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“How can baby reef manta rays be so cute?” By Edy Setyawan

Babies are babies. They are adorable. Just like a human baby, baby reef manta rays are so cute.  How come?

Although they are the mini-version of their parents, they are ‘tiny’ compared to adult individuals. One interesting behavior of baby reef manta rays is that when encountered, they will make a turn, make another turn, swim upside down, or circle you at a ‘safe distance’. But most likely, it’s all the above! Why they are doing this? Because just like children, they are curious and likely they have never encountered humans before. “What is this big ‘fish’ with two long fins?”.

They want to see a species they have never seen before.  They want a closer look!  Because their eyes are not facing downwards but are on the side of their head, they cannot fully see objects in front of them. The best way of having a closer look at the ‘newly seen species’ is by flipping and turning over.

We often see this kind of behavior when encountering juvenile reef manta rays during our expeditions in seldom studied areas of Dampier Strait. Interestingly, this action is very helpful to researchers as it allows us to easily capture ID photos of the reef mantas we encounter.

Once they have observed this ‘never seen species’ they will decide it is not harmful. It is “OK, no big sharp teeth like sharks. So, we are not a predator. Often the baby mantas are so friendly they just hang around us for long periods of time because they have determined we will not harm them.

As our team encountered the same juvenile reef manta rays during repetitive surveys, it seems like they are just enjoying our presence around them. What an experience!

A melanistic juvenile reef manta ray swims upside down as she is curious of a free diver above her (Photo: Edy Setyawan)

Edy Setyawan is the Bird’s Head Manta Ray Researcher.

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