What an experience I had this morning.

As part of our normal life and routine, my son and I have a specific beach “spot” that we go to in Topsail Hill State Preserve (our “backyard” park and regular hang out.) We call it “Ray Reef” – not because there is a reef but simply because it is where we see dozens of stingrays swimming in the shallows on a daily basis. We have also spotted quite a few sharks swimming in the shallows as well, but that is an entirely different story for another time!

This particular area of water is a very popular spot for marine life and this morning was certainly no exception. This “spot” is a couple of miles down on the beach in the park and we love it because no matter how busy the beach might be, nobody ever walks that far and it’s like we have our own private beach… all the time. This is also the route of my daily morning runs along the beach and where I take some of my best photos.

On this Thursday, the water was perfectly peaceful and its typical gorgeous shade on the aqua marine, but as I got to our area I noticed a much larger number of stingrays than usual. In all honesty, I stopped counting at 100! They were everywhere today. All the typical stingrays that I usually see. Everything from small little baby eight inch ones all the way up to three footers. They typically swim in a foot or two of water and will play all around you. It is truly very cool.

But today, as I was marveling at the high number of rays, I noticed something different. Something very different and something very big! At first I thought it was a clump of seaweed but nope, it start “flying” through the water and that’s when I saw what it really was. Swimming just about 30 yards off shore were not one, not two, but three huge manta rays!

Obviously there was a ray party going on and these large dudes were the bouncers working the door. The pictures here don’t totally do the mantas justice because there is nothing to give you perspective but trust me when I say… they were six to seven feet wide and the size of a Toyota Prius! No exaggeration. I was in complete awe. (FYI – Mantas can grow up to 20 feet wide.)

As I always do, I knew I needed to take pictures so, in my running shoes and gear, I waded out into the waist deep water and started snapping away. I really wish I’d had a standup paddleboard with me so I could’ve jumped on, paddled, and hung out with them. That will definitely be on the agenda for next time.

But still… just wading near them was awe inspiring. Simply amazing! These were definitely the three biggest rays I have ever seen. Yes, I know, I should’ve started taking video because… well, that is what I do… but I was simply too awe struck. I have no problem admitting I was giddy in the presence of such a display of nature and I laughed out loud at my good fortune. It was really quite emotional and fun.

Just another reason why I love living on the Gulf Coast and why it is so, so important to… as they say… stop and smell the roses. Or in this case, stop and bask in the rays!