By Crystal Chung @crystalkchung
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Captured on camera by zoologist and wildlife photographer Mark Carwardine, the rays, known to local fisherman as ’flying tortillas’, measure just over three feet in width.
Carwardine encountered the rays demonstrating their acrobatic skills by bursting out of the water with their wings outstretched off the East coast of Baja, Mexico.
He said: “I spend every winter running whale-watching trips in Baja California, Mexico – it’s one of my favourite places on the planet – and, on my most recent trip, we saw something quite extraordinary.
“First, there were a few splashes on the horizon.
"We thought they were dolphins but then, as we grew closer to investigate, we realised they were Munk’s mobula rays.
"One after another, sometimes several at once, they were leaping out of the water, flapping their wings as if they were trying to fly.”
Spotted in Baja, Mexico the huge schools of Munk’s mobula rays, also known as Munk’s devil rays, can appear without warning, creating a spectacular natural phenomenon.
But catching the elusive animals on camera is easier said than done as their acrobatic nature makes photographing them extremely difficult.
Mark said: “Everyone on board was smiling and laughing and even applauding. It’s hard not to.
"They looked so comical with their random leaps – often landing back in the water with a belly flop and a resounding smack – and spectacular back flips.
“They were incredibly difficult but great fun to photograph. Every time one jumped I had a split second to react and line up the camera before it disappeared again beneath the surface.”
Closely related to sharks but with long, flat bodies and wing-like pectoral fins, mobula rays are ideally suited to swooping through the water yet seem equally at home in the air.
The jaw-dropping aerial drone footage shows the school of many thousands of the ‘flying rays’ slowly swimming in formation.
The zoologist said: “None of us realised the extent of the spectacle until I launched my drone to have a look from the air.
"From the deck, we imagined a few dozen rays under the water. But then we saw the astonishing scale of what was all around us – thousands upon thousands of rays, goodness knows how many layers deep, covering a vast area of sea, and all swimming slowly in the same direction.
“We could see them right alongside the boat – they were completely unfazed by our presence.
"Every few seconds one would leave the safety of the school, for no obvious reason, and race up towards the surface to perform its acrobatics.
“No one knows why Munk’s mobula rays leap into the air like this.
"Various theories over the years have included everything from dislodging parasites to play.
"But my theory, having watched them from the air, is that it might be a way of ‘calling in’ the massive school for mating purposes.
"Much more research will be needed, of course, before we know for sure.”
The animal expert added: “Whatever the motive, this was certainly an encounter none of us will never forget, and the two-hour display continued through sunset and beyond.
"As we headed off into the darkness, we could still hear the slaps on the water surface.”