Just a few kilometers off the eastern Mexico coastline, beams of sunshine penetrate the ocean surface, piercing the glistening Gulf of Mexico water and illuminating a colorful coral reef. Slowly and silently, a solitary shadow drifts back and forth over gardens of anemone and pillars of coral. The unannounced visitor commands wonder based on the sheer virtue of its size, but it instills no fear in the inhabitants of this vibrant maritime neighborhood. Parrotfish with turquoise scales use their beaklike mouths to continue crunching coral, consuming tiny invertebrates and spitting out the surplus calcium. Neon yellow and blue cocoa damselfish remain undisturbed, nibbling away at algae covering the rocks that anchor this shallow water world. A pair of long, black remoras display even more surprising behavior - they begin to swim toward the giant beast.
For a creature of such imposing proportions, the massive Manta Ray glides majestically through these coastal tropical waters. The flat, completely cartilaginous triangle lazily beats its wide pectoral wings, which span an awesome average of 6 meters (nearly 20 feet). This flowing flapping is smoothly soothing, a slow-motion ripple from the creature's center outward to each tip. Rarely swimming faster than a leisurely 11 kilometers per hour (7 miles per hour), the Manta Ray has no desire or need for speed. Large sharks and orcas attack infrequently, if not never, and planktonic prey are almost effortlessly consumed as the world's largest ray grazes over the coral ecosystem.
Methodically somersaulting and looping in circles, the Manta Ray filters water with wide gills located toward the head on the white underbelly speckled with gray blotches. Tiny oceanic organisms, such as plankton and fish larvae, floating in the vicinity are helplessly funneled into the Manta Ray's filtration system by a pair of gill rakers, fleshy lobes extending from either side of a gaping mouth, furled downward during this feeding session. While water streams through the gills, the giant predator's miniscule prey remains stranded in spongy russet plates of tissue in back of the mouth, caught for consumption. Somehow, these morsel mouthfuls satisfy the appetite of a creature weighing an average of 1360 kilograms (nearly 3,000 pounds).
As the Manta Ray coasts along, the pair of undaunted remoras latch onto the larger fish's underside, commencing a feeding session of their own. Remoras, along with various species of wrasses and angelfish, rely on a filthy ray for meals, swimming in between their gracious host's gills to eat dead tissue and parasites. Manta Rays will intentionally visit these "cleaning stations," generally located atop coral peaks, where numerous species of maritime life congregate to cleanse or be cleansed. Through this symbiotic relationship, these smaller fish enjoy a safe and plentiful food source, while Manta Rays receive a thorough cleaning.
Scientists believe that, on occasion, the Manta Ray will become proactive in its own hygiene, ridding itself of parasites in theatrical fashion. Surging toward the sky, Manta Rays will breach the water, launching more than 2 meters (7 feet) into the air. While airborne, these flying fish are an impressive sight, a giant, flat saucer soaring above the surface before reentering the water with an emphatic, smacking belly flop just moments later - a sound that can reverberate throughout the ocean for many kilometers in all directions. If this behavioral habit does not in fact lend itself to cleaning, it most likely reveals an aerial form of communication or play.
Just off the Pacific shores from California to Peru, bookending the Atlantic along the coasts of both Africa and the tropical Americas, and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, the Manta Ray thrives in warm and shallow waters, never diving significantly deeper than 120 meters (nearly 400 feet). During mating season, any time between the months of December and April, generally solitary sexually mature adults congregate in the name of reproduction. Males initiate the courtship ritual with a flirtatious chase, pursuing a potential mate just meters beneath the surface in rocky waters, ranging from 26 to 29 degrees Celsius (79-84 degrees Fahrenheit). After several minutes of elusion, the female ends her tease, allowing the male to bite her pectoral fin and beginning belly-to-belly copulation.
Following 13 months of incubation, a pair of pups will hatch from eggs while still inside their mother before being birthed live into the ocean, wrapped up by their own pectoral fins. Significantly smaller than their parents, measuring a mere 125 centimeters (4.1 feet) across and 11 kilograms (24.2 pounds), the pups will soon unfurl themselves and face the open ocean on their own. These young Manta Rays resemble adults in almost every way, simply on a smaller scale: rough and scaly skin, a solid dark gray back, and a relatively short, barbless tail. In short time, they will grow into some of the most magnificent creatures in the sea.
Due to a relatively slow reproductive cycle, with mature females only giving birth to small litters every two years, replenishing the Manta Ray's numbers is a slow process. While the Manta birostris species remains safe from the threat of extinction, overfishing in waters off of the Philippines and Mexico over recent decades has nearly eradicated regional populations, and recovery will prove slow, at best. On the bright side, however, historical hunting for oil-rich livers and abrasive-inclined skin has almost entirely disappeared, ensuring that serious conservational measures will not be necessary at any time in the imminent future.