Out of all the wildlife you may spot in Destin-Fort Walton Beach, one of the most distinctive is a ray gliding through the water like a flat alien spaceship. Someone will call it a manta ray. Someone else will call it a stingray. Here are ways you can tell the difference between the two while boating, snorkeling, or diving

How to Identify

First, look at how they move. Manta rays look like underwater birds, flapping their fins up and down as they gracefully “fly” through the water. Stingrays move their fins in a wavy pattern, like a ribbon undulating in the waves.

Second, because of what they eat, their mouths are different. Manta rays are “filter” feeders. They have mouths at the front of their heads, with fins on the sides to funnel plankton and other tiny animals through their gills as they swim. Stingrays have a mouth on their underside that looks like a smiley face. They swim across the bottom and eat crabs, oysters, and other small animals on the seafloor and are well-known for often burying themselves in the sand as camouflage.

Third, many stingrays have a stinger or “barb” on their tail for defense. Manta rays don’t, though they do have tails.

Finally, manta rays are usually larger width-wise than they are lengthwise, and there are fewer  kinds of manta rays, while there are over 200 types of stingrays.

Where to Spot Them

At the beaches in Northwest Florida, if you see a “school” of rays swimming near the shore, they most likely are a type of ray, known as cownose rays, according to Graham Northup, curator of fish and reptiles at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park.

Most people who think they see a manta ray are actually seeing a devil ray. Both have what look like “horns,” but the devil’s ray horns are slimmer. The rays you’ll see jumping out of the water here are devil rays, Northup said.

Manta rays are more solitary and typically seen offshore. Your best bet to see them is on a boat excursion.

“It’s pretty rare to see them,” he said, adding that a juvenile manta ray has been spotted at the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier, and divers occasionally report spotting one offshore.

The best time to see stingrays is during the early morning between April and October. They prefer calm water, protected bays, and structures like artificial reefs.

One ray hotspot is Henderson Beach State Park, a preserve teeming with all kinds of wildlife and is the last remaining coastal scrub area in Destin.

If you want a for-sure thing, you can see Atlantic, Southern, and Cownose stingrays in “Stingray Bay” at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park and even touch and snorkel in the water with them!

Stingrays only use their barbs in self-defense, usually against sharks and dolphins trying to eat them, he said. The stingrays at the Gulfarium are so used to people that they don’t see them as predators. But just as a precaution, staff trim their barbs, which are like fingernails, and grow back. 

In nature, stingrays are more afraid of you than you are of them. Do the “stingray shuffle” – shuffle your feet in the sand in shallow water – so you don’t accidentally step on one and spook it.