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Wayback Lowcountry: Devil fish

These monstrous creatures of the deep once towed boaters on wild rides.

Story + Artwork by Michele Roldán-Shaw

It has a bat-like face, strange horns and a ghostly white underbelly. Its enormous wingspan is the stuff of legend and allows it to leap high out of the water before descending with a frightful crash. The rarity of sightings only adds to its mystique. This is Mobula mobular — the so-called devil fish — a species of giant ray that officially reaches 16-20 feet across the back, but colloquially gains even more epic proportions. Its seasonal visits to local waters have resulted in some very strange tales. 

In his 1846 book Carolina Sports by Land and Water, Beaufort planter William Elliott preserved many accounts of what he called “the mightiest, strangest, most formidable” of all fish. An avid sportsman, Elliott observed that devil fish frequented the Carolina coast during summer months, so a favorite pastime of his involved going out in a small boat to harpoon the powerful fish and get taken for a wild ride. A full third of his book is given to telling grand tales, always with himself as the hero, of these exploits that often took hours and never ended well for the fish — in spite of its immense strength and fight, it would ultimately tire and float to the surface to be brutally speared to death. 

Over a century later, another famous Beaufort author and outdoorsman would reference the devil fish. J.E. McTeer, in his 1972 book Adventures in the Woods and Waters of the Low Country, spins the yarn of a friend who was fishing in the Broad River. He wanted to sail to a place called Bay Point Rocks, but there wasn’t enough wind and he didn’t feel like rowing that far, so he wished aloud “Lord, I’d sure like to be on Bay Point Rocks.”
Suddenly his boat jerked forward and began slicing the water with alarming speed — a devil fish had gotten ensnared in his anchor line and was towing him straight toward Bay Point Rocks! Although too terrified to move, the man could see massive wings threading the water until they arrived at his wished-for destination, whereupon the fish turned the anchor loose and was gone.

A very tall tale indeed. But contemporary accounts, if not as whimsical, are equally impressive. One Bluffton kayaker recalls nearly having heart failure when something the size of a garage door came blasting out of the May River to land with a colossal splash just a few yards away. Long-time shrimpers speak of having their nets destroyed when devil fish with 15-20 foot wingspans get entangled in their nets. Most extraordinary of all is the story of Larry Toomer, respected owner of the Bluffton Oyster Company, who recounts that in 1990 he was shrimping off the north end of Hilton Head when a monstrous ray got fouled up in his net. It was a 60-foot net, and the ray was almost as big, putting Toomer’s estimate of the creature at 50-foot across. When they finally got it out, it hit the propeller and stopped the engine, which evidently is hard to do. 

Still not a believer? Google “5,000-pound devilfish” to see a photograph of a similar specimen harvested by accident off the coast of New Jersey. The fish got caught in an anchor line and took some boaters on a harrowing 3-hour trip before being shot 22 times by the Coast Guard with a high-powered rifle, then hauled to shore where it gave birth to an 18-inch live baby. So many people flocked to see its carcass that the boat’s captain started charging ten cents a head, and within a few days had raised $3,000 for the local fire department. The historic photograph evidently shows a taxidermy version of the fish, which the captain planned to donate to a natural history museum, but records don’t show where it is today. 

Do giant devil fish still haunt these waters? Do they reach the wingspans and tow-capacities claimed? Get out and see for yourself! But not if you have small children or a heart condition.