A morning with Eagle Rays

A morning with Eagle Rays sounds enchanting, because it is.

Today, I spent three hours with my gorgeous three-year-old son, at Seacliff Beach in South Australia. It was hot, and getting hotter; about 37 degrees by lunchtime.

When we got to the beach, it was littered with boat trailers, the occasional car. The soft sand near the road had been churned up into deep, bog-like trenches by four-wheel-drives (4WD) roaring through so they didn’t get bogged. We almost got bogged, as I pulled the beach wagon by hand through the soft, softer, softest mounds, cursing my choice of entry. The little guy was loving it, even though his mum panicked a little when a 4WD came barrelling off the beach in front of us.

We parked closer to the water, near where people were kind of gathered, a little north of the boat trailers.

The sea was aqua, as flat as the eye could see. The type of sea that presages either earthquake or blisteringly hot weather; it darkens as the day gets hotter.

We got out the floatie board and pretended to surf.

We swapped out toys for water guns and pew pew‘d each other until salt water ended up in eyes.

Then we threw them away and got properly wet. The water, freezing on first entry, was soon deliciously warm. Shallow, lake-like, and under a burning sun, it was simply glorious. Toddler son, more a little boy now than a toddler, who had been so utterly resistant about going to the beach until I’d promised trenches and jumping on sand castles, was enthusiastic. He was determined to get wet. We played a game first invented by Troy, which was to walk along and then ‘discover’ a hole in the ground that mum (or dad) falls into, causing parent-and-son to splash noisily into the water.

‘Ohh I hope there are no more holes here!’ I shrieked, pretending to be alarmed.

Soon, though, we were joined by a sting ray. Well, I thought it was a sting ray. He or she was flying lazily along the sand’s surface, maybe a metre away.

Pretty soon, one sting ray became two.

Two became three.

Three became four.

They flew near us, north along the shore. Then flipped a wing out of the water, turned around and few back, capturing the attention of every walker along the beach. Some walkers abandoned their journeys and gently followed the flying beasts, venturing into the water to get closer. Some pulled out phones and filmed them. Others took photos.

And we simply marvelled at their glorious, calm beauty.

A woman and a dog happened along. She had a little girl, older than my boy, who captivated his attention. The girl was off splashing around and swimming. The mother yelled out after her, ‘(name), this is as good as it gets!‘. She was referring to the ultimate proximity to the rays, which were close enough that they could almost suck your toes. In some cases, they saw my toes and came steadily towards me.

I smiled at the woman. ‘You’re right about that!’

She came over, beaming. We had a discussion about identifying the critters. She pulled out her smartphone and searched around for them, and we determined that they aren’t sting rays but eagle rays. My mum’s suggestion – that they’re skates – was wrong. Skates have stumpy, fleshy tails, rather than the eagle ray’s whip-like tail. These were Southern Eagle Rays.

We were privileged to watch them coast along, flip a wing out of the water to turn sharply and coast back. They moved slowly past us, totally unconcerned. We saw every detail, from their noses to their beautiful big eyes and their fins. We watched them ‘flying’ along north and south. For a while, my little man got up on my shoulders so that he could see them better. At his tiny vantage-point not far above the surface of the water, ‘me no see anything!’.

It turns out that the rays are pretty tame because the fishermen feed them scraps when they come in from their fishing jaunts. The rays follow the paths of the boats almost right to the water’s edge.

We swam, and splashed, and threw rocks. And in between, we stood respectfully by, watching the eagle rays swim and coast along. My little guy learned that they’re not sting rays. He learned how they swim, where their eyes are, what they look like, and how to spot them in the water. He learned that they feed on fish and molluscs. He learned that the fishermen feed them, that they follow boats along. He learned that (the ones near us anyway) seem to travel around in families, despite being solitary creatures.

Along the way, he learned what fishing rigs look like, what boat motors smell like. He learned how boats stop floating away in the sea, and what an anchor looks like. He learned how boats are hoisted up onto boat trailers, and two or three different ways of doing such a job.

He learned that it’s awesome to talk to new people, to share a love for the wild. He discovered a deep, abiding joy in just watching wildlife, and a real love for the glorious creatures that otherwise look so scary. He learned that they’ll come up to you and that you can stroke them if you know how (as some on the beach did today).

It wasn’t long before our falling-in-holes game became a ‘me be eagle ray, you be Beren’ game.

Then, when we were out having a mid-morning picnic, he cast his eyes up and down the beach.

‘Why no kids, mum?’ he asked me.

‘They’re at school, mate.’ I replied. ‘All day. Like daddy.’

He pondered this for a moment, looking around at the retirees and middle-aged, and those who are presumably not Monday-to-Friday wagies.

‘Strange,’ is all he said.

Given the incredible experience and learning we had in just three hours of fun and wonder, it’s pretty hard to see it any other way.

I sometimes write about nature. Like this piece, about the rain. I’d love to hear what you think.

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