The Big Island of Hawaii is famous for many things but perhaps one of the most popular and unique attractions is the manta ray night dive. Don’t worry if you’re not a certified diver – snorkelers can still experience the thrill of being close to these majestic creatures.
Why are manta rays so special?
The manta rays inhabiting the Kona Coast are reef manta rays, one of the largest species of manta rays in the world. These amazing creatures can grow in size to anywhere between 12 and 18 feet. Life expectancy can be anywhere up to 50 years.
Manta rays are filter feeders – they survive on plankton. By gliding through the ocean with their giant mouths open they filter the plankton out of the water. The reef manta rays are so-called because they prefer to stay close to the coast of the Hawaiian islands.
Did you know? Manta rays derive their name from the Portuguese and Spanish word for ‘mantle’ which is a blanket-shaped trap historically used to catch this type of fish.
Why night dive with the mantas?
A night dive with mantas is essential in order to see these great creatures up close. Their prey, the plankton, are light sensitive and are drawn to the glow of dive flashlights – providing a perfect meal for the manta rays.
This creates the perfect environment for a close encounter with the mantas. If you choose to scuba you will be weighted so that you can sit comfortably on the sea floor around a collection of dive lights, a kind of ‘campfire’, while the mantas circle above – almost like a scene out of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’.
If you choose to snorkel you’ll have a very similar experience at approximately 30 feet above. Snorkelers gather around a floating raft with bright lights that also attract the mantas. The dive itself lasts for approximately 45-60 minutes. The mantas will swim very close, but don’t worry they’re too focused on enjoying their meal to worry about you!
Fun fact: Don’t be afraid! The manta rays are large but harmless. They do not have stingers, barbs or teeth.
Where are the mantas?
There are two principal dive sites. The main dive site is near the Kona Airport runway, about a 25-30 minute boat trip from Honokohau Harbor. In this location there can be as many as two dozen mantas congregating during a night dive. The other, less well-known site is near the Sheraton Hotel in Keauhou Bay.
Several companies run charters out to these dive sites – we recommend Big Island Divers https://bigislanddivers.com/
Sustainable manta ray snorkeling
If you prefer a less crowded snorkel experience then Manta Ray Advocates might be for you. They adhere to strict guidelines to make sure the manta rays don’t get disturbed by your presence. They approach the mantas from the beach, an eco-friendly alternative to sightseeing boats. Experience the thrill of the manta rays in a safe, private setting, and in a small group (each group is limited to 6).
Did you know? In Hawaii the manta rays are a protected species – it is illegal to hunt or fish them. Hawaiian mythology depicts the manta as catching the setting sun in their mouths before swimming to the other side of the island to deliver the sunrise. Find out more about manta ray preservation and protection from Manta Ray Advocates https://mantarayadvocates.com
What else might I see when diving on the Kona Coast?
While it’s almost guaranteed* that you’ll see reef mantas during the night dive, there’s plenty to see during the day too. If you’re lucky you might see the pelagic or open ocean manta. I was lucky enough to spot one (see above), an individual that had never been photographed before.
*Big Island Divers offer either a 50% discount on a seat for another manta charter, or a 100% discount on standby availability seats for another one-tank manta charter, if no mantas are seen during a dive.
Did you know? Mantas, like humpbacks, have individual markings. These markings are catalogued by marine biologists. Let me know if you see the manta I photographed – it’s officially named ‘Chill Ray’.
Whether scuba or snorkeling you’ll see plenty of yellow tang (a surgeon fish).
Almost as equally prevalent is the raccoon butterfly fish.
Don’t forget the turtle! An encounter with a sea turtle is an unforgettable experience.
When scuba diving at the Kona Airport dive site you may encounter Hawaiian garden eels. These eels rise out of the sand to feed but keep part of their body in their burrow in order to instantly pop back down when threatened.
There is also plenty of cave diving on the Kona Coast – some near the manta dive sites. Here you’re likely to see fish that feed at night like the menpachi, see below.
You may also see soft coral on cave ceilings and walls.
If you’re lucky you might even see a ‘ruby’ among the coral – a flame angelfish.
Count yourself extremely lucky if you spot our endangered monk seal. Rarely seen anymore, but it’s still possible.
Don’t forget to book your dive trip early – the manta ray dives and snorkel tours can book up fast.
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