Dan Grauer has seen his share of odd things on the water. "Once, we were releasing a little tunny off the side of the boat when a spinner shark came up and grabbed it right out of my friend's hands," said the 58-year-old angler from Seminole. "There was blood all over the place. Luckily it wasn't his." But nothing Grauer has experienced in his decades of fishing the Gulf of Mexico could prepare him for what happened last month in Clearwater Pass.
"It was early afternoon and we had several baits out fishing for sharks," Grauer said. "We usually do pretty good … catch a lot of big blacktips."
Grauer and his friend Gerald Finley, a 59-year-old oral surgeon from Tampa, are regular fishing buddies. "We spend a lot of time on the water together," Finley said. "We have seen a lot."
July 31 was a typical Sunday afternoon. The pass was crowded with boats and personal watercraft. The anglers could hear the music and see the throngs gathered at nearby Shephard's Resort on Clearwater Beach.
"I was fishing on the bow when I heard a large splash as something jumped about 100 feet away," Finley said.
That's when Finley snagged something. "I could tell it was big," he said. "I just couldn't tell what it was."
He thought it might be a big blacktip, after all, the area is Shark Central.
"Then, out of nowhere, I just saw this blur of white coming at me," Finley said. "I just dived out of the way."
Finley cleared the bow just in time to see a large spotted eagle ray land in the exact spot where he had been standing.
"It was thrashing around, really tearing up the boat, smashing rods and reels," Grauer said. "We were both just standing there. We didn't know what to do."
The creature, Aetobatus narinari, is one of more than 500 species of rays in the world, descendants of creatures that swam the Earth's oceans during the time of the dinosaurs. The Tampa Bay area has numerous species of skates and rays, including several that most laymen would commonly refer to as stingrays.
The most notable, the species responsible for the most "stings" or "hits" is the Atlantic stingray, one of the smaller species in local waters. The spotted eagle ray, at the larger end of the spectrum, can measure 8 feet across and weigh up to 500 pounds. And like the Atlantic stingray, it has a barb at the end of its tail.
"The thing looked like a spear," Grauer said. "We had to wrap it in a towel to keep it from sticking somebody."
Eventually, the ray, which the anglers estimated to weigh several hundred pounds, stopped thrashing around. Grauer and Finley were able to flag down some Clearwater police officers, a U.S. Customs agent and a bystander from the beach to help return the animal to the water.
"It took six of us to lift it," Grauer said.
Nobody quite knows why rays jump.
"Some people think that it may be to escape predators," said Brent Winner, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. "Others think that it may be to dislodge parasites."
Finley, who has been fishing local waters for nearly 30 years, believes that there might have been a large hammerhead shark in the vicinity.
"When I snagged the ray, I probably restricted its mobility," he said. "It probably felt a little nervous and that is why it jumped."
Over the years, there have been numerous newspaper accounts of rays, including mantas, landing in boats. The last time this reporter remembers a spotted eagle ray involved in such an incident was April 2000, when a 5-foot specimen smashed up a boat in the same area.
Lucky for Grauer and Finley, the beast in question was not a manta, which can weigh as much as 2 tons and do some real damage.