Where When How — May/June 2017
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Under The Sea Southern Stingrays
Jayne Baker

A common resident on our dive sites is the Southern Stingray. Related to the Shark family, Stingrays are a cartilaginous fish typically found foraging in sandy flats for their supper and they can be fascinating to watch during a dive.

But what about that menacing moniker - the Stingray? Given their name for the stinging barb about 1/3 of the way down their tail, the ‘sting’ of the Southern Stingray is used only as a defensive measure against predators. And while there is generally no risk to divers falling victim to the barbed tail, divers should always respect the space of the animal and allow it to go about its business as undisturbed by our presence as possible.

A Stingray’s diet consists of crustaceans, mollusks and small fish buried in the sand. Using its pointed snout area, the Stingray uses smell and electroreceptors to snuffle in the sand in the hope of unearthing a morsel or two. Once they locate dinner, they hover over the prey and, using a large vacuum-like motion, suck it up in their mouth that is located about 1/3 of the way down the soft, velvety underside of the body. The mouth itself is made up of a set of grinding plates, not teeth, used to easily crush through hard shells and extract the flesh of the animal inside. More often than not, you’ll often see an accompanying fish or two riding ‘shot gun’ beside or above the Ray. Bar Jacks are the most common companions, but Yellowtail Snapper and Mutton Snapper are also not unusual to see. These crafty comrades allow the Stingray to do the hard work of the locating the food source and then dart in for leftover morsels.

Easy to distinguish from their ‘flying cousin’, the Spotted Eagle Ray who is found in mid-water cruising the walls and reef, Southern Stingrays are dark grey in colour and are bottom dwellers. While you might occasionally see a Stingray swimming a few feet over a reef or down a wall, the most common place you’ll find them is laying on the sand. Though, at times, you might not find them at all. When they aren’t foraging for food, the Stingray will often bury itself in the sand to rest, undisturbed by predators. A diver with a keen eye will spot just two grey eyes sticking out of the sand and a faint outline of the ray’s body revealing itself. In fact, the term ‘Stingray Shuffle’ is used to describe a way to walk in shallow, sandy waters, by shuffling your feet forward instead of placing one foot down in front of the other, to avoid stepping on a camouflaged Ray and risk an encounter with stinging barb if the Ray feels threatened… .you’d be mad too if someone stepped on you.

An interesting fact to note is that what we typically call the Stingrays ‘wings’, is in fact enlarged pectoral fins that have evolved to form the ‘body’ of the ray, allowing it to propel itself forward, sometimes at great speeds. We have recorded sightings of a Stingray swimming incredibly fast a few feet above the reef, only to look around and see a Hammerhead skimming the sand for a meal of his own. The Ray has reason to run as the Hammerhead is a primary predator of the Stingray. In the case of an encounter, the Shark would immobilise the Stingray by biting off its wingtips before finishing its meal. The Hammerhead isn’t always successful though, and we have seen the product of a narrow escape - a Stingray with one of its wingtips shredded or even cleanly bitten off.

Whether you encounter a Stingray when you are snorkelling or diving, take a few minutes to appreciate just another of Mother Ocean’s wonders