PANAMA CITY — The sun had just finished rising when Whitfield Roberts came upon the largest manta ray he had ever seen just beyond Phillips inlet on Saturday morning.
It was, he said, likely between 400 and 500 pounds, stretching nearly six feet across.
But “very docile, and after I cut the engine it stayed close to the boat for a while, ignoring us really, but then swam right at us, almost as though it wanted a closer look,” he said. “I could have touched it at one point.”
Roberts found the ray when he spied two fin tips peeking out of what was otherwise just a school of bait and decided to investigate.
“Lots of bait, cigar minnows, small hardtails, a few herring, probably 20 remoras or more, and this guy just gliding through on the surface,” he said.
Roberts took a short video of the encounter, which he called “very unusual,” that he shared in the Panama City Fishing Facebook group. A few other people commented they had also seen the ray, and one person shared a photo.
The manta ray is only the second one Roberts has seen — the first one he accidentally caught (and released) while fishing — but not the largest sea creature he’s ever come across. About 10 years ago, he said a whale shark swam next to and around his boat.
“Raised a few eyebrows,” he said.
Manta rays eat mostly plankton and are considered to be of little danger to humans. The giant manta ray, is the world’s largest ray, and can grow to have a wingspan of nearly 30 feet and weighs in at over 4,000 pounds.