2000-09 Feeding Spotted Eagle Ray

By Ned and Anna DeLoach with Paul Humann

In the mid-1990s my partner Paul Humann and I were on Grand Cayman searching for a rare species of finger coral that he knew to exist in the shallow waters of North Sound. We waded out 100 yards from shore before submerging in waist-deep water near a scattering of small coral outcroppings. Each, isolated by an apron of white sand, sheltered a cosmos of creatures. Brightly colored juvenile fishes, bug-eyed blennies and scurrying crabs distracted my attention as I searched mound after mound for Paul's coral specimen.

Suddenly, I experienced one of those unexplained premonitions that something big was about. I turned and swept my eyes across the sand. And there it was, at the far edge of visibility, half-hidden inside a swirl of debris and headed straight for me. Squinting, I began to make out the shape of a Spotted Eagle Ray powered by a four-foot wingspan plowing a trough through the sand with its snout. An accompanying entourage of bottom-feeding fishes darted greedily around the approaching cloud. On the ray came, so intent on its task that it was upon me before realizing I was there. Dumbstruck, it bolted, vanishing like an apparition.

Back on the beach I told Paul about the encounter with an animal I had previously associated with the blue water of offshore reefs. “Eagle Rays feed by rooting in the shallows for mollusks,” he briefly explained as he hoisted tank to shoulder and headed for the rental car.

On the road to our hotel Paul told a heartening story. Throughout the 1970s, when he captained the live-aboard Cayman Diver, there had been a steady decline of the island's marine life due to over-harvesting. In 1986, after a decade of contentious debate, the government implemented a series of no-harvest zones at strategic points around the island. The plan has worked well. Today, when Paul visits, he sees more fish, especially the larger food and game species, than he did 30 years ago—a result he directly attributes to sound fisheries management.

A thriving population of one of the Caymans' premiere attractions—Spotted Eagle Rays—has been an unanticipated dividend of no-harvest zones. A favorite food of the spectacular fish just happens to be Queen Conch, a species once harvested to near extinction but now making a strong comeback in the now protected waters of the North Sound Replenishment Zone.