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!


Kona Pelagic

I was happy to see that a pelagic birding trip was scheduled while I was on the Big Island. It is an excellent opportunity to add some wanted lifers that I would not be able to see with feet firmly planted on solid ground.

We boarded a fishing boat in the wee hours at Honokohau Harbor. While Captain Brian was going over safety, I saw a bird that was flying over from the north: white-faced ibis! This is a rare bird in Hawaii and a good omen for the pelagic.

We headed out into the waters west of the Big Island. Looking off to the northwest looked to be another part of the Big Island but in reality was the island of Maui. To our south, fishing boats where headed off in parallel paths to the big fish fishing grounds. Five minutes out of the harbor we saw our first marine mammal, spinner dolphins.

Our first pelagic bird was a brown booby and then we where seeing a smattering of wedge-tailed shearwaters, the most common shearwater in these waters (lifer!). Within the mix of shearwaters were sooty shearwaters, the most common shearwater off of the west coast of California.

Just after 8:00 AM the bird activity started to pick up with the rare (for these waters) Juan Fernandez petrel. Our guide Lance, pointed it out as it crossed our bow heading to the starboard. This was a new bird for me and it was followed by other lifers: Bulwer’s petrel and sooty tern.

Off to the starboard, Lance called out a much desired tern for this trip: white tern (this bird is also known as common fairy-tern and white noddy). The white tern can be easily seen in Honolulu parks, where it nests in trees, laying a single egg right on a flat, horizontal branch.

A little further south and we can upon a Hawaiian petrel, resting on the water! This was later followed by a mottled petrel, both were lifers for me. I was slowly coming to a birding milestone: 1,700 world species seen. If my math was correct, which is always in doubt, I was one bird away from 1,700! I wondered what it would be and if it would even be on this pelagic.

We got great looks at the Hawaiian petrel before it flew off.

I looked up to the bridge where Captain Brian was blasting reggae. I asked Brian, “How’s the view up there?” His response surprised me, “Come on up and have a look!” Now being invited to the bridge simply does not happen on California pelagic trips. Things are just a little more looser or friendlier or both here on the islands. I climbed up and while it was much more pitchy up here (luckily I never get seasick) the view was incredible.

The view from the bridge was outstanding!

Shortly afterward we spotted a tiny bird on the water. It was like an old friend because red phalaropes are frequently seen on Californian pelagic trips.

A short time later I spotted a tropicbird flying towards our position and something looked at little different, the bird was awfully white. I called out, “Red-tailed tropicbird!” Lance got bins on the bird and confirmed it. And just like that, red-tailed tropicbird became my 1,700th species seen on planet Earth! I celebrated with a high-five from Captain Brian!

How did I identify a tropicbird I have never seen before? I did my homework. This pre-trip spread compared the three species and red-tailed really stood how with is’s all-white dorsal side. It also helps that is has a bright red streamer flying behind!
This is a white-tailed tropicbird seen on the pelagic. Note the black on the wings and the white tail.

One of the things I like about pelagic birding trips is that it’s not just about birds. Birders tend to appreciate all nature and so most boats will stop to look at marine mammals. In California I have seen different species of dolphin and porpoise and humpbacked, gray, and blue whales. The only marine mammal we had seen on this Kona pelagic were the spinner dolphins, just outside the harbor. But I didn’t think we would see a shark! In this case a hammerhead!

The menacing dorsal fin of a hammerhead shark.

This pelagic was an amazing experience and I saw many birds (eight of them lifers), some dolphins, and a shark.

I can’t image coming to the islands and not taking in it’s incredible flora and fauna.

Why sit by a swimming pool when you have the Pacific Ocean?

Note: Much thanks to our pelagic birding guide, Lance Tanino. If you are in need of a birding guide on the Big Island, I would highly recommend Lance. He really knows his Hawaiian birds and he knows where to find them! Check out his website at: www.


Hawaii Odds & Ends

Pretrip planning would not be complete without a map.

I was excited to be visiting the Big Island for the first time and one of the best ways to get to know a place is to map it. Drawing imprints information better than any other note taking strategy. Drawing is an active, not a passive, pursuit.

There are two distinct sides to the largest and youngest island in the Hawaiian Island chain. The Kona side (west) and the Hilo side (east). The Kona side is the more sunny and the most popular side. Hilo is on the windward side and experiences more rain (about 130 inches per year) than the leeward or Kona side. I planned to visit both sides. And sketching a map of the islands, helped me put towns and sites into perspective.

I also did a spread that is a visual checklist of some of the sights and experiences I wanted to encounter on the Big Island (featured sketch). Snorkeling at the Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay, Mauna Kea, Birding on Saddle Road, Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, manta rays, ‘Akaka Falls, Hawai’i Volcano National Park, Kona coffee, and a tropical reef fish called a Moorish idol.


Hawaiian Pelagic

When I found out that there would be a pelagic birding trip out of Kona on April 3, I signed up immediately! This was a chance to add lifers that I would not be able to see from the shore.

As a birder living on the coast it is an absolute privilege (tsunamis and global warming excepted) because it brings you in contact with species that spend the majority of life at sea. To encounter most of these species requires boarding a boat and heading off shore.

I’ve been on many pelagic birding trips from the ports of Bodega Bay, Pillar Point, and Monterey Harbor but I was really looking forward to heading out of Honokohau Harbor on a Hawaiian pelagic! This was entirely new pelagic birding territory.

Pelagic birding can be at once transcendent and deeply frustrating because of the amazing and the not so amazing views of birds. Picking a bird out between swells on a rocking substrate is a challenge and that’s if you are on the right side of the boat when the rare petrel or shearwater makes it’s all too brief appearance.

How do you prepare for such a birding challenge? It’s simple: uncap your pen and sketch.

My first sketch was a study of three tropicbirds. I had a chance of see one or all three while from shore (called a sea watch), on the pelagic, or at Volcanoes National Park. I’ve always wanted to see a tropicbird and sketching then helped me to understand them a little more.

In another spread I sketched six other target species that I hoped to pick up on the pelagic trip. And who knows what other unexpected bird might show.