas.

Picture of a (pelagic) giant manta on the left and a reef manta on the right

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It’s a great FREE resource for anyone who’s getting ready to experience the manta rays firsthand.



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Mantas in this post

Big Bertha

Big Bertha

WINGSPAN 12-14 feet


SPECIES Mobula Alfredi (reef)

Martina Ray

Martina Ray

WINGSPAN 18+ feet


SPECIES Mobula Birostris (pelagic)

St. James Ray

St. James Ray

WINGSPAN 8-10 feet


SPECIES Mobula Birostris (pelagic)

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