If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see a single Manta Ray swimming in the ocean, it is truly a once in a lifetime experience. Mantas, stunningly enough, can reach a wingspan of up to 23 feet. Even with their massive size, they are as graceful as a flock of Starlings. And during a trip to Hawaii this past May, I got to witness this first hand. And I can tell you, there is nothing else like it.
My girlfriend Court and I spent 10 days road tripping around the Big Island of Hawaii. We got off the plane, grabbed our bags, hopped in the rental car and and just bounced from town to town exploring along the way. We’d spent nearly everyday snorkeling in the ocean, spotting one brightly colored fish after another. Each day’s adventure better than the last. Which lead us to the last night of our trip before we flew home. Before the trip, we’d purchased a package from Groupon for two with Hang Loose Boat tours for a night time Manta Ray Dive/Snorkel. Personally, I prefer to create my own adventures rather than go through a pre-planned guided service. But thankfully Courtney picked this one, because it was worth every penny and more.
We headed north to the harbor where all the charters left from, right next to the Aiopio Fish Trap we checked out on our first day in Kona. And after waiting for the rest of the crew and passengers, we finally were provided our our wetsuit tops and invited to board the boat. The crew consisted of 3 members, all who looked no older than 21yrs. A captain, and two “tour guides”. On the way out to the site which was just north of the Airport, about 20min boat ride, they gave us some background. They explained how Manta Rays eat for 20+hrs a day to help maintain their size, and that they return to a food source every day as long as it lasts. And their primary food source is planton, who are attacted to light sources. So one day, many years ago, a resort had a spot light pointed in the water at night for night swimming, and thats when they realized a large Manta Ray would visit every night to feed on the plankton that came to the spotlight. So tour groups and charters took this idea and ran with it. And, well, the rest is history.
We got the cove, just as the sun was setting, where we joined up with 6 other boats who were also mooring there. Some were dive boats, others were personal boats, but a majority were snorkeling tour boats. But each boat were using the same technique. The crewmates untied a large, foam platform from the bow of the boat and tossed it into the water. Once floating in the water, the one guy jumped onto it and attached a car battery to the top, illumating the lights below the platform into the water. And one by one, we zipped up our wetsuit tops, spit into our goggles, and hopped into the water.
We were instructed to swim over to the platform and grab onto the bar that surrouned its perimeter. Shoulder to shoulder, we all held on with our legs dangling into the deep, dark blue waters below. Our guides came around to each person and stuck pool noodles underou our feet to make us more boyant and instructued that we must not move if possible. The stiller we stayed, the more likely a Manta Ray would swim up to us to eat the plankton which were now swiming up to the light beams on the bottom of the platform.
And just like that, we saw our first Manta come from the deep. It did not approach like we thought, be we saw it pass by us 15 feet below. The excitement was high, and fear from some of our fellow tourists. But we waited, as still as we could. Courtney to my right, with GoPros in our hands, waiting to catch another glimpse of a Manta Ray. But we wouldn’t have to wait long, because the show was about to begin.
From the pitch black below, an object came out from the depths. Rounded, with white patterns on its body. It was coming straight up, right towards all of us, it then arched backwards, showing it’s flat, white belly, curved fins, and long, pointed tail. It swooped up and got within 6 feet of us. It was beautiful, our first Manta Ray. But it wasn’t over, because for the next 20 minutes we were about to witness something out of this world.
First one Manta came in for the plankton, swimming up to the platfom, performing a backflip, with it’s mouth wide open, skimming the surface just below the platform to ingest as much as it could. Then completing its flip and returning to the deep. Then another came to join it. Two Mantas, swiming together, synconizing their flips to maximize the potential for plankton in the light beams that shot down below. Over and over again, Mantas would come up to the light, swirling around effortlessly through their environment. With each pass, they’d come closer and closer. At some points, their stomachs were only inches from the bottom of the floating platform in the water. Their long fins, which spaned across the entire 5ft wide platform, passed right below our faces. So close, that you could feel the turbulence of water after it passed by.
Our tour guides insisted we do not touch the Manta Rays, and that the oils on our skin could potentially harm the fish’s skin. Whether or not it’s true, I obeyed the requests, and just enjoyed the show. Even though I really wanted to touch one. Especially since we were told the closest relative to a Manta Ray is, contrary to its resemblance to Sting Rays, actually a shark.
Over the course of the night, we saw three different Manta Rays that would somer-sault over and over again through our beams of light. And once the plankton were all consumed for the moment, they’d swim off to one of the other light sources nearby from anothe boat or tour. One by one, they’d check out each boat, then return to ours. The anticipation, wondering if they’d come back or not, built the experience even higher. Surprising us every time they showed back up into our light. And by the end, I began to nice the distinct differences between the three Manta Rays we saw. Not only did each of them differ in size, but also on the coloring. Specifically, the spotting on their stomachs. Each Manta Ray can be identified by the unique pattern of spots on the stomachs. A trait that has become so fastinating that there’s a website that allows you to search for the one you saw and identifiy it.http://www.mprf.net/identification/index.html And if it’s never been recorded before, you get to name it!
I can’t remember the name of ours, but there have been a total of 278 Manta Rays identified in the Kona area. Ours had wingspans from 6-11ft long. And because Manta Ray identification records have only recently been kept, the age of these creatures were unknown. But some records from around the world show that Manta Rays can live to be up to 50 years old. Which is great news for these tour companies. They’ll be able to come to that location, every night, 7 days a week, as long as they bring the lights. Because as long as the lights are there, the Mantas will be sure to make a stop by.
At the end of our tour, we all boarded the boat again in the dark Hawaiian night. Rode back to the harbor, and back to land. I couldn’t believe it was over, and that we had experienced it all. We had only just saw these creatures, and I couldn’t wait to upload the memory cards to relive the experience through all the photos and videos Courtney and I had taken. Simply put, there is nothing I’ve done that even comes close to this experience. It was pure wild joy. So if you’re headed to the Big Island of Hawaii, it is 100% worth booking one of these adventures. You will not regret it.
My name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.