Large Aggregation of Cownose Rays off Vanderbilt Beach in Southwest Florida


Aggregation of Cownose Rays off Vanderbilt Beach

Every Turtle Journal expedition into the field seems to produce a new surprise.  After more than three decades of exploration of the Southwest Florida coastline, one might expect the frequency of surprises to taper off.  But alas, they wonderfully keep occurring … which keeps us fully alert and engaged as we lug our gear down to the beach for a morning stroll.  March 10th and 11th dawned bright and warm with daytime temperature stretching into the 80s.  As Sue Wieber Nourse walked the Vanderbilt Beach shore in front of the Naples Ritz Carlton, she was thrilled to find a mass aggregation of cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus) sailing along the beach in knee deep water. 


Cownose Ray (Rhinoptera bonasus)

The cownose ray, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Ichthyology site, derives its scientific name (Rhinoptera) from the Greek “rhinos” for nose and “pteron” for wing.  Clearly, its “nose” represents the ray’s most distinctive and identifying feature.  Cownose rays can be found all along the Atlantic coastline from here in Cape Cod to the tip of Florida, as well as the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico.


Cownose Rays Fly Along Naples Coastline

While the cownose ray is a pelagic or ocean-going fish, it can be found along the warm, shallow coastline.  They are known to be gregarious, which may account for the mass aggregation Sue witnessed at Vanderbilt Beach.  They are benthic feeders, but also forage along the shoreline and in bays and estuaries.  Their menu includes quite a smorgasbord of critters from bivalves and gastropods to crabs, lobsters and finfish.

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Cownose Ray Aggregation off Vanderbilt Beach in Naples

Sue observed foraging activity close into the shoreline on both March 10th and 11th, as well as non-foraging behavior in slightly deeper water.  She saw this massive group swim both north and then south along Vanderbilt Beach at various times during the morning, rather than in a single direction as one might expect in a migration.


Cownose Rays

Whatever the cause  of this mass aggregation, the sight of such majestic fish sailing effortless through the surf created a sensation for gawking tourists who had similarly flocked to Vanderbilt Beach to take advantage of these warm March days and to forage the coastal restaurants for fare ranging from “bivalves and gastropods to crabs, lobsters and finfish.”  I guess when you probe to the very gut of the matter there’s not too much difference among species.

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Southwest Florida Dolphins

While documenting the cownose rays, Sue was pleasantly surprised by a pod of dolphins that joined in the fun.  An overly curious juvenile dolphin broke from the pod and swam directly up to Sue to investigate what she was doing.  A perfect punctuate to a perfect Southwest Florida morning.


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