Manta Ray Night Snorkel Tour
Kona Side Big Island
There are a couple of places on the Kona coast where you can experience the unique activity of snorkeling at night with one of the largest animals in the ocean – manta rays! I have snorkeled in many amazing places in Hawaii and have even seen a few manta rays gliding past me below on the reef. However, nothing had prepared me for the feeding frenzy of a night tour in Keauhou Bay!
Diving with manta rays at Keauhou Bay started decades ago. At the edge of the bay sits the Outrigger Hotel and for many years lights from this hotel would shine onto the ocean surface offering beautiful views from the terraces above. Below the waves, plankton were attracted to the light and manta rays were attracted to the plankton. Starting in the 1980’s several local dive operators began taking visitors into the bay at night to see the rays. By 1993 the dive operators came together to create dive and snorkeling guidelines that are still in use today.
Getting In The Water With Manta Rays
We arrived at the boat ramp at 6:30 PM, about a half hour after sunset. The ocean raft arrived and was put into the water and about 12 of us climbed aboard. This was a smaller boat tour but we could see larger boats already out on the water. After motoring a few minutes into the bay we stopped and the first mate set anchor.
The captain gave us a briefing about the tour guidelines (see below) and explained how to use floating noodles to keep our legs horizontal in the water. Snorkel gear and life jackets were passed out and what looked like surf boards were slipped into the water. There were hand holds down both sides of the boards and we all got in the water and latched on.
The first mate had fins on (we did not) and pulled the board (and us) out over the reef. She helped all of us get noodles under our feet so we were floating horizontal. This made for very comfortable floating without having to swim to try and keep horizontal. She turned on the blue colored lights underneath the board and the plankton arrived. With the lights being a foot or so away the water looked like a heavy snowstorm and I could barely see the people on the other side of the board.
Then we saw two smallish manta rays (10’ or so wingspan) come up from below and somersault a few feet below our board. This was thrilling and you could hear muffled “ahhs” from the fellow snorkelers. However they were soon joined by a couple more larger ones who somersaulted even closer to us. I was photographing and videoing with my Gopro trying to keep up with four mantas when a huge adult showed up! This manta was a pro who would glide upside down just inches from the bottom of the board, which meant it’s wings slid just inches below our faces and bodies! It was incredible! I had to switch my Gopro to super wide because they were so close.
Now all five mantas were somersaulting all around us from both directions and looked like they were barely missing each other. I’d follow one across the bottom of the board and get surprised by another one blocking the view. It was fun and challenging keeping track of them all!
Nearby another boat and with their lights and snorkelers could be seen underwater with several manta somersaulting underneath while a few others headed our way. This 45 minute snorkel felt like about 20 minutes, however the water did start to feel a bit cold by the time our guide started pulling the board back to the boat. Back on board we were given some delicious hot tea and the crew said there were not this many manta rays on the reef last night, so we were lucky. I certainly felt that way.
We were back on the dock in just a few minutes with many memories and some wonderful photos and footage. The captain and crew were great and I enjoyed the small group feel. I would love to go back and do it again!
Even though they are one of the largest animals in the ocean, they actually feed on some of the smallest. Manta rays filter plankton suspended in columns of water above the reef into their wide open mouth. The cephalic fins on the sides of their mouth help funnel water and plankton into their body, an animal world technique called ram-jet filter feeding. When the plankton is thick, manta rays will somersault repeatedly in the same area.
Manta rays give live birth to a fully developed pup that hatches from an egg inside her body. Gestation lasts approximately one year and the pups are born with a wingspan of around 3 to 6 feet depending on the species. During mating the male will hold one of the females wingtips in his mouth. Mating happens quickly as the mantas sink rapidly when coupled.
Manta rays are related to sharks, both of which owe their graceful yet powerful flexibility to their cartilaginous skeleton. Sharks and rays are grouped in a subclass of cartilaginous fishes called Elasmobranchii. Although sharks have sharp teeth and many ray species have barbs and stingers in their tail, Manta rays have neither. Mantas do have a sandpaper-like band of very small teeth along their lower jaw only.