Exploration

A ray of rarity

There have been fewer than 60 confirmed sightings of the ornate eagle ray, often referred to as the unicorn of the sea. Is this species emblematic of the beauty and mystery of the ocean, as well as the threats we pose to it?

Words & photographs by Emilie Ledwidge

Do we really want to be part of a society that loses wild species every day due to its own destructive practices, those creatures never to be seen again other than in photographs? This is what was going through my mind when I encountered one of the rarest ray species in the world on the Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia – the ornate eagle ray.

Waking up for work knowing I will see a vast array of marine life during the day is a dream. The Ningaloo Reef is one of the best locations in the world to view pelagic life and I am one of the lucky few to photograph it.

It started off as just an ordinary day at work – hop in for a morning snorkel at one of the coral reef sites, where we commonly see turtles or sharks, followed by snorkelling with manta rays somewhere in Bateman Bay. After that, we continue to cruise around looking for dolphins, turtles and other marine life. “Emilie, do you want to get in the water with something?” asked one of the crew. Unaware of what it was but eager to get in the water with it, I rushed to get my fins, mask and camera. Within a minute I was in the water. From afar I thought the animal was a manta ray, but soon realised it was an eagle ray. Moments later I knew more precisely what it was and I could not believe my eyes. After seeing the strange but unique golden pattern on the ray’s back I realised I was sharing the water with an ornate eagle ray. These rays are classified as endangered and very little is known about them. There have been less than 60 recorded sightings worldwide.

My hands shook and my breathing quickened. I knew this was a special moment. Swimming above the ray on the surface I tried to keep my breathing under control – I wanted to keep up with her but also wanted to prevent spooking her before getting the opportunity to dive down again. Sharks and rays have special electroreceptive senses called ‘ampullae of lorenzini’ that enable them to feel electrical currents in the water. That includes me, my movements and my heartbeat. After freediving down to get a glimpse of her from above and then to the side, I decided to dive well in front of her. I arrived some distance in front of her, so as not to be invasive and giving her the opportunity to swim away if she felt uncomfortable. To my surprise, she kept swimming straight toward me. It was a humbling and magical moment that I will never forget.

Up until that encounter, I have never been able to photograph an eagle ray up close. They are notoriously skittish and often swim away quickly on seeing divers. But I believe wildlife has a way of trusting people when they are in need of help the most, and I believe this particular ray knew I wanted to help protect her. That’s why she was so relaxed in my presence, and why she allowed me to photograph her in such close proximity.

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Issue Seventeen
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This feature appears in ISSUE 17: Wolf mother of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Seventeen
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