Arriving to the island of Maui brings breathtaking sights as the air plane glides through the blue skies above the crystal waters, welcoming guests to the tropics. And just below, beneath the surface of the sea, the Hawaiian spotted eagle ray glides through the salt water just as seamlessly and beautifully as the planes. There are three types of rays in the Hawaiian islands, and the Hawaiian name for this species is “hihi manu”, meaning “magnificent” or “elegant bird”. Which is exactly what the Hawaiian spotted Eagle ray is! Beyond magnificent, soaring through the waters like a bird for snorkelers to marvel!
The Hawaiian spotted eagle ray glides through shallow coastal waters, with a maximum wing span of pectoral fins (from tip to tip) or about six feet. The topside of these animals is a dark black with white spots, while the bellies are white with black geometric maze patterns on the underside of the wings. A long whip like tail holds up to five barbed spines, which do contain venom. This slender tail can be up to four times the length of the body, and though these creatures are not true members of the ray family, this is the only tail in the species to have multiple spines on the tail. These rays are distant cousins of sharks and have a life span of around 15 to 20 years. Though not deadly to humans, it is still recommended to keep a safe distance despite the docile nature of these majestic rays.
High tide brings the best time for foraging for the Hawaiian spotted eagle ray, using s shovel shaped snout to dig clams and oysters out of the sand of the ocean floor. These rays feed mostly on snails, shrimp, crabs, urchin and other crustaceans using flat, hard teeth plates specially equipped for crushing shells, which are spit out after the meat has been gathered. The Ampullae of Lorenzini is an electroreceptor system inside the animal that works as a metal detector to locate the electrical fields given off by buried prey. Sensory pores are located under the jaw and snout of the ray to aid in navigation by sensing the earths magnetic field. As a method of both safety and foraging, the ray uses the lateral line, a water motion detector system located in the lateral line canal and consisting of a series of canals running along the body, built up of a series of cells called neuromasts. This allows the animal to interpret information through the waters’ vibration changes, making the ray be able to feel movement made by both prey and predator.
Traveling alone or in schools, the Hawaiian spotted eagle ray has a flat body with cloring and patters that allow for camouflage and concealment along the ocean floor. Listed as a near threatened species, no two of these animals possess that same patterns on the body, working like a finger print, allowing for researchers to distinguish one from another. Groups of these amazing sea creatures will travel in the same direction at the exact same speed, making for quite a spectacle under the water! Males are equipped with more pointed teeth for breeding purposes, as the male will bite the edge of the female wing to hold on during the process, which lasts for about a minute. Reproductive maturity for these rays occurs at about four to six years of age, and multiple males will chase after the same female. The embryos develop in the left uterus of the female and are nourished by uterine milk. The eggs hatch inside the female and the pups feed on the yolk sac until birth, which occurs at a gestation period of about one year.
Though these rays can be seen snorkeling and diving amongst the island waters, boat riders may also have a glimpse at the Hawaiian spotted eagle ray as the animals are known to leap from the water, much like a dolphin. Wing tips may be seen atop the waters surface before an epic skyward launch, with and end over end cartwheel type movement mid air! Now this may be witnessed as the animals are traveling and feeding, but it is also the behavior exhibited when a female is ready to give live birth to a litter of anywhere from one to four pups! The mother ray will jump out of the water and expel the pups in mid air, which are born with wings wrapped around the body much like a bat. These tiny rays have a wingspan of only about 10 to 20 inches, super small considering the ray can grow up to be up to 500 pounds!
The Hawaiian spotted eagle ray is surely a sight to see while snorkeling through the tropical waters of Maui! These rays are most commonly found in depths of six to 80 feet of water, and wave hello as the wings seem to soar! These animals host a variety of parasites, and face predators like sharks and humans alike, making it very important to appreciate the magic of the Hawaiian spotted eagle ray. For an even closer look at these creatures, try a visit to the Maui Ocean Center to learn more! Go Rent A Car Maui has vans, trucks, suv’s and sedans prepped and ready for a family trip to snorkel with these under the sea birds or to walk through the Maui Ocean Center for an even closer peek!