When scientists at the University of California in San Diego noticed a large number of baby manta ray sightings at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico, they never would have dreamt that they had actually stumbled upon the first-known manta ray nursery in the world.
These gentle giants of the ocean are known to seek out and gather in areas far from the coast, so they're rarely seen this close to shore. Meanwhile, spotting a baby manta ray is even more unusual, considering that they're notoriously elusive even in big manta ray groups.
So, imagine Joshua Stewart's surprise, the lead author of a study detailing the new discovery, when he locked eyes on a baby manta ray at Flower Garden Banks back in 2016.
"The juvenile life stage for oceanic mantas has been a bit of a black box for us, since we're so rarely able to observe them," said Stewart, who is a marine biology PhD candidate at the university's Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the executive director of the Manta Trust, a global manta conservation program.
According to the university, the researcher has been studying manta rays since 2011 and has come across hundreds of adult individuals in the wild. But the juveniles he found at Flower Garden Banks were one of his biggest discoveries.
And, as is the case of most great discoveries, this one also happened by accident.