Last week, Mark De La Rosa was peacefully kayaking off the coast of Freeport, Texas when what he deemed a “giant” manta ray emerged from the depths, performing a Planet Earth-worthy belly flop only feet from his boat. Within days, the video went viral, and commenters expressed their bafflement at the seemingly bizarre event. Local researchers, however, are responding with a shrug.
To Emma Hickerson, a research coordinator at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, this video pales in comparison to what she sees every day. Hickerson tells Inverse that there is a lot more going on in the depths of the Gulf than you might think. Mantas have existed in Texas for a long time, and, yes, mantas are known to leap out of the sea. But perhaps what is not as well known is that Texas’s waters are home to a manta ray nursery, and, potentially — genetic testing will confirm — an entirely new species of manta ray.
The video, however, doesn’t suggest anything out of the ordinary. “I don’t think there are more [mantas] than there were before,” Hickerson says. She and her team have identified roughly 90 individual mantas — they can tell them apart by their spots — that move between the reefs at Flower Garden Banks.
Rich marine wildlife is not what you might immediately think of when picturing Texas, but the hot, dry Lone Star State’s local waters are actually home to a surprising wealth of sea life. “At local seafood restaurants you can see pictures of some old manta being hauled up as a trophy, but not many people know the gulf has a thriving population of marine mammals like humpback whales and sperm whales,” Hickerson says. “And, we recently identified part of our sanctuary as a nursery habitat for the mantas.”
The researchers didn’t always know that they were sitting on a nursery for young manta rays about 100 miles offshore of Galveston. It wasn’t until Hickerson teamed up with researcher Joshua Stewart of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography that they noticed that the mantas weren’t just small.
“We’ve always thought our mantas were on the small side and then we started working with Joshua and he said ‘Well no, they’re not just small, they’re babies,” Hickerson said. “That was kind of a revelation for us.”
There are signs that another revelation is on the way. Hickerson’s recent research suggested that these smaller rays could potentially represent another species of manta ray. The team will need to do some rigorous genetic testing to confirm this, but Hickerson says there are some “morphological differences in shape,” that indicate an avenue for further analysis.
Should the mantas prove to be another species, the team may have to reshape how they approach their work in the Gulf. This past February, the giant manta species was added to the threatened species list by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. If a new species is discovered, new guidelines regarding that species’ potential place on the list will need to be drawn up.
As for the giant manta caught on video, if it’s anything like the other mantas in Texas, “giant” is a bit of an overstatement. If you really want to see a giant manta, Hickerson adds, the ones in the Caribbean can grow as large as 20 feet across.