One night earlier this month, I found myself up way past my bedtime, face down in surprisingly frigid Hawaiian waters, clinging to a lit-up surfboard and waiting for the evening’s guests of honor to show up. Those guests? The majestic manta rays that hang out just offshore of Kailua-Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Night snorkeling with manta rays has become a very popular activity in Kona. The idea is simple – mantas filter feed on plankton, which are drawn to light. So the snorkel and dive companies take their guests out after sunset with large lights to attract the plankton and, hopefully, the manta rays as well. Mantas are wild animals, of course, and sightings aren’t guaranteed, but most companies advertise a pretty high success rate, and I love that you if you do get to see them, you’ll be doing so in a way that doesn’t interfere with their natural behaviors.
I went out with Big Island Divers, one of just a handful of companies that offers a late night snorkel (rather than departing around sunset, the late night tour departs a couple of hours later after the evening tour returns). The late night option appealed to me mostly for personal reasons, but it turned out to be a fortuitous decision, because that day the early tour returned to the harbor not having seen any mantas. Fortunately there are a couple of different manta ray snorkel sites near Kona, and the crew used the disappointing results of the early tour to take our boat in a different (and very successful!) direction.
When we first jumped in the water and set up our lights we didn’t see any mantas, so our snorkel guides instructed us to try to swim as a group toward a different area. Let me tell you, eight people trying to move in the same direction while hanging onto a single surfboard was a bit comical, but thankfully our guides were strong and basically towed us to where we needed to go. Before long, we had spotted our first manta, a quick fly-by visit from a manta known as Jana Ray (mantas have unique markings on their bellies that distinguish them; almost 300 different mantas have been identified in the waters off Kona).
Since Jana didn’t seem inclined to stick around and play with us (sadface), our guides led us around in search of more mantas and pretty soon we had found a whole group of them. We spent the next 40 minutes or so hanging out and watching as a group of mantas played with each other and us, dancing around in the water in a graceful ballet.
As we swam back to our boat, one of our snorkel guides nudged me and told me to look down. One of the mantas had followed us back from the area where we’d been hanging out with them, and was now cruising along under our surfboard just a couple feet below me! What a thrill it was to look down and see one of these incredible creatures so close.
Just as we were getting back onto the boat to go home, yet another manta showed up! It seemed that although they’d been shy initially, once they came out of their shells they didn’t want to say goodbye. Big Island Divers let us have a few more minutes in the water with our visitors, and even offered those of us (including me) who’d already gotten back on the boat the chance to hop back in. I didn’t, since I felt like I was on the verge of hypothermia – and I actually kind of enjoyed watching the mantas from the boat, since they were so near the surface – but I appreciated BID’s flexibility and that they clearly had a goal of maximizing everyone’s time with these incredible animals. Speaking of the cold: definitely don’t decline their offer to rent a wetsuit. I tend to run cold, but even with a wetsuit, my teeth were chattering from basically the moment I got in the water. It was so worth it to swim with these beauties though!
I’ll never forget this incredible night I spent watching the manta ray ballet. And, like most of my best travel experiences, it’s just made me eager to do it again!