HOORAY FOR RAYSstingray conservation in a small South African townPhoto Credit: Melissa Nel: The common Eagle Ray, a critically endangered stingray species.Chantel ElstonPlettenberg Bay, South Africa, is a small and picturesque coastal town overlooking an incredible ocean bay. Many marine inhabitants make this bay a special place, from whale and dolphin residents to seasonal great white shark visitors. However, recent research has begun to discover another noteworthy resident, an endangered stingray species on the verge of a global demise. The research team is led by Dr Chantel Elston, postdoctoral researcher at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB), and comprises of the staff and volunteers of the Oceans Research Conservation Africa (ORCA) Foundation. Dr Elston has a self-proclaimed stingray obsession, but little did she know she would stumble on such a surprising and important finding along this unassuming part of the coast.

Through deploying an underwater camera system and conducting boat surveys weekly in the Keurbooms estuary of Plettenberg Bay, Dr Elston and the team have discovered the first South African estuary that is a year-round home to a critically endangered stingray species – the common eagle ray.
Photo Credit: Chantel Elston: A juvenile common eagle ray traveling across the shallow sand flats of the Keurbooms estuary.This beautiful little eagle ray is distributed along most of the African coastline, up into the Mediterranean, and in the surrounding waters of the United Kingdom, but through over-fishing, is now considered to be at only 20% of its original abundance (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species). This is an all too familiar story in the world of rays, where 36% of all species are considered at risk for extinction.Photo Credit: Chantel Elston: The Keurbooms estuary, an ecosystem providing the perfect shallow and sheltered sandy habitat for juvenile stingrays.One of the most important steps to take in conserving these species is to protect their homes, the important places where they aggregate, breed, and feed. The Keurbooms estuary appears to be one such place, where an abundance of juvenile common eagle rays has been seen resting and feeding since surveys began in April 2021.

This little estuary is truly a special place. While Dr Elston’s other current research with the Acoustic Tracking Array Platform (ATAP) is highlighting certain estuaries to be seasonal homes for stingrays, where they live for certain parts of the year, the Keurbooms is the only one identified so far that stingrays occupy throughout the year.
Photo Credit: Carmen van der Westhuizen: Dr Chantel Elston deploying the camera system which she is using to survey the stingrays and other marine life of the Keurbooms estuary.The team hope to communicate these findings to the local municipality at the end of the research project, with the hopes that the estuary can be maintained in the relatively pristine condition which it is in currently. This will be a critical effort in the fight to prevent this species from further decline.

This type of research and conservation work is the core element of the ORCA Foundation in Plettenberg Bay. If you would like to be a part of this exciting research, as well as other important projects run by the ORCA Foundation (such as dolphin, whale, and great white shark surveys), get in touch to enquire about availability. All information is available on the website: www.orcafoundation.com.