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Snorkeling Kealakekua Bay

Probably one of the more touristy things I did on the Big Island was taking the Fair Winds II to the amazing snorkel site at Kealakekua Bay and the Captain Cook Memorial.

This marine sanctuary is reported to be the best snorkeling site in the entire state. CNN Travel, Smithsonian Magazine, and Travel and Leisure all include the Big Island on their lists of the top snorkel sites in the world and they all specifically mention Kealakekua Bay because of its mix of technicolor coral, large numbers of fish, turtles, and dolphins and it’s deep history.

It is here in January of 1778 that British Explorer James Cook, “discovered” Hawaii. He named his new discovery, the Sandwich Islands, to honor his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. At first, Cook and his crew were welcomed by the native people but that soon soured. On a later visit on February 14, 1779, Cook and his crew were killed by the Hawaiians.

Before I left the mainland for the Big Island, I did a little homework by doing a spread about fish I wanted to see at Kealakekua Bay, by sketching the fish beforehand. Identifying them in the water would be a little easier. I titled the sketch, ” A School of Hawai’i Reef Fish”. I ended up seeing seven out of the twelve fish that I illustrated.

The Fair Winds II is a double-decker catamaran that can handle one hundred people. We were a few short of triple digits as we headed out of Keauhou Harbor, the same harbor I set off from to see manta rays.

The boat ride south was about 45 minutes and Captain Dante, kept his eyes open for marine mammals such as spinner dolphins and humpback whale. Off to our starboard side we saw two humpback whales showing off their flukes as they dove down. After a pause of the cetacean encounter, Cap. Dante throttled up and we headed off to snorkeling paradise.

While we where nearing the bay, I spotted one of the birds on my wishlist flying over the waters to the southwest: a white-tailed tropicbird. This bird was likely flying back to it’s nest site, on the high cliffs that surrounded Kealakekua Bay. While we where in the bay, I spotted many more of these tropicbirds circling above the cliffs.

On the north side of the Kealakekua Bay, near where Cook was killed, there is a 27 foot high obelisk erected to Cook’s memory. The Fair Winds II pulled up just offshore of the monument for the snorkelers to grab a few shots. We then moved just to the south to our mooring.

As I was slathering on another layer of reef-safe sunscreen, I looked up at the cliffs, trying to find more tropicbirds, I spotted a dark bird with a forked tail and long, pointed wings. This was the classic silhouette of a frigatebird, in this case, a great frigatebird. Lifer!!

Now it was time to get wet and see fish. The Fair Winds II has many ways to enter the water: two slides on the bow, a high dive on the second story amidship, or steps off the stern. There was a jam at the stern steps as snorkelers fussed with their fins that I took the fourth option of egress: a big step off the side.

Once the bubbles cleared and I adjusted my mask, the colorful world of Kealakekua Bay came to life. Yellow tangs, Hawaiian sergents, black triggerfish, peacock groupers, parrotfish, and orangespine unicornfish. This was like visiting another planet!

Snorkeling and SCUBA diving (I’ve been certified since 2000) feels like flying. Flying above the hills and mountains of the coral reef. The fish are other “birds”. You cross over one “mountain range” and drop into a sandy valley that has it’s own collection of fish.

I swam toward the shoreline and I came upon a pair of exquisite Moorish idols. I had only seen these fish in the aquarium, and now here they were in their true and wild environment.

I passed over a shallow reef, careful not to kick so I wouldn’t damage the reef on impale myself on a sea urchin. I floated down into the next “valley” of sand and I saw a most desired fish. This was the official State fish of Hawaii and I had memorized it in second grade. It was a humuhumnukunukuapua’a or “fish that grunts like a pig”. This is Rhinecanthus rectangulus or the wedge tail triggerfish. I dove down to get an eye to eye view of the humuhumnukunukuapua’a, the fish was clearly on it’s patch of sand as it didn’t swim far from it’s sandy stronghold. Lifer!!

I had been somehow waiting for this moment since 2nd grade! And I loved it!

Sketching notes: I sketched the cliffs above bay in between snorkels from the top deck of the Fair Winds II. I later added the names of the fish I encountered in the bay on the cliff face.

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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!