Her name was Koie. She had a wingspan nearly 14 feet across and was doing balletic belly rolls mere inches from my body, occasionally brushing her tail against my chest as she spun round and round and round. Snorkeling at night with Manta Rays is an otherworldly experience. Yet there we were, very much in this world, floating in the dark waters of the Pacific Ocean off the island of Kona, otherwise known as Hawaii’s “Big Island.”
Our evening began aboard Kona Ocean Adventures with Captain Danny, capable and hilarious, at the helm (Insider tip: Danny also makes a mean salsa!). We each donned a wetsuit and set out toward the open sea. Our destination? Manta Heaven! Because where else would you find these angels of the ocean?
History of viewing Manta Rays in Hawaii
The mantas at Manta Heaven and also at Manta Village, another site nearby, have been coming to feed in varying numbers almost every evening for more than 15 years (the record number being 42 on July 4, 2013). Manta Village is the original site where everything started back in the early 70’s, when the Kona Surf Hotel opened.
The resort illuminated the surf zone with bright floodlights, so guests could enjoy the beauty of the wave action at night from the rooms and public viewing decks. Unintentionally, this attracted manta rays to the area because the lights caused planktonic marine life to concentrate in the water near the shoreline. Over time, the mantas “learned” that this was a favorable feeding area. Because of this learned behavior, Hawaii is the only place in the world where you can be an arm’s length away from this remarkable and beautiful creature.
In 1991, Jim Robinson, prior owner of Kona Coast Divers, decided to schedule scuba night dives on Monday nights in front of the resort, because he was aware that mantas were frequenting the area. He also had custom built underwater lights made up to set on the bottom thereby drawing the manta rays away from shore into deeper water where it would be easier to position groups of divers. It was an instant success. Other dive operators then followed suit. Marine life interaction guidelines were established to ensure that the rays were not harmed. At that time, James Wing had the video concession at Kona Coast Divers, so he covered manta dives as well.
In its early stages, the Manta Ray Night Dive was scheduled once a week, yet it was only a matter of time before boat operators would be doing this every night. Over the years, more rays were conditioned to feed at the Kona Surf Hotel at night. However, in May 2000, the Kona Surf Hotel was closed and the lights were turned off. The mantas stopped frequenting the area until the resort re-opened as the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa in October 2004. When the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa planned their re-opening, James Wing teamed up with the resort to re-create a favorable manta venue. A short time later, mantas returned and many new manta rays have been identified and named since. James also created the stone circle, known as the “campfire.” which has been used as a point of reference to settle divers in the sand in the least disruptive way. It is still used to this day.
Cool FACTS about manta rays
- Mantas are one of 11 species in the ray family and were split into two species in 2009, Manta birostris (the giant oceanic manta) and Manta alfredi (the resident reef manta). Giant manta rays are found in the Eastern Pacific and embark on significant ocean crossings, whereas reef manta rays stop at Hawaii and French Polynesia.The mantas we saw in Hawaii are Manta alfredi and have cephalic fins on either side of their head, which are used to funnel plankton-rich water into their mouths while feeding Note: our gal Koie had one of her fins caught in a fishing line and damaged. You can see how her left cephalic fin is mostly missing in my photos.
- Fossil records suggest rays have been around in their modern form for at least 20–25 million years, and true manta rays first appeared in the fossil record approximately 4.8 million years ago. Although they originally evolved from stingrays, manta are harmless and cannot sting.
- Manta rays have distinct spots and blotches on their stomachs, which help researchers when trying to count their numbers. Koie had an easily identifiable ‘W’ on her stomach which you can see in one of my photos.
- Manta have the largest brains of all 32,000 species of fish known to date, and they display intelligent behavior, such as coordinated and cooperative feeding. On our snorkel trip, we were lucky enough to see as many as eight manta rays at one time!
- Manta rays are very vulnerable to overfishing. They produce only one large baby on average every one to three years. They also grow slowly and have a long lifespan, up to 25 years and possibly as long as 50-100 years. Some wild manta rays have been seen over 30-year-period. Sadly, manta (and other ray) populations have dramatically decreased over the past decade as a result of demand for their gill rakers from China, where they are sold as medicinal products.
- In the waters off Kona, the mantas are protected. As of June 5, 2009, the Governor of the State of Hawaii signed Act 092(09) making it illegal to kill or capture manta rays in Hawaii. Penalties included up to a $10,000 fine and forfeiture of any manta rays, commercial marine license, vessel, and fishing equipment. I was also really impressed with how much our captain (and other boats) emphasized that we should not touch the mantas, because they have a protective slime coating on their body. Touching removes this mucus layer and compromises the creatures immune system.
Our MANTA experience
Fascinating facts aside, there is something indescribably magical about being IN the water with these magnificent creatures. But first–full disclosure–I have not snorkeled much in the ocean and I confess the thought of climbing into the water–at night–was a bit unsettling. Of course, on our way over, Captain Danny had regaled us with stories of coming face to face with a Tiger shark (though not while diving with mantas) not far from where we were snorkeling, which made my overly active imagination run wild. As we swam from our boat to “the campfire,” a spot where boats congregate for divers and snorkelers alike, the water was dark, really dark. I did find my mind wandering and my eyes scanning the water for any signs of…well you know, Jaws. But the truth is, sharks are rarely spotted and those that are (usually reef sharks), are shy and stay a safe distance away.
When we reached the campfire, there were a lot of people: some snorkeling on top of the water and others diving below. The tours are really good about keeping divers on the ocean floor and snorkelers on the surface, so the stars of the show–the mantas–can swim freely without much disruption. On the surface, however, sometimes things got a bit crowded and I took a fin to the face once or twice (ahem…that blue fin in my top photo).
But once we saw OUR FIRST MANTA, any concerns about killer sharks or errant snorkel fins, were the last thing on my mind. The way the night dive works is the boats turn on underwater lights (and there are also lights set up on the ocean bottom where the divers congregate), the lights attract the plankton and the plankton attract the mantas (who are now habituated to this set-up) and voila–Manta Ray banquet commences.
On our night out we got very lucky and first one, then three and ultimately upwards of eight mantas were dipping and diving, swirling and turning right below us. And I do mean right below us. I am still somewhat amazed I got any photos or video given my excitement (and my sub-par underwater camera). All around us people were yipping and hollering, elated with the beauty of these incredible animals, and I was alternately holding my breath and hyperventilating from all the excitement.
Koie was, without a doubt, the star of the show and there were moments when she was being “chased” by two males, and occasionally rolling around with one. We were told that we might have been privy to “manta mating train,” when male mantas attempt to woo a female.Koie was magnificent, even with her scars and fin deformity. I was truly mesmerized watching her dance in the moonlit water, whether she was performing a graceful solo adagio or a delightful pas de deux.
Our nighttime manta snorkel excursion was an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Being belly to belly with these gentle giants is awe inspiring. If you ever find yourself on the island of Kona–go do this! Here’s an underwater video I took of Koie during our trip.
If you want to learn more about Manta Rays, take a look at this fabulous website: Manta Rays Hawaii. Super informative and if you plan to visit the mantas of Kona you can learn about each individual ray. Pretty cool, don’t you think?
It’s all about the journey,