In October of 2019, I joined Mermaid Kat and photographer Ian Gray on Mermaid Week Tahiti 2019 in French Polynesia with mermaids Madeleine and Sheldon and photographer Chucho. Every morning, we started our expeditions with Moorea Ocean Adventures visiting the pink whipray, also known as the Tahitian stingray. We fondly cuddled these ocean pancakes as they came up to us to give us ocean hugs and stingray kisses. It was a great way to start our day in tropical paradise.
Pink whiprays belong to the whiptail stingray family and are known by their scientific name, Himantura Fai. They are easily identified by their grayish dorsal coloring, which gets darker past the stinger. Pink whiprays are extremely valuable to ecotourism not only in French Polynesia, but also in the Maldives and other tropical areas of the Indo Pacific. In 2005, stingray ecotourism brought in over 500,000 Euros to Moorea alone. In 1995, the government of the Maldives banned all exports of ray products to better preserve ray ecotourism and these beautiful creatures.
Pink whiprays can grow to just under 6 feet or 2 meters across and over 16 feet of 5 meters long! The largest one on record weighed 42 pounds, or 19 kilograms. They can sometimes be confused for other species of stingray, so their exact region is unknown, but pink whiprays have been spotted from South Africa to Northern Australia in the Indian Ocean and as farth north as the Phillipines and as far east as Micronesia and Samoa in the Pacific Ocean.
These rays are normally found in the intertidal zone, which goes up to 230 feet or 70 meters deep, but they are often found in shallow, sandy habitats and have been recorded as deep as 660 feet or 200 meters below sea level! They are bottom dwellers and love to hang out in cays or atolls on coral reefs, sandy flats, or lagoons. During the warm season, pink whiprays can be found closer to shore.
Some studies across the French Polynesian Islands have found that pink whiprays tend to remain within their local area individually, and there isn’t much movement between islands. In Moorea, they tend to hunt for their food independently and have a larger range area they call home, whereas on the Rangiroa Atoll, also in French Polynesia, they form large groups to feed at night in the shallow water. Up to 10 rays can pile on top of each other when they’re resting, sometimes mixing species when doing so.
Pink whiprays tend to primarily feed on decapod crustaceans, such as crawfish, crabs, lobsters, prawns, and shrimp, but they also enjoy cephalopods, which are your squids, cuttlefish, and octopus. They’ll also eat teleost fish, which account for 96% of all fish species still in existence.
There were a few pregnant whiprays during our week in Moorea! One in particular was very feisty and didn’t mind forcing more fish out of us by giving us stingray kisses until we surrendered the fish. Like other stingrays, the mother stingray supplies uterine milk that’s full of nutrients to her developing embryos through specialized uterine structures. Once born, these newborns can measure 22-24 inches or 55-60 centimeters across! In the Great Barrier Reef, Shark Bay is considered a major nursery area for these Tahitian Rays.
Although the kisses from the pregnant ray felt a bit rude, pink whiprays aren’t very dangerous to humans. However, they do have a venomous sting that makes it hard to handle when they get caught in a fishing net. The geographic distribution of these rays is so wide that it does include several regions of refuge where there are very few conservation threats, such as in Northern Australia, but in Southeast Asia, the population is very heavily fished and the International Union for Conservation of Nature has assessed the Pink Whipray as Vulnerable, meaning that they are “likely to become endangered unless the circumstances that are threatening its survival and reproduction improve”.
Due to the intense and largely unregulated fishing in Southeast Asia, incidental catches are regular in coastal fisheries in Indonesia and Malaysia. Usually, the ray needs to be thrown back overboard before the rest of the catch can be sorted. When kept, pink whiprays are used for their meat, skin, and cartilage. Larger rays have a slower reproduction rate than their smaller ray relatives, which makes the pink whipray more vulnerable to eventual extinction when caught up in tangle nets, bottom trawls, gillnets, seine nets, and even longlines. In Australia, bycatch levels have decreased significantly since the implementation of Turtle Excluder Devices, or TEDs, and Bycatch Reduction Devices, BRDs, in 2000. Using these devices can greatly improve an accidental catch’s, whether a ray or a turtle, chance for survival.
In general, pink whiprays are one of the few creatures humans can easily interact with, thanks to ecotourism. As always, make sure the company you are supporting conducts sustainable and environmentally friendly practices that help support and encourage conservation of these beautiful creatures and their natural habitats.
Until next time,
Mermaid Kisses and Starfish Wishes,
From Mermaid Tasha
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