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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 twice my size was one of these situations. Buddy has been dreaming of the Big Island Hawaii manta ray dive off the Kona Coast 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 for a trip with Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii, but I’d do the manta ray night snorkel while he did the more intense manta ray night dive option.

Buddy sitting on the ocean floor in near the Campfire with 2 huge Kona Manta Ray's swimming in front of him
Photo credit: Jason of Alive Underwater (@aliveunderwater on Instagram).

There are multiple tour operators offering these snorkel trips to the manta village, but this one had some of the best reviews. 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.

Kona Manta Ray diving back underwater after swooping near the snorkelers to grab some plankton

Our Big Island Hawaii Manta Ray Dive & Snorkel Tours

Fast forward to the fateful day of our Hawaii 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 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 of Hawaii had me a little on edge. But surprisingly, I was getting excited to see the manta rays at night. And Buddy could barely contain himself.

We met the crew members of Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii a little before sunset at the dock and headed out to the area where the manta rays would be. This is the only place on Earth that I know of where you have such a good chance of getting an up-close encounter with these majestic wild animals. And it is one of the best places to do a night dive for scuba divers!

The Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii boat and crew during our Kona Manta Ray experience

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.

Spinner dolphin swimming next to our boat for a while on our way out to the manta ray location

Eventually, we arrived to the spot where we would dive and snorkel with the Big Island Hawaii manta rays 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 on the dive boat at Keahou Bay, we were given all of our gear as well as instructions. While I knew the manta rays got close, when our guide explained that they would get right up in our faces as they swam in search of microscopic plankton, I started to get a little nervous. But, too late now!

Sun setting through all the VOG in Kona from Ray's on the Bay

Once the sky was dark enough, each certified scuba diver on the boat 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 bright lights at the bottom of the ocean that divers sit around. Light attracts plankton and plankton attracts manta rays.

Snorkeling with Big Island Hawaii Manta Rays in Kona

On the surface, the rest of us got our snorkel gear on and prepared to face the manta rays (literally). The Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii 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.

Numerous boats and tours out in the Manta Ray location in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, a view from Ray's on the Bay

As soon as I got there and put my face in the water, I was met with the face of a giant manta ray. I didn’t even have my snorkel in yet, so I was just holding my breath as this giant water beast swam inches from my face. Okay, I get it. This is kind of amazing.

Two manta rays swimming up from the depths of the dark water towards the snorklers during the tour

Up close and personal with Kona Manta Rays

We stretched out flat with our faces in the water (and snorkels in), while the manta rays swam loops underneath us. These gentle giants of the sea would 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.

Brooke with a huge manta ray swimming close to her face
My selfie game is wobbly, but strong.

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.

Underbelly of a kona manta ray showing the different spotting and coloration

Although it was dark above us, the water below us was extremely well lit. So, it really wasn’t as scary as I thought – even though we were in the open ocean. Those 45-minutes with the manta rays in the Kona water flew by and I couldn’t wait to hear how Buddy’s bucket list experience went.

Video from my experience snorkeling with the manta rays in Kona:

Epic Manta Ray Night Dive

This is told from Buddy’s point-of-view of scuba diving, since we had different experiences:

When we arrived to the manta ray diving spot, our Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii 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.

Manta Ray swimming directly over the campfire in Kona

Each one can be identified by the markings and there is a ledger of all identified manta 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.

Fellow diver on our tour with Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii holding her flashlight with plenty of plankton swimming in the light beam

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 manta rays a buffet of these tasty little morsels.

Manta Ray with its mouth wide open swimming over the campfire directly towards Buddy

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. When 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.

Manta Ray during the manta ray night dive swimming over the campfire

A Breathtaking Manta Ray Diving 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.

Manta Ray swimming towards the campfire and coming from behind the group of divers sitting on the floor
Photo credit: Jason of Alive Underwater (@aliveunderwater on Instagram).

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. I’m sure Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii try to get there early to secure the prime seating.

Buddy holding his breathe and ducking his head as a Manta Ray swims directly over him
Photo credit: Jason of Alive Underwater (@aliveunderwater on Instagram).

Just to see this massive sea creature swimming straight at my face and then turn mere inches from me, was something that words can’t even describe. It is one of the safest large animal encounter you can have, but doesn’t make it less intense.

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 ray as it swims right over your face.

I can’t even count the number of times I had to hold my breath while the groups of manta rays swam over me. I even got slapped in the head a few times by their wings as they swam by.

Kona Manta Ray swimming away with tons of plankton all around

During a few minute time frame, I was able to count at least six different manta rays. 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.

3 Different Manta Ray swimming over and around the campfire during my manta ray night dive

As our time with the Kona manta 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 Planning to Dive or Snorkel with the Kona Manta Rays

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.

Manta Ray with its mouth open grabbing all the plankton attracted by our underwater flashlights

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, however, it is not impossible to see sharks or other marine life other than mantas.

What should I bring on the boat?: They will have snorkel and dive gear, including a wet suit, plus water, soda, and snacks. Bring your confirmation email, a towel, diver certification card, Dramamine if you need it for motion sickness, and a GoPro or underwater camera with a full battery for epic photos! You’ll also want at least a light jacket – it does get chilly on the Hawaiian Islands at night.

Will the manta ray night snorkeling tours go out in all conditions? In the event of inclement weather, if ocean conditions are too rough, they will cancel tours for a full refund if you won’t be able to reschedule for a later date. Of course, no matter the weather safety regulations will be followed!

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 snorkel tour, this is a fun point of view and makes you appreciate the experience even more.

Brooke and Buddy at Ray's on the Bay watching the tour boats come in

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.

Read more about our two-month Hawaii trip here. And if you want to know more about how we made this vacation happen, check out our guide to pet and housesitting!

Amazing Big Island Hawaii Manta Ray Experience: Night Diving vs. Snorkeling