STUART PHILPOTT'S COLUMN: Thornback Rays
I met Mike and Jo Anselmi, the owners of Porthkerris dive centre, during a magazine shoot on basking sharks. It had been a particularly good year for sightings but seeing the sharks from the surface and trying to get some close ups underwater was a different ball game. I eventually managed to get one or two reasonable pictures thanks to Darren paddling away on a surf ski and towing me into the path of the oncoming sharks. When the action was all over I sat down with Mike and asked him if there were any other unique marine life encounters in the area worthy of a photo shoot and he mentioned the thornback rays (raja clavata) as a possibility.
My instant reaction was to think of Steve Irwin’s unfortunate demise. But thornbacks are non-aggressive and pose no threat to divers. They don’t have any spiky barbs protruding from the tail. There are between 30-50 spines that could possibly cause a graze but it would take some extreme provocation to get this kind of reaction. The mouth is located on the underside and there are small rows of teeth used for crunching up crabs, prawns and flatfish.
The Thornbacks are confident in their camo
Mike said that the rays congregated en-mass inside the nearby Helford river estuary around mid-August time. So I ventured back to Porthkerris with dive buddy and chief ray spotter Brian Hayes to see what was on offer. We actually picked a beautiful day, no clouds, light winds and flat calm sea. Mike dropped us in the middle of the river channel on a flood tide which would hopefully yield cleaner water. We drifted along with the current scanning the seabed. Brian spotted our first thornback within the first 2-3 minutes of our dive. I could easily make out the diamond shaped outline hidden beneath the shingle. Eyes and a nose were the only parts poking out. Working as a team we managed to get within touching distance of around five or six different rays during our hour long dive.
I used a wide angle 10-17mm Tokina lens on a Nikon DSLR camera inside a Sea and Sea housing. At high water it was a maximum of 12m deep by the river mouth so there was plenty of ambient light to play with. Underwater visibility averaged eight metres. The current helped take away any sand and silt that got kicked up by careless fins. I was using two x strobes on about half power just to highlight the ray in the foreground and Brian’s eyes inside the mask in the background. Brian was using a torch just to add an interesting focal point.
The thornback rays we encountered varied in size from a 20cm to 50cm. The colours schemes were usually a kaleidoscope of grey or brown spots and splodges on the top with a white underside. All bar one had two claspers dangling from the tail area so they must have been males.
The rays are diver-friendly
This turned out to be one of the best UK marine life interaction dives I had ever experienced. We weren’t feeding the rays or provoking them in any way (apart from me sticking a big camera dome in their faces). By taking our time and moving slowly we managed to get very close. Maybe they think that their camouflage is so good we can’t see them? We even managed to swim side by side as they effortlessly ‘flew’ across the seabed.
Stuart will be running two Thornback Ray workshops later this year, on 4 and 18 August. If you would like to get involved, and benefit from accessible subjects and a knowledgeable teacher, email Stuart directly at email@example.com. Sport Diver magazine will likely be in attendance!
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