Endangered ornate eagle rays make a splash off Queensland’s Lady Elliot Island

Two endangered ornate eagle rays have been sighted off Lady Elliot Island in the southern Great Barrier Reef, a breakthrough for researchers studying the species dubbed “the unicorn of the sea”.

Recorded less than 60 times worldwide, much remains a mystery about the ray which boasts leopard-like signature spots and thick black vein-like lines.

Marine biologist Jacinta Shackleton had been diving off the coral cay for two years before she spotted the rays in March and April.

Ms Shackleton said both rays were remarkably calm as they glided through the water off the eastern side of the island.

“I got in the water and I’d only been in for about five minutes and I saw this eagle ray coming towards me and it didn’t look quite right. It didn’t look the same as our usual white-spotted eagle rays that we see,” she said.

“As it came a bit closer I noticed the pattern on its back.

“I was just amazed. It let me stay with it for about 10 or so minutes, so I just followed it around in the water and admired the beautiful colouration on it and it had a really, really long tail.

“The second one was late in the afternoon and we were just coming in from a snorkel and spotted it in the distance and got a bit closer.”

An almost two metre wide rare ornate eagle ray glides by the camera with a distinct black line and circle pattern on its back.
Jacinta Shackleton says she spotted the ray about five minutes into a free dive.(Supplied)

Sightings excite scientists

The sightings have caused a stir among researchers who have worked to uncover its secrets.

Andrew Chin from James Cook University’s Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture said cooler temperatures and currents were possible drawcards for the rays to Lady Elliot Island.

“Little is known about the species, which is the biggest of the eagle rays, [apart from] they grow up to three metres. They are unmistakeable,” he said.

“We know they are endangered. They seem to have fairly slow growth, but other than that we don’t know much about them at all.

“I’ve been diving on the Great Barrier Reef for over 20 years and I’ve never seen one.”

A turtle swims though the water.
Green turtles can be found in huge numbers in the waters around Lady Elliot Island.(ABC Wide Bay: Nicole Hegarty)

Lady Elliot could have the answers

Dr Chin said finding a location where the animals could reliably be seen was key to further research.

“Lady Elliot’s very close to the shelf and there’s an interesting current which brings cooler water up, and the sightings could coincide with some of that, but we’ll have to look at that for more detail,” he said.

Researchers have predicted the island will increasingly become a sanctuary for marine life as ocean temperatures warm, with more rare island visitors likely.

Ms Shackleton said she was optimistic about the role the island would play in future research.

“Hopefully these sightings are going to contribute to the knowledge that we have of these ornate eagle rays,” she said.

“I’m really hoping to learn more now that I’ve seen them in the water and just how incredible they are.

“They are predicting the possibility that a lot of species in the northern Great Barrier Reef will, over time, move to the southern Great Barrier Reef and we’ll have an even greater diversity of life.”

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