Saturday, January 1, 2011

Creature Feature: Manta Ray.

How could I have not done a ray yet? After all, a stingray killed one of the greatest naturalist-entertainers of all time, Steve Irwin. They're also as weird as they are deadly, looking somewhat like flattened sharks (a la Looney Tunes steamroller) with venom in their tails.

If the shark is the undisputed King of the Ocean like the lion is usually seen as the King of the Jungle, then the manta ray has a reputation as Satan of the Sea. (Bear in mind that that is a HUGE title - the sea has a whole depth at which things suddenly turn uglier than Dante's Inferno.)  With those huge batlike wings and little 'horns,' it is easy to see exactly why:


If you saw a ray with pointy little horns and a 25-foot (7.6 meter) wingspan beneath the water, you would probably think it was a manifestation of the hellish abyss, too. Small wonder that it got to be a villain on the Little Mermaid animated series. 

Manta rays are not Cthulhu's minions. Really. Of all the rays, the manta ray is 100% harmless. It's a big ray, and probably the most intelligent, but it's a filter feeder. That means it eats tiny little sea creatures, just like humpback whales. Just about the only thing remotely demonic about it aside from its appearance is its slimy body. Looks can be deceiving.

The manta ray's place as a menacing animal spawns, in particular, from two horror films from the 1930's: The Sea Bat and The Sea Fiend, later re-released as Devil Monster in 1946. The makers of these two movies were unaware of the manta's nature as a filter-feeder. It has since been used to make at least one theme park ride (at Sea World, go figure) sound more intimidating. (Noah's Ark had the sense to use a stingray for their theme park instead.)

It's not all bad press for the manta ray. The Peruvian Moche people worshiped everything in the sea, including the giant batlike fish that breached every so often. Nintendo has blessed it with not one, but two Pokemon.

They are also a huge attraction due sheer size. There are organized tours to see manta rays and several places to feed them. Only five aquariums in the world have manta rays, and only one is in America; if you wish to see one, you're better off booking a trip to Thailand or Bali for snorkeling. Maybe you'll even get up close!

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