Have a close encounter of the marine kind on a nighttime manta ray snorkel. Rated “one of the top 10 things to do in your lifetime” by the Travel Channel, the fascinating experience is something you will play out in your mind again and again, like watching a favorite video.
Manta ray encounters are offered on the leeward side of Hawaii Island—principally along the Kona Coast. Scientists aren’t sure why mantas are attracted to West Hawaii, but the area has a population of over 130 manta rays that never leave these coastal waters. They are most frequently observed at “Manta Village” in Keauhou Bay, “Manta Heaven” near Kona International Airport, and an area near the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Kohala Coast. Their range is approximately 90 square miles: about 30 miles up and down the leeward side of the island and up to three miles offshore.
Worldwide, there are three species of manta rays, two live in Kona waters and coastal Manta alfredi are primarily seen. The harmless creatures are related to sharks and have flattened, diamond-shaped bodies that are primarily gray and black on the top (dorsal side) and mostly white underneath, with patches of black pigmentation. The black spot patterns help identify individuals. Unlike some rays, mantas don’t have a venomous tail spine or barbs. Mantas give birth to live young measuring about three feet wide, called pups. Adults in Hawaiian waters have been recorded to have up to a 25-foot wingspan—females are the largest. The mantas propel themselves through the water by beating their “wing-like” pectoral fins.
Nicknamed “Devil Rays” because their frontal cephalic horns resemble a devil-like profile, mantas are filter feeds and trap food using gill rakers. The captivating creatures feed on tiny plankton like copepods, crab larvae, and fish eggs. The horns help funnel plankton into the rays’ wide mouth. Since plankton is attracted to light, manta adventure outfitters shine banks of bright lights underwater. The lit area soon fills with minute swimming ocean creatures and the mantas come to feed and the show is on!
This writer’s manta snorkel with Fair Wind Cruises began before dusk with a short boat trip to waters just off the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. Participants are outfitted in warm wet suits and snorkel gear. At “Manta Village,” we were each given a buoyant Styrofoam “noodle” before descending down a swim ladder into the ocean. We kicked just a few yards to a floating platform made of PVC pipes. Lights had been placed along the platform and on the ocean floor 35 feet below. We put the noodles under our ankles, and stretched out parallel to the ocean bottom, looking downward. (We were instructed not to let our feet sink as we don’t want to touch the mantas.)
...the mantas approach closer and closer while performing great barrel rolls as they feast on tiny marine life.
Looking below, I immediately see mantas! They are already swimming in large circles with gaping mouths to take in plankton. Once we are all in place, stretched out motionless across the top, the mantas approach closer and closer while performing great barrel rolls as they feast on tiny marine life. These gentle giants seem unfazed by our overhead presence and soon they amazingly pass within inches of us. We watch mesmerized as a dozen different mantas swoop and swirl again and again. With a skeleton made of cartilage, mantas are very flexible and graceful, like ballerinas of the deep. Mantas can see, hear, smell, touch and taste, plus they have electro reception. Though they zoomed within inches of me, they never once actually touched me.
The Fair Wind’s manta ray snorkel is open to about 26 passengers (age 7 and up) and routinely sells out. No prior snorkel experience is necessary since instruction is provided. But passengers not wanting to get wet can still see the manta show from the boat’s top deck. Hot chocolate and soup are offered on the ride back to shore.
The advantage of this experience is you don’t need to be a skilled diver—though manta ray dives for scuba enthusiasts are also available from outfitters—and snorkel experience is not required as easy instruction is provided. It is also a passive interactive experience with marine life because passengers are told not to touch the mantas or alter their behavior.
Though underwater cameras are permitted, they can be a distraction. I noticed those who had them had difficulty taking photos while hanging on to the bobbing platform. Instead, videos of your dive are available for purchase, which I did and highly recommend.
If you want to get up close and personal with marine life in an environmentally friendly way, a manta ray snorkel is the way to do it!