The Big Island of Hawaii is a well-known diving destination thanks to its clear and calm waters on the Kona side, and attracts thousands of divers every year. One of the unique attraction of the island is night diving with manta rays, a once-in-a-life-time experience and a must-do for any diver visiting the island.
As Advanced Padi Open Water certified divers, we have a couple of night dives under our belt (two to be exact, and no pun indeed re. our diving weight belt), and were qualified to do the night dive to see the Manta Rays. I am a nervous diver and I was pleased to see that we were a small group that night, basically composed of Bruno and myself, two other divers, and the divemaster. One of the two other divers was a divemaster herself, the second diver was recently certified, so they buddied together. We dove in the morning with our divemaster so he knew about my nervousness, and managed the group accordingly, giving us (me!) time to get into the water.
The entrance was a shore dive, right by the Sheraton Kona Resort hotel. A relatively easy entrance, we just needed to time with the waves to jump at the highest point. Bruno and I did our pre-dive buddy review, checked out our lamps, took our fins and off we jumped. It took me the usual few seconds to calm down and relax, and once I was good to go and with fins on, the whole group started descending. We did not go deep, just about 20-30 feet down, swimming above the corals for about 10 minutes. The current was not too strong but you could feel some headway.
As we reached our destination, our divemaster told us to stay put as he was setting up the different lamps for the evening. Light during the night will attract plankton, which in turns will attract the manta rays. We were trying to hold to the corals. I know, we are not supposed to. Our divemaster told us to do so at that location as the coral was already in bad shape due to constant boat mooring and because of the powerful surge in the area that would roll us like a dishwasher. We were limiting our hand-anchoring by just grabbing the corals with two fingers, but boy, the surge was quite indeed powerful and we were rolling left and right. Bruno made an unfriendly encounter with a sea urchin and was trying to find a way to stabilize without hitting more urchins around.
Shortly after the lights were set, a shape darker than the dark sea was sliding towards up, unwavering in our direction. Our first sighting of a Manta Ray! Big, immense, HUGE! I was not expecting manta rays to be that big and it was quite impressive to see. I was trying to calm down my nervousness, slowing down my elaborated breathing but it took me a few seconds to do so.
Soon a second, and a third manta ray came in, joining the graceful ballet the gentle monsters were performing in front of us. This was rather majestic as they were coming very close to us, so close we could feel the soft touch of their wings on our arms or heads as they were swerving and turning around us. The first time I felt the push was startling but I then was looking forward for the encounter. The three mantas were flying around, like an orchestrated show, white bellies and black wings swirling around under a silent tune.
Manta rays eat enormous volume of zooplankton (shrimps, planktonic crabs). Consuming up to 13% of their body per week, the mantas filter the food by the tissue between their gills. You could see them coming back over and over to the plankton over the lights, speeding up as they were nearing the feast.
As I turned my head after following one of the mantas, I came face to face – literally – with a wide open mouth, big enough to swallow my head and actually my whole body in one second. That had me hold my breath for a second! Was I going to be Ms Manta dinner tonight? But no, plankton is what they like and want, not neoprene-clad bubble-creating mask-protected weird creatures. Lucky me!
Half-way through our dive, the queen (or king – I am still fuzzy on the manta’s gender…) came over and made the other mantas look like dwarfs. Comparing the size of the other mantas to the humans there, and that specific manta over the others, I am guessing her wing span was about 15-18 feet (5-6 meters) long.
Some snorkelers were free-diving from the surface to see the mantas but could not stay long for obvious reasons. I was really glad we were diving, so we could enjoy these creatures from up close and stay by them as long as we did. Totally worth it, a unique experience!
Time came for us to return to the shore. After packing the lights back, our divemaster led us back over the corals back to the entrance point. As we swam back, we came across a round red-spotted green crab – something I had never seen before. We also saw a white and black conger from far, speeding away as we were nearing her.
Exiting the spot was a bit tricky, again trying to match our timing with the surge. Taking off my fins, I struggled to keep my balance and exited rather messily. As usual, the tank felt like weighting a ton, and I was glad for our divemaster help in going out. Slowly, watching our steps over the slippery rocks, we made it out and back to our cars.
What a night dive it had been! I surely hadn’t expected to see them (wildlife always has a hard time keeping up with appointment…) and I would never had thought to see them that close! This is for sure a must-do while on the Big Island. Seeing them inches of your face and elegantly avoiding you at the last minute is unbelievable. Snorkelers will also enjoy it, but diving is the way to go – if you can, you won’t regret it.
Bottom time: 1 hour. Time with Mantas: 40 minutes
Gear: full wetsuit, booties
Depth: 30 feet (10 meters)
Water temperature: 75 Fahrenheit (25 Celcius)
Season: Thanksgiving weekend / November