Hawaii: The Big Island – Nighttime Manta Ray Snorkel

When we planned our ten-day trip here, we knew this vacation was to be more about sticking near our rental and relaxing than our usual whirlwind of non-stop sightseeing activity. It was one of the reasons that we reserved a home right on the ocean near a small, snorkeling beach. The goal this time around was to unplug and simply be human beings rather than humans doing.

The one activity I found early on, however, that I knew immediately I wanted to experience was a nighttime opportunity to be in the water with the harmless and huge manta rays that call this area home. After some time spent coaxing and cajoling my reluctant family members into giving this activity a try (I understood their apprehension about getting into the ocean in the dark but was willing to overlook that fear myself), I found a family-run excursion outfit that runs small-group tours to spend time with these gentle, filter feeders. I booked the four of us with Hawaii Island and Ocean Tours in a 10:20 pm time slot, and on December 30th, we drove down the Kona coast to Keauhou Bay to meet our group.

The way it works is you are given a shortie wet suit and snorkel gear and a boat takes you on a short (on this night, 1 minute) boat ride to a shallow spot on the bay (we were in about 40 feet of water) where you meet your guide. The guide, in a full wet suit and fins, is holding on to what is essentially a surfboard with handles. Underneath the surfboard is a panel of lights. The lights draw the plankton in the water, and the plankton, in turn, draw these gentle creatures to come feed on an easy meal right by you. When I say “right by you,” I mean they occasionally brush you as they feed. The guide told us they normally have between one to three manta rays feeding underneath the board. We lucked out, though, as we were told there were ten of them feeding in the area.

Manta rays are usually solitary creatures, but the lure of a plentiful and easy meal brings them together. We hopped off the rubber sides of the boat into the water, swam over to the board and grabbed onto the handles on the side, stuck our faces in the water, and immediately saw mantas swimming up to feed. They feed in giant upward circles under the board. Starting at the sea floor, they swim up, skim their filter-feeding mouths along the bottom side of the lit board, and head back down to repeat the cycle. It was nuts. These rays, out in the open ocean, can grow to 29 feet across. These were about 12 feet across, which was plenty big enough for us. The most important rule of these excursions is you are not allowed to reach out and touch the mantas. Period. They try to avoid touching you, but I was bumped and rubbed against by them a couple times just the same. Manta rays feed for approximately 20 hours a day to consume the calories they need to thrive. It’s fascinating.

We remained in the water for approximately 30 minutes, watching the rays feed non-stop. We had rented a GoPro from the company, so Steve was able to catch some footage of the experience. The video below will shed some light (pun intended) on this experience. The video looks a little surreal because of the type of lights used to draw the plankton, but you will see how close they come and what their feeding process looks like in this environment. The light spots on the video are the plankton.

If you ever find yourself on the Big Island, don’t miss this if you have any experience with swimming and snorkeling. Most of us were a little nervous about getting into the sea after dark, but we needn’t have been. It was amazing and something I would definitely like to experience again.

Life is short, my friends. Don’t miss an opportunity to go out of your comfort zone and learn more about what happens on this amazing rock in space.

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