26 Wild essays - The Undulate Ray

Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

As part of the 26 Wild project, 56 writers are bringing to life the plight of endangered UK wildlife through a series of centenas and essays. The first of which is this beautiful essay by Lucy Beevor.

“Happy for you to give me a call. Early evening is best,” Sheilah emails back, “not 7:00-7:15 – NOTHING takes precedence over The Archers.” I suggest 6pm, underlining it twice in my diary; something tells me I mustn't be late.

Sheilah and Martin Openshaw run the Undulate Ray Project, tracking rays off the Dorset coast between Portland and St Albans Head (could this retired couple have a more perfect name for this work?). Although an endangered species from Morocco to the north Atlantic, undulate rays are locally abundant here, probably thanks to the success of fishing regulations.

But so little is known about undulates and understanding more about their behaviour and habitat is at the heart of the project:

“We want to know how large the rays’ home territory is, where they lay their eggs and where the young develop before people see them as relatively large juveniles. We can feed this information back to the Wildlife Trust which helps them plan for the rays’ future.”


Juvenile undulate ray

Juvenile undulate ray ©Andy Jackson

On a visit to the Galapagos, Sheilah and Martin had taken photos of parts of whale sharks - “we didn’t have the right kit to photograph the whole animal,” Sheilah laughs. They spotted an international call for photos of whale sharks by scientists tracking the sharks’ movements by matching photos of their markings; they sent their pictures in. They never heard anything back but the idea made an impression: they wondered if they could do the same with undulates.    

To date, they’ve taken or received 1,100 ray identification photographs: 121 people - divers and anglers - have contributed photos and they’ve matched 133 rays.  When a ray is spotted on more than one day they give him/her a name.  They’re on their sixth cycle through the alphabet (the names of Thunderbirds characters feature prominently). Al was the first ray to be named in 2012; he’s been seen four times, each time very close to where he was first spotted. Their most seen ray is Mr. Grayce, spotted eight times in four years.

 By now I’ve scribbled three pages of notes. I find this project extraordinary; I am amazed by this couple who dedicate so much time, passion and energy to this beautiful creature.

“Have you seen our Black Bream Project?” Sheilah asks. You mean there’s another creature they're tracking?  It’s already 6.55pm. “I'll take a look at the website,” I promise and release Sheilah to The Archers.

To read Lucy’s accompanying centena – a 100-word poem – in honour of the undulate ray, visit the 26 Wild website.

Pledge for a copy of The Story’s Not Over – a book of all 56 centenas – and help raise vital funds for The Wildlife Trusts.