Forgotten Gentle Giants

Text: Dray and Karin van Beeck
Photos: Dray van Beeck

 

Tofo beach near Inhambane in Mozambique has got spectacular underwater wildlife. You can see whale sharks and mantas all year round, whales in June and July and a wide variety of big rays and turtles. Tofo is also home to the biggest stingray species in the world; the smalleye stingray (Dasyatus-microps). This ray was first described in India in 1908, but since then the only specimens available for scientific study were a handful caught by fishermen.  In fact, until quite recently stingray experts believed this species to be extinct!  Around two years ago, divers in the Tofo area started to notice some huge, sandy colored rays on some of their dives.  Nobody could find any photos or descriptions of these particular rays for quite a while.  Dr Simon Pierce and Dr Andrea Marshall, both marine biologists doing research in Tofo, eventually identified them as smalleye stingrays (Dasyatus-microps).  They say the reason it took so long to make a positive identification is because this is the first time the smalleye stingray has ever been recorded in the western Indian Ocean.  The furthest point to the west the stingray has been seen before was in the Maldives, putting it almost 5000km from its previously known range.
While we were diving around Tofo we were lucky enough to have a very close-up encounter with one of these gentle giants.  The biggest specimen ever caught by fishermen measured 2.22 m across the disc; the one we saw was between 3 to 4 meters wide.  From below it looked like a small plane gliding over us!  Sightings of these rays are still extremely rare and we were very privileged to get photos and video footage of this amazing animal. Southern Mozambique is the only place in the world where this ray can still be seen while diving, unfortunately they are still occasionally caught by the local fishermen.  The “Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna”, together with Dr Simon Pierce (whale shark research) and Dr Andrea Marshall (manta ray research) are trying to bring more awareness to the local population regarding the marine life in the area.  The local dive centers are also involved, with some of them sending their Mozambiquean dive guides to talk at schools.  Let’s hope that with all their combined efforts we’ll be able to see these marvelous stingrays for many more years.