Like sharks, many species of rays are under intensive pressure from international trade in their body parts. ‘Devil Rays’ are the common name that refers to a family of rays called Mobula Rays, the close cousins of larger Manta Rays.

Mobula Rays typically range in size from as small as 0.5 meters and up to 4.0 meters across. Like Mantas, they have relative large and complex brains and they are known to be curious and social animals. Unfortunately also like mantas, they have very low reproductive capacity, giving birth to only one pup every two to three years. 

Virgin Unite, ocean conservation, shawn heinrichs, manta

Mobula Rays offer awesome potential as a tourist attraction, yet these charismatic little rays are being killed across the oceans primarily for their gills that are used as a purported health tonic in Asia. As a result, over-exploitation is now threatening them with extinction. Every three years, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a United Nations body of 183 member countries, meets to decide if certain species receive international protection.

This September, CITES will be hosted in Johannesburg, South Africa, and a proposal to list Mobula Rays on Appendix 2 will be put to vote. With time running out for Mobula Rays, we created ‘Dance with Devil Rays’ to highlight the how interactive, charismatic and vulnerable these “little Mantas” are, and to inspire nations to afford them the critical protection they deserve.

Virgin Unite, ocean conservation, shawn heinrichs, manta

Three years ago, I teamed up and underwater performance artist Hannah Fraser and together we created ‘Mantas Last Dance’, a film featuring Hannah dancing with Manta Rays on the ocean floor at midnight. This film contributed to a broader initiative that successfully lobbied for the listing of Manta Rays at the 2013 CITES meeting. With Manta’s smaller cousins Mobula Rays now on the docket for the 2016 CITES meeting, we went back to work to create a film that would showcase the beauty and vulnerability of these special little rays.

Mobula Rays are beautiful, gentle creatures, capable of high levels of social behaviour, yet they are being slaughtered for their gills. These amazing animals take a long time to reach maturity and produce only one pup per pregnancy, and as such, directed fisheries are taking a massive toll on their already vulnerable populations. The team’s mission with this project is to showcase the beauty of the Mobula Rays and their willingness to interact with humans, with the goal of inspiring people to conserve these magnificent animals.


With generous support from The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, we assembled a world-class team that included renowned mermaid Hannah Fraser and model/waterman David Langlois, and headed to La Paz, Mexico to produce the first choreographed ballroom dance 10 meters deep on the ocean floor at night with graceful Mobula Rays. Braving a category two hurricane, followed by bone chilling cold water and dodging poisonous fire worms and camouflaged stingrays, we had to manage an extensive array of underwater lighting, camera and dive safety equipment – all while directing a complex choreographed dance with over 100 twirling Mobula Rays. The difficulty and challenges with the shoot were mind boggling yet we somehow pulled it off!

If people knew how special, intelligent and gentle Mobula Rays are, we would have a public outcry demanding immediate protection of these special animals. Our mission with this project was to bring that message home, inspiring national delegates to support international protection of Mobula Rays at the CITES conference, and then to return to their homes and implement national protections. 

The international gill trade and other fisheries are having a devastating impact on Mobula Ray populations, and time is running out to save these animals from extinction.

But there's good news... This past week, devil rays had a resounding victory at the CITES conference! The international gill trade is having a devastating impact on devil rays and driving populations of these rays towards extinction. With devil rays now joining manta rays on Appendix 2 of CITES, we now have the policies in place, and coupled with proper enforcement, to massively reduce the trade in gills for these animals and safeguard their future.

We must act now, with one voice, to protect them.

Virgin Unite, ocean conservation, shawn heinrichs, manta

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