Manta Ray Snorkel on the Big Island

Manta Ray Snorkel

At the western most point of the Big Island of Hawaii just north of Kona, the warm and cool Pacific currents collide and provide a perfect habitat for plankton, which are the favorite food of gentle manta rays. Every night just after sunset, the mantas convene on that spot and feed in a dazzling display of acrobatic barrel rolls. The mantas feed erratically so no one knows just how many will show up on any particular night. Regardless, there are always some there so it is never disappointing.

The evening was perfectly clear and after a relaxing boat ride and a dazzling sunset, we were anxious to get into the water as we approached the dive site. We weren’t the first to arrive as we could see the tell-tale glow of dive lights coming up from the depths. Its well known that plankton are attracted to light, so our captain wisely waited for the divers from another boat to get into the water and set their lights on the bottom to create a luminous column to attract the mantas. By the time we swam over, there were at least 10 mantas circling the lights and eating their fill. They are truly enormous animals, easily having wing spans of 12 to 18 feet. They swim in perfect arcs and scoop up massive mouthfuls of plankton in each gulp. They have no fear of people as they have come to recognize that the lights attract the plankton, so they have developed a sort of symbiotic relationship.

Manta Ray Snorkeling in Kona Hawaii

Divers and snorkelers are admonished not to touch the mantas so as to preserve the thin film that protects their bodies from infection. In return, the mantas often swim within inches of people to get as close to their powerful lights as possible. Since the divers were set up deep, they were having all the fun getting up close and personal with the gentle giants and our guide wanted us to have the same opportunity so we pulled away from the group over to shallower water. Our lights were bright in the shallows, and it wasn’t but a few minutes before the first manta swam over to take a closer look at us. And then another, and another, and finally we were treated to the barrel roll that we all so wanted to see. The manta swam up from the bottom, mouth agape, straight towards us. Had we not known they were plankton eaters, our lives might have flashed before our eyes at the sight of such a huge mouth coming straight for us. But at the last minute, the manta turned his belly to the surface and circled just beneath us. We all felt the rush of water from its massive body!

Kona Manta Ray Snorkel

As if that weren’t enough, there was a party going on next to our boat so we swam over to join another group. 6 mantas were right on the surface swimming all around eating plankton and treating everyone to the best show on the island. Over and over they surfaced and came so close to everyone that we felt them brush against us. At some points, they were bumping into each other to scoop the plankton from the water, collecting en masse beneath our lights. Even spectators who never left the boat could see them clearly.

Manta Ray Snorkel Big Island Hawaii
The hours passed like seconds, and too soon it was time to get back on the boat but the mantas weren’t ready for us to leave. They stayed around until the last person was on the boat and even then, they only went back to the depths when the last light was turned off. Being up close and personal to such immense yet docile animals is truly awe inspiring. Our guides told us it was one of the best nights they had seen in a long time and they were genuinely excited at the show they witnessed too. I remember overhearing more than one of them saying, “I love my job!”

I agree. I love their job, too!

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