In my travels I have swam with Dolphins in Zanzibar and Sea Lions in Galapagos. But Manta Rays? Never. So I said “Sign me up!”.
Apparently about 30 years ago the Kona Surf Hotel (now the Kona Sheraton) began lighting the patio area with lights shining into the water in front of the hotel. Unbeknownst to them, this created a feeding area for the Manta Rays with the lights reflecting the plankton and attracting the Rays. For many years it was a closely guarded secret of scuba divers. But today, numerous tour operators are licensed to bring guests out to experience the Rays.
There are about 150 Manta Rays in the waters off of the Big Island and they feed in two primary areas. To my surprise each Ray is uniquely marked, similar to an Orca whale, so they are named and numbered and tracked locally by an organization called the Manta Ray Advocates. They have a really neat website with lots of photos and videos. Here is one of their photos, since I did not have an underwater camera. It clearly shows the majesty of these graceful giants and this is indeed how close we were – in fact we were even much closer.
Our evening began with a brief introduction and guidelines before we put on our wetsuits, fins and masks and snorkels. We sailed with Fair Wind Tours onboard the Hula Kai with Captain Kirk (yes his real name) and a wonderful, helpful crew. After positioning the boat the crew placed the lighted rafting floats in the water. The lights point down into the water and attract the Rays. We hung on to the floats with our faces in the water looking down and waiting.
We were in the water not quite ten minutes and despite my wetsuit I was getting chilled – and getting worried the Rays might not come. And then it happened. Oh my goodness. There was the first one, gliding – no, more accurately flying, through the water in a beautiful ballet. It’s difficult to describe what happened next, but for the next 30-40 minutes we watched up to three at a time float straight up from the bottom and skim the surface of our floats, mouth wide open. I truly wish I could have photographed this – but frankly I was giggling so much its a wonder I didn’t drown. An unbelievable sight.
The Rays can see, but not very well, and see the light but are not afraid of the humans. Their only natural predator is sharks, but the Rays know to stay within three miles of the coast and usually are not hunted by the sharks. Most of the Rays we saw last night were females. The stay together and feed. Female Rays give birth to one “pup” once a year.
Of the 150 or so Rays here off the coast of Kona the largest known is “Big Bertha” who has a 14 foot wingspan. Last night the largest one we saw was about 10 feet across. Plenty big. But oh so graceful.
I highly recommend this experience if you are on The Big Island. I will never forget it.