Rays swoosh in circle dances

I'VE swum with dolphins off Florida, ridden sea turtles in the South China Sea, and peered through binoculars at seals on rocks off the Oregon Coast. I haven't yet seen a whale. No whales in our waters, Maryland's briny Patuxent River, so shallow in front of our house that even at high tide we can wade as far as the channel marker, waves only lapping our waists.

Dolphin migrations, crossing the Chesapeake Bay the first week in June, pass the mouth of the Patuxent four miles downriver from us, pass on.

No sea turtles this far north, no sea lions this far south.

After a drought, where the river undiluted by rain becomes particularly salty, bluefish sometimes swim up the river. We know they are out there because sea gulls gather from nowhere, wheeling and shrieking and diving for scraps of whatever leftover school of fish the blues have chomped their way through, and I shout.

``Quickly! The rods! Rig the boat! Raise the sails! Hurry, the blues are running!''

But blues too prefer deeper waters.

We get only jellyfish, eels, blue crabs, perch, spot, and after unusual rains that freshen the water, catfish. But yesterday two horseshoe crabs, the first I've seen here, lumbered onto our tiny beach like archaic tanks, and mated.

No hope of whales, or other seagoing mammals, though sometimes an otter will swim from his den on the bank of the cove across to the other shore.

And on certain days in late May - early June, then again later in August, while we are quietly swimming, or on foot stalking blue crabs, we notice that the water has become oddly roiled, sand so churned up we can't see the bottom.

Suddenly some guest screams: ``Look out! Sharks! And they're close!''

Fins slice the sea.

But these fins are doubled, paired. Rubbery wings undulate through the waves.

The rays have arrived.

Like sharks, they are selachians, their skeletons cartilege, not bone. Rajidae belong to the order Hypotremata.

In pairs or quartets, in families or clans, the size of a tray or six feet from wing tip to wing tip, rays swoosh around us in circle dances.

Flat, they slide into shallows, their mouths on the downside of their heads scooping up clams. They hide in the sand as we swim overhead. It is startling to startle them.

They gambol near the rind of the sea, suddenly rush after fish with great splashing. When they rise to whack the hull of our 14-foot sailboat, the whole craft resounds. In other waters certain rays weigh up to 500 pounds. I'm glad that these don't.

Farther north - Nantucket, Cape Cod, Long Island - on the shores of my childhood, beachcombing I often picked up skate fish egg-cases: black leathery rectangles about three inches long, with tendrils at the corners to hook onto seaweed. But I never saw the skates, and wondered how many of the egg cases actually hatched. Other varieties bear their young alive, like whales.

Here on the Patuxent, fishing for perch a decade ago I hooked a large ray, or he took my hook by mistake. We battled and battled, while I promised everyone skate steaks. But after a while, as if at his leisure, not mine, he broke free.

Though French menus offer la raie au beurre noire, and I'm told that most of the scallops we eat are in fact the wing flaps of rays chopped out with a cookie cutter, rays don't seem in danger of dying out.

In recent years I have sighted more in the Patuxent. I've given up trying to catch them.

For although I'm told they can whiplash their stinger tail, and some species squirt poison, we have swum among rays, or they've swum among us. Inadvertently. Lolling unaware in the water, we graze flanks, which startles some guests into speedy departures.

The rays spend only a few days here, twice a year, visits to bracket their summer migration elsewhere. But as they churn through the river, flashing their wing tips like fins, they remind us again: These waters are theirs, we also are just passing through.

And someday, maybe a whale...

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