When traveling as a couple, sometimes you have to make a few compromises and push past your personal comfort zone to do something your spouse is excited about. Going into the big, deep ocean AT NIGHT with giant kite-looking creatures at least four times my size was one of these situations. Buddy has been dreaming of the Big Island manta ray dive since a friend of ours did it years ago. He thought it looked magical. I thought it sounded terrifying. So, we came to a decision – we’d sign up, but I’d snorkel while he did the more intense scuba diving option.
Since activities tend to book up fast in Hawaii, we signed up weeks before we would actually get to the island. And then I did my best to put it out of my mind. I wouldn’t be sitting on the bottom of the ocean while the enormous sea pancakes swam around me, but I was still nervous about floating above them in the dark.
Our Tour with Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii
Fast forward to the fateful day of our manta ray experience. We had arrived in Kona to a thick cloud of vog (volcanic fog) from the active volcano that had been making the news almost daily in Hawaii – and on the mainland. After a relaxing stay on the laid-back isle of Molokai, the volcanic activity and increased traffic on the Big Island had me a little on edge. But surprisingly, I was getting excited to see the mantas. And Buddy could barely contain himself.
We met the crew of Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii a little before sunset at the dock and headed out to the area where the mantas would be.
Along the way, we were treated to the company of a pod of dolphins who swam alongside the boat. They stayed with us for what felt like at least five minutes, before going off on their own adventure.
Eventually we arrived to the spot and waited as the sky darkened and more and more tour boats arrived. Although the vog made it hard to admire the surrounding landscape, it made for an eerie yet beautiful sunset.
As we waited out the darkness, we were given all of our gear as well as instructions. While I knew the mantas got close, when our guide explained that they would get right up in our faces as they swam in search of plankton, I started to get a little nervous. But, too late now!
Once the sky was dark enough, the scuba divers got all their gear on and jumped in the water. The dive master Jason, instructed them to follow him to the ‘campfire.’ This is what they called the big lights at the bottom of the ocean that divers sit around. Light attracts plankton and plankton attract manta rays.
Snorkeling with Mantas
On the surface, the rest of us got our snorkel gear on and prepared to face the mantas (literally). The crew put the lighted flotation devices in the water for us to hold onto and told us to jump in and swim the couple of feet over to them. I did this with little thought as to what may be below me, which later surprised me to realize. I guess I was more curious than afraid at that point.
As soon as I got there and put my face in the water, I was met with the face of a giant manta. I didn’t even have my snorkel in yet, so I was just holding my breath as this water beast swam inches from my face. Okay, I get it. This is kind of amazing.
Up close and personal
We stretched out flat with our faces in the water (and snorkels in), while the mantas swam loops underneath us. They’d dive down and then circle back as they swam with their bellies and faces toward ours and devoured hundreds of plankton with their wide-open mouths.
All around me were muffled screams and other exclamations coming out of snorkels. It was almost impossible to keep from saying “whoa” as these otherworldly beings came at you – even while underwater.
I could see every detail of these massive, graceful animals. They were close enough to see inside their gills, look into their eyes, and notice their unique markings. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. And watching them dance below us as they turned and flipped was a show of its own.
Although it was dark above us, the water below us was extremely well lit. So, it really wasn’t as scary as I thought. Those 45-minutes with the mantas flew by and I couldn’t wait to hear how Buddy’s experience went.
Check out this short video from my snorkeling experience:
Epic Manta Dive
This is told from Buddy’s point-of-view, since we had different experiences:
When we arrived to the manta spot, our dive master Jason gave us a rundown on manta rays. He explained how to identify their gender, that they can often grow up to 12 feet wide and weigh up to 1,200 lbs. However, there are some larger ones documented. We were also told that all manta rays have unique markings, similar to that of the human fingerprint.
Each one can be identified by the markings and there is a ledger of all identified rays in Kona. And since they don’t visit the other islands, Oahu has its own ledger of their rays as well. Jason also told us where we would be going and what to expect once we were at our location. There were five divers plus our guide and we were all outfitted with a green glow stick to easily identify our group from the others.
Getting to the ‘Campfire’
Upon everyone getting in the water, we turned on our flashlights and were surprised to see a manta swimming beneath us, which then vanished into the darkness. We descended about 30 feet and then swam 50 yards over to the ‘campfire.’ This, plus our dive flashlights, is what ‘tricks’ the plankton into thinking it is daytime, which makes them come out of hiding. This then gives the mantas a buffet of these tasty little morsels.
Once we arrived, we all sat down on the ocean floor in a line facing the campfire, making sure not to plop down on a sea urchin, which seemed to be everywhere. Once we were settled in, we grabbed some rocks and tossed them in our lap to help stabilize ourselves. At the time, we were the only divers at there. We all sat patiently pointing our flashlights upward to attract the plankton. At one point, I could barely see in front of me due to the massive swarm of plankton attracted to my light.
A Breathtaking Manta Experience
After a few minutes of looking around, and seeing nothing but sea urchins, fish and plankton, we finally saw one! A massive manta ray swooped right over the campfire and then vanished. We saw nothing for what felt like forever, and I had it in my head that was all we were seeing, the one manta ray for 10 seconds.
A minute or two later, other divers started showing up, all sitting around the campfire. At one point, I’m sure there were at least 20 or more divers down there. As more showed up, so did more lighting, therefore more plankton. Within a few minutes we saw another manta, then another. I was sitting right in their path over the campfire, in prime seating apparently.
Just to see this massive sea creature swimming straight at my face and then turn as it is a mere inches from me, was something that words can’t even describe. We were instructed that when this would happen to hold our breath and turn our heads. The reason not to exhale was to not spook the manta as it swims right over your face.
I can’t even count the number of times I had to hold my breath while the rays swam over me. I even got slapped in the head a few times by their wings as they swam by.
During a few minute time frame, I was able to count at least six mantas. And I’m sure there were even more! They came in at multiple different angles, and a few even came from behind us, which was slightly terrifying, but magical at the same time.
As our time with the rays came to an end, Jason gathered us up and we all swam back towards the boat. I can only imagine the smile on my face when I came out of the water.
Q&A for Others Planning a Trip
Should you snorkel or dive?: If you are scuba certified and want a more adventurous experience, do the dive. But, if you want a more relaxing experience that takes little effort, the snorkeling is probably for you. Or, take two separate trips to do both if you just really can’t decide.
Are manta rays dangerous? Unlike sting rays, mantas can’t hurt you. The only real risk is one of them bumping into you while they swim around.
Are there sharks?: It is very unlikely for sharks to be in this area due to how many people there are. Everyone on the crew we asked said they had never seen one on a manta trip.
What should I bring on the boat?: They will have snorkel and dive gear, water, soda and snacks. Bring your own towel, Dramamine if you need it and a GoPro or underwater camera with a full battery for epic photos!
Can I see mantas without taking a tour? Yes! You can see them at Ray’s on the Bay Lounge at the Sheraton Kona, as well as all the snorkelers and boats (they have a small public parking lot with no fee). However, they are much further away and you probably won’t see as many. Even if you do the tour, this is a fun point of view and makes you appreciate the experience even more.
Special thanks to Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii for providing us with a discounted rate for this experience. As always, all opinions are our own.