Flying for Manta Rays

June 20, 2009 at 8:59 am | Posted in Nature, Perspective | Comments Off on Flying for Manta Rays
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I recently had an opportunity to fly along the northeast Florida coast to to do surveys of manta rays. The aircraft flown, an AirCam, is a rather unique bird designed originally for Nat Geo to do herd counts in Africa. It’s a twin-engine, high wing, tandem seat lightweight aircraft that takes off and lands on postage stamps and can cruise at 50-70 knots.

Flying east from our grass strip home base, the view of the coast line was spectacular, with Matanzas Inlet, residences, Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic all in sight at once.  Then we were out over the ocean and banking north a half mile offshore.

Immediately I could see cownose rays below as they moved around as singles or groups of 10 or more. But no mantas. Then I saw an occasional sea turtle, lending hope that this nesting season would improve from the low nest numbers I knew were being repported by the Turtle Patrol.

At the entrance to St. Augustine’s harbor we banked right and headed back south, this time toward our southern end of the survey plot, Flagler Beach Pier. As we approached Matanzas Inlet I spotted the first manta rays of the flight. Three mantas were headed north, right under our right side, on our course line a half mile offshore.

Then, it was as if a gate had been left open and there were manta rays everywhere. We saw singles, threes and fours, and larger groups. We marked their locations on the GPS and recorded them by size and number so we would could submit a report of our findings. As we approached Flagler Beach the mantas gave way to large numbers of cownose again.

Heading back from Flagler Pier, this time one mile offshore, we encountered less cownose and a fair number of mantas, especially as we neared Matanzas Inlet. North of the inlet we did not see any mantas and only a few cownose, with an occasional sea turtle. We turned south at St. Augustine channel and flew direct to Matanzas Inlet at 1.5 miles offshore.

With the weather building to the south, we decided to close out the survey and return to base. One thing I didn’t explain is that this aircraft is an open cockpit, no canopy. While this makes for fantastic photography, it isn’t fun when the weather turns wet or cold.

Just another fun day in this adventurer’s life on the coast.

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