Extraordinarily Rare Eagle Ray Filmed Swimming on the Great Barrier Reef

The ornate eagle ray (Aetomylaeus vespertilio) is a scarce species and conservationists say is getting rarer, with some estimates suggesting numbers have halved over the last 45 years. So it has come as surprise to researchers that it has been sighted twice in a matter of weeks. Both times were near Lady Elliot Island in the Great Barrier Reef.

Jacinta Shackleton, a marine biologist and conservationist, saw the first of the two rays on March 25 when free diving in the area, and used the rare moment to film one of those rays. She shared the video on Instagram, describing the encounter as something she would never forget.

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Shackleton told Newsweek that she found the encounter very emotional. "The island was temporarily closing to guests due to COVID-19 and this was my last morning in the water. So I thought of it as a very special send off!"

She spotted the second just weeks later, while free diving with a group on April 10. It was late afternoon and the group were just about to head back to the island. The species is distinctive for its yellow tint and leopard-like spots.

"I was very determined to get an ID shot of the pattern in its back," Shackleton said.

Shackleton does not believe seeing two ornate eagle rays in the space of two weeks has anything to do with the COVID-19 lockdown.

"I do not believe it has anything to do with the island being temporarily closed to guests as we don't have all that many people in the water anyway!" she said, adding there have been at least five sightings of the rare species near the island in the past.

Ornate Eagle Ray, Lady Elliot Island
A snap of the extraordinarily rare ornate eagle ray, seen near Lady Elliot Island in the Great Barrier Reef. Jacinta Shackleton

The ornate eagle ray is a naturally uncommon species but conservationists warn populations have declined in recent years as a consequence of fishing activity, particularly around the Gulf of Thailand. The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) contains just 17 records of the species in Australian waters from the 1990s to 2019.

According to the EDGE of Existence programme, the species may be rare in the wild but it is "conspicious" in fish markets and in landings in India.

Conservationists do not have a good understanding of how many are left in the wild. But according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, it is thought that populations have dropped more than half over the past 45 years—a length of time equivalent to three generations for the species.

The organization lists the ornate eagle ray as endangered, saying the ray has not been sighted in large numbers since it was first described over 160 years ago. Yet there are currently no conservation policies in place to protect the species, the EDGE of Existence programme reports.

Despite its scarcity, the ornate eagle ray is thought to have a widespread, if patchy, range across the Western Indo-Pacific in the waters around countries including Australia, China, India, Malaysia and Thailand. It can be found on the inner continental shelf and is known to inhabit depths of up to 330 feet (110 meters).

Not much is known about this creature but it is not harmful to humans. It is one of a few species of eagle ray that does not possess a stinging barb. It is known to reach lengths of 13 feet (4 meters).

Extraordinarily Rare Eagle Ray Filmed Swimming on the Great Barrier Reef | Tech & Science