I just read a short article titled “Where to scuba dive with electric rays.” It’s an enjoyable and informative read, but it might as well have been titled “How to get electrocuted organically” or better yet, “How to avoid diving with electric rays.” To be fair, the article doesn’t actually describe exactly where to dive with electric rays; it merely mentions their general ranges, some taxonomy, and the voltages that a few different species can deliver. What it should mention is that electric rays are no joke and that getting shocked by one isn’t exactly something that divers generally put on their “I have to experience this!” list. Diving with manta rays off of Kona? Yes! Getting kissed by the friendly stingrays off Grand Cayman? Bring it! Receiving a jolt from a Pacific electric ray while diving in a kelp forest at 60 feet? No thanks.
In my almost 30 years of scuba diving I’ve seen plenty of electric rays and I learned very early on that they are to be avoided. Sure, they’re pretty cool. And some are quite beautiful. But, as a responsible diver, my best advice is: Leave ‘em alone. Get your photo from a safe distance and calmly swim away. And whatever else you do, don’t touch. Do not engage. I repeat: Do not engage!
A shocking discovery
My first encounter was at Lovers Point, Pacific Grove, California. My buddy Dan and I swam out on the surface to the kelp bed and dropped down to about 20 feet where we touched bottom immediately next to a large, blue, oversized pancake with the tail of a shark. I was fascinated! What a beautiful creature! I, of course, recognized that it was a ray; I just didn’t know what kind. I reached out to touch the big round fish (which is what you do with everything when you’re a naïve newbie to the diving world), but before I could touch it, the large pancake quickly lurched forward and stuck its face in mine, mere inches away from my mask. Its aggressive maneuver made me think that I probably shouldn’t mess with this thing. I backed up and we cautiously moved on. It wasn’t until about a week later when I learned that it was a Pacific electric ray and that they are indeed naturally rather testy and have been known to shock unwary divers – even knocking them out cold! I considered myself lucky, after the fact.
Since that episode, every time I see a Pacific electric ray I think back to that initial encounter. They look so cool and calm and harmless. With that pretty blue-gray skin peppered with dark spots and those tiny, cartoonish eyes, how could something that charming be dangerous? Well, they just are. Heed that and swim away. And that display of aggressive behavior should be a warning to all. On another occasion, a couple years later off the Channel Islands, my dive buddy and I were on a night dive looking for lobsters when a four-foot long adult Pacific electric ray came into our flashlight beams. We both kept our distance, knowing what it was, but the damn thing started to follow us! It did so for about a minute. I knew by then that they’re aggressive and I had heard that they chase divers sometimes, but believing was seeing. We bolted. So to speak.
Of course, not all experiences with electric rays are bad. Fortunately, the small ones – say, smaller than your average pancake – are generally harmless to us. My fondest electrically charged memory was during my rescue diver course at Monterey State Beach. I got to play the rold of downed diver while my classmates did search patterns to locate and rescue me. It was a particularly warm and sunny day on the Monterey coast (rare back then) and I was reclining on the sand in about 10 feet of water, enjoying watching sand dabs and gobies. I began to notice that there were also several juvenile Pacific electric rays no bigger than fifty-cent pieces half buried in the sand all around me. Experimentally, I touched one and felt a slight buzzing, nothing painful or jolting at all. These little guys were harmless and this, I realized, was probably the only time I’ll be able to interact with Pacific electric rays safely. I was actually sad when my classmates finally found me…
Lesson learned, finally
Many years later, while diving off Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico – and with many more dives and diving wisdom under my weight belt – I was given a lesson on how shocking nature can be, as well as how much I still have to learn. I was following our divemaster over the field of soft, white sand while we approached a locally famous attraction of underwater sculptures of people. Our divemaster, Juan, had been pointing out fish here and there and apparently had a particular fondness for scaring up large stingrays out of the sand (I assumed most tourists find that enjoyable, or maybe Juan just really liked to pester stingrays). As we neared the sculptures Juan pointed out a much smaller, pale, sandy colored ray. It was about eight inches in diameter and fairly nondescript. I might not even have noticed it had Juan not pointed it out. He hovered over it and casually brushed his bare fingers across its round form. At least, I thought he did. So, of course, I did the same. Except when I did it, my arm suddenly jolted backwards behind my head and a surge of pain sizzled from my fingertips to my shoulder. That little thing got me good! And so did Juan, that devious bum! Of course, I should have known better. That was on me, not Juan. Maybe he was testing me or maybe that was a joke he plays on gringo tourists (I didn’t ask, but I wouldn’t put it past him). I should have recognized that telltale shape. Although they vary in size, color and patterns, all electric rays have the same round shape with rounded fins on a vaguely shark-like tail. It turned out to be a lesser electric ray; common throughout the Caribbean and not dangerous to people – just kind of a pain if you happen to be clumsy or naïve enough to touch one.
In retrospect, I laughed, even though my entire arm hurt slightly for the next few hours. And of course, I thought back to that first contact I had years earlier and I realized that if that little guy can produce enough of a charge to send my arm swinging backwards painfully, think of what an adult Pacific electric ray can do. Like I advised, it’s best not to find out.