By Rick Frehsee
Move over stingrays, and make room for the friendly Eagle Ray of Belize. Divers visiting the northern islands of this small Central American country's barrier reef chain can now look forward to a real nose-to-mask greeting from one of the most beautiful and most timid marine creatures in the world. At the invitation of dive operators from Ambergris Caye, I was recently privileged to experience and photograph this phenomenal behavior for myself. Although seeing is believing, every sighting, every velvety touch of this magnificent creature, made me pinch myself. Was this real or just lingering effects of last night's margaritas?
The Spotted Eagle Ray, Aetobatus narinari, is considered by many divers to be the most handsome and most graceful of the ray family. Although widely distributed throughout the western Atlantic, the Bahamas and the Caribbean, sightings and encounters with Eagle Rays are nevertheless usually rare, especially in well-traveled dive areas. Cautious and extremely shy, Eagle Rays normally make a hasty retreat when approached by a potential predator, which is exactly what a big, ugly, bubble-blowing scuba diver looks like to an Eagle Ray. Popular dive sites such as Eagle Ray Pass and Eagle Ray Point are usually devoid of their namesakes; as soon as divers arrive in numbers, these flighty creatures head for calmer pastures.
Just the fleeting glimpse of a single Eagle Ray cruising at the edge of visibility is memorable. All the more spectacular, then, is an Eagle Ray conditioned to accept divers as welcomed visitors.
Several years ago, a dive guide from Caye Caulker (about three miles south of Ambergris Caye) embarked upon a special quest. Rasta Bob (just one of his many nicknames), an athletic, wire-thin Belizian Creole-cum-Jamaican, is a spiritual man with an affinity towards all birds and beasts. Daily visits with snorkeling guests to a sand flat just inside the barrier reef allowed him to observe Nurse Sharks, stingrays and an occasional Eagle Ray that frequented the area. Evidently these critters were originally enticed to this spot by fishermen who cleaned their daily catch here behind the reef (shades of Grand Cayman's Stingray City). Well, Rasta Bob began chumming with conch meat an Eagle Ray gourmet delicacy. After two years of extreme patience, he finally succeeded in getting an Eagle Ray to take food directly from his hand. Naturally, this first contact took place on the date of Bob Marley's birthday, prompting the name: Rasta Ray.
Spiritual, but not without an appreciation of commercial value, Rasta Bob began taking snorkelers to see his new friend. Behind his dive boat he rigged a wooden dowel hang-bar long enough to string four to six snorkelers in a row. Still a little shy, the Eagle Ray could then approach the divers within inches of their masks without feeling threatened. As the Eagle Ray became more confident, Rasta Bob eventually allowed each snorkeler to hand-feed from the hang-bar during the encounter.
As more time passed, Rasta Ray became completely relaxed among her new human friends. Now, like her better known stingray cousins, she noses divers and caresses them with her wings. These encounters have provided breathtaking experiences and amazing frame-filling photos that were previously nearly impossible in the wild.
I was also struck with the unique physical appearance of an Eagle Ray. The numerous white spots and circles on the jet black dorsal side provide the less well-known common name of Leopard Ray, but the body shape is almost entirely different from stingrays. The head is very pronounced with a tapered snout and a pig-like upper lip that is quite muscular and mobile. The wing tips are pointed, not rounded.
Rasta Ray has grown nicely on its diver-supplied feedings, reaching a wing span of almost five feet. Rasta Ray is sometimes accompanied by Rasta, Jr., a smaller juvenile that has made regular appearances for over two years.
Dive operators on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker visit this site regularly. Belize also features the longest stretch of barrier reef in the western hemisphere and three huge coral atolls including the Great Blue Hole. For information, call the Belize Tourism Board at (800) 624-0686 or visit www.travelbelize.org/diving.