It’s June in the Gulf of Mexico, and Sandra Critelli is on a boat close to Holbox Island. In particular, she’s headed there to try to find whale sharks; Critelli is a photographer, and she’s hoping to snorkel with the biggest fish in the ocean, taking pictures as she does so. However, she then spots something on the horizon that takes her breath away.
In a sense, she’d seen something even larger than the whale sharks she was hoping to find. And the boat was turned in order to best capture the phenomenon playing out in front of Critelli. Then the engine was shut off, and one of the most remarkable sights in nature slowly made its way past.
A huge mass of geometric shapes drifted past Critelli, like something from an Escher painting. Later, speaking to The Telegraph, she described the scene that had unfolded before her eyes. “The surface of the water was covered by warm and different shades of gold and looked like a bed of autumn leaves gently moved by the wind,” she said.
In fact, the sea was filled with thousands of amazing creatures, and Critelli and her boat were smack bang in the middle of them. “We were surrounded by them without seeing the edge of the school,” she recalled. Still, what were these ethereal sea dwellers, and why were there so many of them?
Well, the creatures in question were golden cow-nose rays. They’re called that because the bulbous protrusion on their heads gives them somewhat of the look of a cow. Moreover, Critelli was lucky enough to catch them during one of their two annual migrations – and her estimates of just how many were there is likely to be pretty close to the mark.
While Critelli isn’t a professional photographer, capturing images of wildlife is her passion. Born in Italy, she currently works as an art director in the textile industry. And on her photography portfolio website, she explains how she has coupled her background in art with her love of capturing images of nature.
In addition, the biography on Critelli’s website describes how she sees her photography – specifically, that it’s “her way of conveying her passion and admiration for the beauty and balance of nature.” And that’s certainly something that you can see in the images that she captured of the rays in the Gulf of Mexico.
But what were the rays doing in the sea close to the Yucatan Peninsula? Well, it’s all down to the particular habits of that species. In fact, the cow-nose ray’s behavior is pretty unique – and that led to the incredible photographs Critelli managed to snap.
While the cow-nose rays aren’t the biggest rays in the ocean, they’re still impressively large, growing to up to 6.5 feet wide. However, it’s not their size that allowed these pictures to be captured. Instead, it’s a combination of migratory patterns and the locations where cow-nose rays spend most of their time.
Most other members of the ray family spend their time on the seabed; cow-nose rays, by contrast, spend most of their time on the move. Moreover, when it’s time to migrate, they’ll join together in massive groups to make the long journey. These bands of rays are referred to as fevers.
These migrations happen twice a year, and they follow the currents of the Gulf of Mexico. In late spring they head north towards western Florida to their summer feeding grounds; in late fall, meanwhile, they’ll move back south to warmer waters for the winter. It was the late spring migration that Critelli managed to capture in June.
The cow-nose ray may seem to be impressively large, but it’s far from the biggest of its kind. That title belongs to the manta ray, which grows to a remarkable 23 feet in width. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that the cow-nose is harmless. Far from it, in fact – this ray has quite a kick when it needs it.
On the cow-nose’s tail, for instance, there’s an incredibly sharp spine. It can grow up to 15 inches long, and the ray can use it a little like a whip. In addition, this is how the ray delivers its venom. And while it’s rare for it to happen, if that venom comes into contact with a human, the consequences can be life-threatening.
Thankfully, though, it’s rare for cow-nose rays to attack people. Indeed, they’re generally shy creatures and tend not to lash out unless they feel cornered and threatened. As a result, for the most part the incredible display that Critelli witnessed was harmless. Nonetheless, that’s not to say that diving into the middle of the rays would be a good idea.
Leaping into the middle of a fever could well cause the rays distress, which is likely to make them attack you. So, while the creatures are usually serene, only those with experience of diving with rays should even think about joining in with the migration. If you need any more evidence of that, you only need to look at the sad tale of Steve Irwin.
Indeed, it was a stingray barb that killed the famous TV zoologist. And while Irwin’s death was an unlikely tragedy that resulted from the barb piercing his heart, it still stands as a warning that these beautiful beasts are wild animals. Normally, though, a sting from a cow-nose ray will just cause discomfort and perhaps infection.
Furthermore, cow-nose rays can live until the ripe old age of 13, and the amount in each fever can number in the tens of thousands. That’s because they don’t just swim on the surface of the sea: the fever extends well below the waves, almost like a wall of rays moving as one. Interestingly, though, it’s still not clear why the rays migrate.
There are two probable reasons for the huge migrations: scientists believe that it’s either down to feeding patterns or mating. And it’s incredible to think that we still know so little about these creatures. This is, after all, a species that can be found everywhere from New England all the way south to Brazil.
Whatever the reason for the migration, though, it’s definitely one of the most stunning phenomena that the ocean has to offer. Indeed, while speaking to The Telegraph, Critelli struggled to find the words to do the sight justice. “It was an unreal image,” she said, “Very difficult to describe.” And the pictures she took certainly prove her right.
What makes those images even more incredible is the fact that Critelli had no idea that the rays were about to appear. It was something she couldn’t have predicted, and she told The Telegraph just how lucky she was to witness it. “I feel very fortunate I was there in the right place at the right time to experience nature at his best,” she said.