Meet The Locals – Banded Guitarfish

Welcome to our first Meet The Local article! A series of articles introducing our local marine wildlife to help divers learn a bit about the beautiful underwater environment and inhabitants of Cabo San Lucas and the area.

Quick Facts

Common Name:Banded Guitarfish
Scientific Name:Zapteryx exasperata
Distribution:California to Sea of Cortez
Depth:0-200 m/0-656 ft
Season:Winter – Early Summer
IUCN Status:Data Deficient
Reaction to Divers:Easily approachable

Meet the Banded Guitarfish

One of the coolest things about diving in Cabo San Lucas is the fact that it is so seasonal. Every 3-4 months everything changes both under and over the water surface. One of my favorite species, that loves the colder, nutrient rich waters of winter and spring is the Banded Guitarfish. They are cartilaginous fish, like sharks, skates and rays, belonging to the same order as Shovelnose rays. They are also known as Guitar-rays or Guitar-sharks for that reason. They even have some features that make them look similar to their relatives. They have dorsal fins, a definite resemblance to their shark cousins from one side, but are flat bodied with ‘wings’ like other family members from the ray side. There are many different families and genres of shovelnose rays in the world, but the Banded Guitarfish can only be found in our area – the Californias. Read on for some more information about this special local resident.

WHO?

Scientific name: Zapteryx Exasperata. Zapteryx (Za – in Greek intensive, Pteryx – fin. Bigger dorsal fins then other skates), Exasperata (in Latin – made rough, for the prickles on back). Family – Trygonorrhinidae (Banjo/Fiddler rays). Order – Rhinobatidae (Shovelnose rays).

The Banded Guitarfish has a flat, disk shaped body and a thick tail, with 2 dorsal fins on it, similar to other skates. The disk is about as wide as it is long, and the snout is wide and short, with a pointy edge in the front, giving it a shape resembling a cool electric guitar. On the top side they have a row of enlarged thorns, running through the middle of their backs. The rest of the disk surface has many scattered prickles in different sizes. It’s a sandy-brown color, with stripes of darker brown-black, hence the name Banded Guitarfish. We like to nickname this lovely skate Guitar Ray or Guitar Shark, and even the UW signal we use for this skate is pretending to play a guitar like a rock star.

Diving with Banded Guitar fish ray or shark in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Diving with Banded Guitar fish ray or shark in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

WHERE?

The Zapteryx Exasperata can be found up to 200 m depth, but usually is at 1-22 m. Distributed from California to the Sea of Cortez, sub-tropical and temperate water. Inhabiting rocky reefs and sandy bottoms.

Guitarfish like to hang out on rocky and sandy areas, usually in shallow areas. Many times, while scuba diving, we find them under a big stone or on a sandy area between 2 boulders. They don’t really mind paparazzi and let divers come close for a nice long look. Though they can be quite docile and quick when they want to. They have between 60 to 75 blunt, pebble-like teeth, with which they like feasting on mollusks and crustaceans that live in the sand. Unlike sting rays, these guys don’t usually cover themselves in sand, but rather just blend in with their environment with their camouflage colors. As they like chilly (but not cold) waters and rocky reefs, they are found only in the Eastern Pacific, from mid California, USA to Baja and the Sea of Cortez. They are often mistaken for their close relative, the Southern Banded Guitarfish (Zapteryx xyster), which looks very similar, but prefers the warmer waters of the tropics. 

WHEN?

Mostly seen in Cabo in winter and spring – early summer, January to June/July, in water temperatures of 15-23 C/60-73 F.

When the water is at its coldest, in spring, time comes for the breeding season. Male and female Guitarfish go to shallow lagoons and bays of Baja California to find a mate. Females reach maturity when they are 57-77 cm long, and males at 64-70 cm. Guitarfish are Ovoviviparous. Like many other rays and skates, the babies start off inside eggs, inside the mother. While they are in their egg, they feed on the yoke. Once that’s all done, they get nourished by the mother, indirectly absorbing fats, proteins and such through specialized structures. After a short, 4-5 months gestation period, the mother gives birth to 4-11 live pups, 15-18 cm long each. There’s not enough information to know where exactly the nursing grounds are, but neonates have been found in San Ignacio and other lagoons, and pregnant females are often caught in gill nets in other embayments In Baja California.

Diving with Banded Guitar fish ray or shark in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

CONSERVATION

There is a lot we don’t know about the Banded Guitarfish. They are rated as Data Deficient on the IUCN Red List, as there still isn’t any major research or study of them, no monitoring or protection programs are being held. Their main threat is habitat loss due to marine farming and fishing. Yes, the Guitarfish are targeted by artisanal fisheries and are often bycatch of trawlers and gillnets, mainly on the coasts of Baja California.

Want to chance an encounter with a Banded Guitarfish? Come diving with us in Cabo San Lucas and the Corridor during the winter and spring months. It is one of the only places you can find them!

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Donna

Nature and outdoors is what I love most. Animals, plants and terrain. Always seeking adventures, exploration and learning something new. Love being a Ninja Instructor and Expedition Guide and showing people the beauties of the world. 
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Taken while scuba diving during the Dive Ninjas Socorro Shark Research trip