Giant Manta Ray Spotted off Alabama Coast: 'An Amazing Experience, I Am a Better Man for It'

A giant manta ray has been seen off the coast of Alabama in a rare sighting of the vulnerable species. Photos and video of the ray were taken by Robert Agren and Jay Files, and subsequently shared by the Dauphin Island Sea Lab.

The head and mouth area was about as wide as two footballs end to end," Files told Newsweek. "Not only were the two wingtips flashing out of the water but the two tail wings were also visible and rising above the surface. This truly was an amazing experience and I am a better man for it."

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The giant manta off the coast of Alabama. Robert Agren

The giant manta was spotted off the coast of Orange Beach. While individuals of this species—the largest of all the rays—can grow up to 30 feet in width, this one was estimated to be about 10 feet.

"I was out on the jet ski looking for dolphin as I typically do when I saw what appeared to be a couple of dorsal fins oddly lingering on the top," Files said. "As I eased over to it, I was amazed at this beautiful creature with his prominent head and wide wingtips. I felt that I had to look quick because he would dive and be gone. Instead, it was just the opposite.

"This magnificent Ray would repeatedly ease closer and closer rising as high as it could in the water peering over each wave at me. A few times, it would get as close at two foot from the boat. The sheer feeling of curiosity and respect was mutual."

Agren said he was fishing for red snapper with his family when he saw the giant ray. "We saw a commotion on top of the water headed right for us," he told Newsweek. "We knew it was huge and never have experienced Giant Manta. We have seen gray whales with babies and pods of up to a 100 spotted dolphins that would run with the boat—the sea life is incredible to view in the wild."

Giant manta—Mobula birostris—are found in temperate, tropical and subtropical waters around the world. They are characterized by their triangular wings and the fins on the either side of their mouths.

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The giant manta was about 10 feet wide. Jay Files

While the species is rarely hunted of U.S. coasts, it is still targeted because of its "high value in international trade markets," the IUCN Red List notes. "These rays are easy to target because of their large size, slow swimming speed, aggregative behaviour, predictable habitat use, and lack of human avoidance."

They are used in Asian medicinal products—a demand that has led to these creatures to be fished at unsustainable numbers—and their numbers are declining, with the population now "severely fragmented." As a result the IUCN lists the species as vulnerable, while in 2018 the NOAA Fisheries listed it as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.