Observing & Photographing Manta Ray Behavior

September 9, 2014

Scuba diving means something different for everyone, for me…it is my best days both in and out of the office. Manta Sandy in Raja Ampat, Indonesia is a very special place as it is a cleaning station where many mantas can be seen above two coral bummies waiting patiently to get cleaned by wrasses and other cleaners on the reef. Max Ammer, one of the diving pioneers in the Raja Ampat region realized that with the increase of divers coming to the region, and people not understanding the importance of keeping their distance, the need to set up a line in which divers stay behind in order to observe the animals. He discovered Manta Sandy and wants to ensure it stays protected.

So there I was with another group of divers aboard the Dewi Nusantara, hoping to see the animal that would not be named. Within minutes of descending, like a cloud passing over the sun, light was blocked for a moment.

Annie Crawley Mantasunbacklit IMG_0537Nicknamed devil rays because fishermen thought they looked like the devil when their cephalic lobes are curled up, these gentle giants have no stingers for protection like their cousins. The manta ray’s only form of self-defense is speed and it can swim up to 25 mph! They are harmless as they are planktivores. Their gills are lined with gill rakers. When they open their mouths to feed, the food is trapped in the gill rakers. Like all fish, mantas need to get cleaned. Because they use their gills to breathe and feed, you will often find them visiting cleaning stations right after feeding. Mantas will often spend entire days going between feeding stations and cleaning stations. Manta rays are fish in the elasmobranch family together with sharks and rays. Their skeletons are made of cartilage, lighter than bone, and extremely flexible. I learned a lot about manta ray behavior during a month-long expedition in Palau with Sam’s Tours.

So there we sat behind the line watching different mantas come up and park themselves above the coral heads. To my absolute dismay, I had a super-wide lens on my camera, a Tokina 10-17, and the mantas were just far enough away that I could not get a great shot of them as the sun was still low on the horizon. So even though I was enjoying the experience, as a photographer and filmmaker, I also needed the animals to come closer to capture the shot with a wide angle lens. I began my underwater imaging ritual and started mental telepathy and talking to the mantas. Yes, you read that correctly. I am giving away one of my secrets, I talk to the animals… all dive long, camera or no camera, I have conversations with the animals I film. I believe it is the conversations I have with the animals that helps me capture amazing behavior. (The fact that I research before I go, talk with scientists, am a dive instructor and slow breather might help too.) So as we witnessed this amazing dance, I began my silent messaging.Annie Crawley Manta&fish IMG_0637

A giant female approached one of the coral bummies and began dancing. The next thing I knew, a male was tailing her, following every move. I can tell the difference between them because male rays and sharks have twoexternal claspers for reproduction, while the female just has fins. So as the two of them started dancing, I was in heaven capturing their dance as best I could from far away with my wide-angle lens coaching them to come closer. And in the next moment, I knew they had heard me. Out of a line of 20 divers watching them, they came and circled right over my head. This series of images is from the one moment they left their cleaning station to circle right above my head.

Annie Crawley Manta photographerleftIMG_0550

If you are lucky and hit Manta Sandy when you visit Raja Ampat, you could potentially see these same manta rays. Just like you have a fingerprint, manta rays have fingerprints too. The patterns on their undersides are their fingerprints. Dr. Andrea Marshall, also known as the Manta Queen, began a Manta Matcher website and represents the first world data base of manta rays http://www.mantamatcher.org/ These gentle giants need to be protected as they are often sought after for their gills, popular in Chinese medicine. It is said a manta ray is worth a million dollars alive and about $150 dollars at the fish market. I cannot put a dollar amount on the feeling you receive when you are in the ocean diving or snorkeling with these magnificent animals.

Annie Crawley MantapassingGood IMG_0527These mantas are Manta alfredi. There are two known species of mantas, Manta alfredi, the common reef mantas and Manta birostris the oceanic mantas. You can tell the differences between the species by observing the spot patterns under their fifth gill on their undersides or if you look just above the tail on the dorsal side. Manta alfredi have no remnant spine above the base of their tail like their cousin, Manta birostris.


The ocean is less explored than outer space and Raja Ampat is definitely one of the most magical places on Earth. The people of Raja Ampat understand the importance of a protection plan and live at one with nature understanding their dependency upon a healthy ocean. They are facing a lot of pressure with trans-migration and lack of enforcement because the size of the area is so large.

Scuba diving is the greatest sport in the world. Creating underwater images and sharing them with others is not only my passion, it is my career. I find that what separates my work, is the fact that I not only want to share with you the beauty of our ocean and the love of it, yet an educational aspect as well. I believe the more we know, the more we grow. Thanks for reading. Post a comment if you want to know more. I’ll be sharing more from my trip to Indonesia and beyond right here.

Annie Crawley is an author, speaker, UW photographer and cinematographer. She also contributes photo tips in a weekly column “Ask Annie” on our facebook page.