Night of the Manta

One of the quintessential Kona experiences is taking a night dip with manta rays (Manta alfredi).

While I was here on the Big Island to see the feathered fauna, I also wanted to experience life below sea level.

I arrived at 6:30 PM at Keauhou Harbor. This trip is kept to a maximum of 12 participants. There are many other companies that go out for night snorkel with manta rays that have larger consists. Twelve seemed like nice numbers of snorkelers.

I was curious about how night snorkeling with wild manta rays started. Keauhou Bay is renowned for experiencing manta rays because you have a higher likelihood of seeing mantras here compared to other locations and it’s a short three minute boat ride out and you’re in the water with mantas. This snorkel sight in known as Manta Ray Village.

It all stared at the Kona Surf Hotel (now the Outrigger Kona Resort) on the southern side of Keauhou Bay. In the 1970’s, the hotel shined bright floodlights into the surf so diners could watch the waves as they ate dinner. These lights attracted plankton. Plankton is the favored food of manta rays and it began to attract mantas to the bay. This became an attraction for tourist who viewed the manta from the restaurant or their rooms.

About a decade later, SCUBA boats led tours to the area for night dives and this location became world famous as a reliable spot to encounter mantras in the wild.

In 2002, the Kona Surf Hotel was closed and the floodlights where shut off and the mantas disappeared. The floodlights were again turned on in 2004 when the hotel reopened as the Sheraton Kona Resort and the mantas and the snorkel and SCUBA tours returned.

The former Kona Surf Hotel and the Sheridan Kona Resort is now the Outrigger Kona Resort. The Manta Ray Village is in the water in front of the hotel.

Our tour, with Hawaii Oceanic, was one of many that was in the bay to get close, really close, to manta rays. We picked up our mask, snorkel, and ankle floats from the back of a van in the harbor parking lot. After a brief briefing, we boarded our boat for the short ride out to Manta Ray Village.

The way they attract mantas is to place a board in the water that is surrounded by handles. LED lights on the bottom of the board shine into the water column which attracted plankton and we know what this attracts!

We entered the water and moved down along the board, holding on to the handles in the “Superman” position, arms and legs out straight and head down in the water searching for mantas. In the LED lights you could see plankton and further down, small fish. We would only be in the water for about 20 to 30 minutes, so I was hoping we didn’t get skunked.

We didn’t have long to wait long, at the edge of the light I spotted a ghostly gray and white manta! Our ray guide shouted out, “Here they come!” Out of my periphery came a manta, inches from my mask. The ray was so close it brushed my arms! Mantas were barrel rolling, passing under the LED lights, upside down, scooping up plankton as it “flew” by.

At one point there were seven mantas below us, barrel-rolling inches from our masks. Our manta guide was calling out their “names”. Each manta can be identified by the makings on their ventral sides. One manta has a group of spots that looked like the greeting, “Hi”. They have names like: “Sugar Ray”, “Hip Hip Hooray”, “Big Bertha”, and “Lefty”

Before we knew it we where back up on the boat and heading back to harbor. What a wonderful and memorable encounter!

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