Mobulas – also known as devil rays – live in various parts of the Pacific. Probably the largest gatherings of these fascinating animals come together every year in the Gulf of California in the bay off a small fishing village in Baja California. Witnessing this natural spectacle is definitely worth the trip. Find out what you need to know about the animals and their behaviour in this blog article.
For some time now, devil rays have been at the top of my wish list. Last year, I fulfilled this long-cherished dream and spent a whole month travelling in Baja California. I went on two different trips with Dive Ninjas to the small village of La Ventana to get to know the mobulas there and spend as much time as possible in the water with them.
What you didn’t know about mobulas
During my time there, I learnt a lot about the devil rays thanks to the wonderful Marta Palacios. She is a marine biologist and has been living in this part of Mexico for several years. Dive Ninjas supports her in her research and in return she shares her knowledge and research findings with the guests. A wonderful collaboration.
Let’s dive into the fascinating world of devil rays, what makes them so special and how valuable these animals are for the region and therefore worth protecting:
Rays, Mobulas and Mantas
Before we continue talking about the devil rays in Baja California, we should take a closer look at the terminology. This is because in everyday language (not only in English, but also in Spanish and German), these terms are often mistakenly used interchangeably.
The animals we are talking about belong to the class of elasmobranchs. These are then further subdivided into four orders:
- Rajiformes (e.g. skates)
- Torpediniformes (e.g. electric rays)
- Rhinopristiformes (e.g. guitarfish)
- Myliobatiformes (e.g. manta rays and devil rays)
All of these are rays. It is only in the order of Myliobatiformes that we come one step closer to our mobulas. These are then further subdivided into eight different species of devil rays and two species of manta rays.
Tip: Manta rays and devil rays are quite easy to tell apart: On the one hand, manta rays are much larger than devil rays and on the other hand, the mouth of a manta ray is located directly between the cephalic lobes and that of a devil ray further down.
Baja California is home to 5 types of devil rays
There are ten species of Mobulas in the world. Five different species of devil rays can be found in the Gulf of California (Mobula Munkiana, Mobula Thurstoni, Mobula Mobular, Mobula Tarapacana and Mobula Birostris) – and all of them are vulnerable or even endangered.
One species is particularly notable for its behaviour: Mobula Munikana are the only ones that live in large groups. They are also known as Munk’s Devil Ray in English.
The largest aggregation of rays in the world
It is estimated that over 10,000 mobulas gather between the small fishing village of La Ventana (and the neighbouring village of El Sargento) and the island of Ceralvo (also known as Jacques Cousteau Island) at certain times. You can witness this natural spectacle between April and July and, with a bit of luck, experience this huge gathering of devil rays for yourself.
The population is declining
Based on research results gathered by Marta and other scientists, it is known that the number of mobulas has decreased by 50-90% (!!!) in the last ten years. In many countries the animals are not protected. The devil rays are either caught intentionally or end up as by-catch. Thankfully, in Mexico they have been protected since 2006. Since 2019 all activities regarding mobulas must be carried out under special permits and management plans.
Another reason why the population is not recovering quickly is the fact that mobulas are pregnant for 12 months and are only sexually mature after three years. In addition, they only reproduce every 1-3 years.
Marta and her colleagues in Baja California also work with local fishermen to teach them about the importance of mobulas for the marine ecosystem.
Mobulas have teeth, but do not use them for hunting
Mobulas feed entirely on zooplankton and small crustaceans. They usually hunt near the coast, where deep currents bring nutrients to the surface. By bringing their cephalic lobes into different positions, they are able to feed directly into their mouths, where it is then filtered. And yet mobulas have teeth. This is because the males bite onto the females for mating so that they do not escape.
Mobulas swim – and fly
Anyone who has heard of mobulas before this article will almost certainly have seen photos of the animals in the water as well as those in the air. It has not been scientifically proven why mobulas propel themselves out of the water and not only fly a few metres, but also perform funny backflips. However, there are a few theories that researchers have come up with. So far, their assumptions are that Mobulas jump to
- impress the opposite sex and reproduce,
- communicate with each other,
- to rid themselves of parasites, or
- for the fun of it.
Mobulas are the most intelligent fish in the sea
It’s incredible that rays leave other creatures such as octopus and sharks behind. Rays have one of the largest brains in the world – and not just in relation to their own body weight. They are capable of self-recognition which only very few other animals have (such as apes and dolphins).
If you would like to find out more about Marta and her team’s research, you can find lots more information on their website, as well as the opportunity to support them financially with a donation.
You can find out more about Mobulas and the experience in the next article.
If you would like to find out more about Baja California, take a look at these blog posts
Baja California: The best experiences and my highlights (with map)
Travel tips for Baja California – What you should know before your trip
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