Once upon a time there was a shaggy haired, geeky, shy kid in Ormond Beach, Florida. He was moderately okay (and apparently desperate for attention) in front of a video camera, but he wasn’t too sharp or outgoing when it came to, you know, actual communication with other living human beings. He was awkward and didn’t really feel like he fit in anywhere or in anyway.
Except when he was at the beach.
Man, I lived for those sandy Volusia county beaches when I was in high school. But not for the same reasons most of my peers at Seabreeze High School (go Fighting Sandcrabs go!) liked the beach. I was a sharks-n-rays guy. Man, I loved those cartilaginous fishes. And yes, “fishes” is acceptable as a plural when you’re referring to multiple species of fish.
I spent hours trolling the shoreline of Ormond and Daytona Beach during Spring Break, looking for migrating cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus). I actually studied their patterns over the course of three consecutive spring breaks and learned to catch them by hand, to study their musculature and build more closely. And also because it was cool and I could do it.
Catch a ray by hand!?!? you ask. Yes. Cownose rays, you see (as I would tell anybody who would listen), well, their barbs are right on their asses, whereas the southern stingray’s barbs are midway out into the tail… Yeah, I loved to talk about those cownose rays. And yeah, because the cownose ray’s barbs were right at the base of their body, I figured out I had a decent chance of not being stung if I just kept the ray’s head facing my body and didn’t jab my hand on the ray’s ass. It seemed logical.
For awhile, I was sure I was going to end up at the University of Miami and work with Dr. Samuel Gruber. Like, personally work with Gruber. I remember reading about his work with lemon sharks and thinking, oh hells to the yeah. That’s me in twenty, thirty, maybe forty years. At one point I actually ordered a ratfish, a skate, and a stingray through my biology teacher, Mrs. Ruthie Labno. I remember being surprised when they arrived and I was told I had to actually pay for these three dead fish-in-buckets. My folks hooked me up, bless their hearts. I took the three dead fish home (after carrying them around with me all day) and carefully dissected them on the picnic table in our backyard, a block from the Atlantic. My parents didn’t complain, bless their ever-lovin’ hearts. I did the same with a freshly-dead cownose ray who’d been caught on the beach as the tide retreated. Brought that sucker home in a bag and dissected him on the faded red picnic table. My parents didn’t stop me, bless their ever-lovin’, super-tolerant hearts.
I’m willing to be I’m the only guy in my high school who dissected four separate cartilaginous fish on a picnic table in his backyard. (I also carried a dead land crab in a jar around school one day… which probably explains my remarkable lack of popularity with the Cool Kids at Seabreeze…)
And then, of course, there were the stingrays proper. The big ones and the little ones. There were the Atlantic stingrays (Dasyatis sabina) common in our Halifax River region and even up into the Tomoka basin (they can move into freshwater environments, as anybody who’s fished the Tomoka will tell you). And then there were the southern stringrays, Dasyatis americana — featured in the first three shots on this post.
I remember being entranced by pictures of these large stingrays in old National Geographics and the salt-stained, crusted ocean- and field-guides I’d carry with me around the beach. The Grand Cayman population was mythic and, yes, grand… And I knew they were down around the Keys, too — swimming in that beautiful, clear, shallow water. I was convinced I would someday be for the rays what Dr. Gruber was for lemon sharks: a bad-ass, game-changin’, researcher of hope and knowledge. But with rays, not sharks.
But alas, time rolled on, the world spun, and I got dizzy. The snakes and lizards were still calling out, as was the world of English — of writing and literature.
In the long run, the sharks and rays took a back seat to my lifelong crush on reptiles and I focused professional on English composition and literary theory — but when I think back on high school specifically, it’s the cartilaginous fishes I remember most dearly. Those magnificent sharks and rays.
And that brings us to the first three images on this post, the southern stingrays swimming the shallows at Bahia Honda State Park on 10 July 2011. The big one you see in the first and third shot is a female. The smaller one are males — and yes, they’re all about chasing the lady ray.
In all, there were about five — one female and around four males (it might have been five males). All of the males were chasing after and following the female. A Note: I assume the others were males because they were all so intently following this one big female.
Mumpower had spotted them first —she was in the water with them, much to her surprise— and shouted out to me. Grabbing my camera I rushed into the shallows to see what was up. It didn’t take long to see those magnificent shadows gliding under the surface of the water.
We’d talked about southern stingrays a half hour prior to seeing them, but I didn’t think we’d actually see that many and for so long. I was able to walk around with them (keeping a little distance) for about ten minutes, or so, before they finally took off down the beach. At one point, the female circled me and three of the males passed by me, flanking me on both sides. It. Was. Awesome.
A whirlwind of nostalgia and memory shortly followed. I couldn’t help but to flashback to those Early-90s days of cownose rayin’ the shores of Daytona and Ormond. Back when I was always lost somewhere between high and low tide. Back when I had lots and lots of hair I would ritualistically bleach in the sun. That was before I killed my hair and it fell out.
So why not wrap up this post with a shot from Spring Break of 1993? The image below is of a much-younger version of myself with a cownose ray, Rhinoptera bonasus, in Daytona Beach. This was during my first freshman spring break at Florida State University. I, of course, headed home to Volusia county for that first collegiate spring break and was thrilled to find the cownose rays were in season. Oh how I splashed with my beloved cownose rays. Meanwhile, the cool kids were a bit further down the beach partying with Mtv or what-not, down at the Marriott/Boardwalk.
Ah, good times:
~ janson, who now grows facial hair like a damn facial chia pet, but is freakin’ bald. Go figure.