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Out There: Naree-naree

9/28/2004
No one had seen a freshwater ray as large as the one pulled from the confluence of Brazil's Rio Branco and Rio Negro. 

It was January 2000 and my Brazilian fishing companion, Walter Delazari, and I were working big topwaters for peacock bass in Brazil's Rio Negro.

As we fished, I gazed into the coffee-colored water of the great river, watching for unusual creatures to swim by. That is how I came to see the Naree-naree, the strangest animal I ever laid eyes on.

It rose from the depths like a flying saucer in a stormy night sky.

At first, I did not recognize it as a fish at all. It was enormous, perhaps seven or eight feet across. It was flat and round like a Frisbee, with no fins or tail I could see. It did not swim like a fish; it rippled at the edges. It was there only seconds, then disappeared.

I looked up at Walter. He had seen it, too. "Que é isso, Walter? " What was it? I asked.

"Hi-ya," he said, if one were to write the word the way it was spoken. He spelled it out on a tablet: "R-A-Y-A." The word means ray, as in stingray or manta ray. Only this was no saltwater ray. This fish was hundreds of miles from the ocean.

On our mother ship, the Amazon Castaway, I told people about the unusual creature we saw.

"Perhaps the water acted like a magnifying glass and made it look bigger than it really was," the first mate, a man well-versed in Brazilian ichthyology, told me. "There are several species of freshwater rays in Brazil.

"They have long tails and stingers, just like stingrays. The natives are terrified of them. They fear them even more than piranhas."

"But the biggest I've ever seen or heard of were only a foot or so across and weighed only a few pounds," he said. "If what you saw was really a freshwater ray, it would be the biggest one any man has ever seen."

The mate's words would one day soon ring true.

When I returned to the U.S., I intensified my study of freshwater rays. I learned scientists are unsure exactly how many freshwater species exist. The facts are clouded because some marine rays enter rivers and occasionally swim hundreds of miles from the sea.

This much is certain: At least 36 ray species worldwide spend all or part of their lives in freshwater. Twenty-five live in South American waters, and at least 18 in the waters of Brazil.

In Peru, rumors persist of a giant species known as the China or coly ray. It is reputed to reach a size of almost 10 feet, but little is known of it.

The whipray, found in the rivers of Thailand and Australia, reaches a verified size of almost six feet; specimens exceeding 250 pounds have been reported but not authenticated. It seems, however, this is not a true freshwater species. It lives, at times, in brackish estuaries.

The largest South American freshwater ray I found documented was a discus ray weighing 11.4 pounds. Learning this, I realized my sighting in the Rio Negro might forever be viewed as nothing more than an optical illusion.

I knew what I saw, however, and when I returned to the river in December 2000, I set out to catch one of these giants and prove the existence of my mystery fish.
Five days before Christmas, I did just that.

While fishing a live piranha bait at the confluence of the Rio Branco and Rio Negro, I hooked an enormous fish. I knew immediately it must be a ray.

Unlike the Amazon catfish we were catching, this fish did not race away at high speed or spin in the water. If the catfish were river racehorses, this was a Clydesdale. It was plodding, yet powerful, towing our bass boat like Moby Dick pulling Ahab's skiff.

As the battle passed the 20-minute mark, I wondered if my worn-out, 44-year-old body could bear the strain. Each time our guide motored near so I could reel in line, the huge ray surged away, taking yards of line with it.

I knew at any time the hook could pull free or the fish could become hopelessly entangled on some underwater obstruction. Finally, however, the beast relented. Thirty-four minutes after our war began, it surfaced — a gigantic fish so unlike any other, it brought gasps of astonishment from us all.

José, our guide, warned us immediately to avoid the short, thrashing tail. There was no stinger evident, but the tail was covered with sharp, bony spikes. If it struck one of us, it would inflict a terrible wound.

The ray measured six feet, two inches across the disk. It resembled a giant extraterrestrial pancake. It was almost perfectly round. The spiked tail seemed tiny and out of proportion to the enormous disk, like the stem on an apple.

Dark eyebrow-shaped markings punctuated the brown leathery skin covering the creature's upper surface. Two tiny eyes erupted from the center of the disk. The creature was pinkish-white beneath, with a mouth big enough to inhale grapefruits.

The ray weighed an incredible 116 pounds, 12 ounces. Unfortunately, it was deeply hooked and died within minutes of its capture. We were unable to release it.

When scientists examined photographs of the fish, it was identified as Paratrygon aiereba, the discus ray. Two Brazilian names — manzana ray and eyebrow ray — are derived from features I observed. Manzana means apple, a reference to the ray's shape — like the cross-section of an apple with its stem. Eyebrow alludes to the dark eyebrow-shaped markings.

Small specimens sometimes are kept by aquarists, but no ichthyologist had ever speculated this species could grow to such enormous proportions. No larger obligate freshwater ray has ever been officially documented.

Frank Schaefer, a ray expert to whom I spoke, told me this fish provided the answer to a long-standing puzzle. R.H. Schomburgk, in "The Fishes of Guiana," published in 1860, provided a painting of a ray he discovered in 1843. He called it the "spine-tailed Elipesurus."

"This ray was found in the Rio Branco …," he wrote, "and here it is called Naree-naree; it … was without the horny spine [stinger] which is generally found on this genus … they dig holes in the sand, in which they lie flat, and there await their prey. They are used for food, but are not preferred to others …."

"The form is altogether remarkable in the short or deficient tail, an organ among the rays which is generally in one way or other marked by considerable developments," he continued. "These seem to be here confined to the strong spiny excrescences which cover its base, and are the only organs of defence [sic] with which the animal is furnished."

No similar ray with the same unusual tail spines had been seen since Schomburgk painted the specimen for his book.

So the spine-tailed Elipesurus remained something of a mystery. The ray I captured, however, had precisely the same sort of tail spines, the same shape and coloration.

Using the photos and description I provided, scientists were able to finalize another chapter in ichthyology. We now know that Schomburgk's Elipesurus is a distinctive form of the discus ray, Paratrygon aiereba.

And we know that the world's largest freshwater ray may not swim in the waters of Peru or Thailand as was previously suspected. It swims in the Rio Negro and Rio Branco of Brazil.

The discus ray I landed is now listed as an all-tackle world record by the International Game Fish Association.

Call me crazy, but I believe the ray I caught was smaller than the one I originally saw.

When I return to the Rio Negro, I will fish at its confluence with the Rio Branco, once again, and try to prove that the unusual discus ray is, without doubt, the largest of these incredible fishes.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net