With clear and warm water all year round teaming with abundant marine life, it’s no wonder that the Big Island of Hawaii is a favorite scuba destination for thousands of divers each year. For one of the key attractions, Manta Ray dive, Kona is the place to go.
Night diving with manta rays is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a must-do for any diver visiting the island.
Manta Ray Dive: Kona Must-Do
The gentle giants populate the calm coast along Kailua-Kona on the West coast of Big Island. The lee side has mostly sunny and dry weather, with little currents and sheltered dive sites, which makes for fantastic dive experiences for all dive levels.
For an incredible manta ray night dive, big island Kailua-Kona by the Sheraton Kona Resort Hotel is the place to go. The resort has a small deck and a rocky entrance with some surf. After your pre-dive buddy review and checking that your lamps work, make sure to time your shore dive entry and exit to coincide with the waves to avoid being thrown around.
The actual manta ray feeding ground is about 10 minutes into the dive from the shore, swimming over the shallow reefs at around 20-30 feet ( 6-10 meters). The current is usually not too strong, but you might feel some headway.
Kona Manta Ray Night Dive
The thrill of diving with manta rays is accentuated by the excitation of the night dive. Picture yourself as you enter the black water, ready to meet the giant mantas! Gently resting and waiting on the – unfortunately – dead coral, the underwater dive lamps light up the dark environment. Slowly plankton invades the area, drawn by the light. All the sudden, massive white wings dance their way towards the light slowly too. The manta rays have arrived!
As they swim around feed off the plankton, they swirl around you. A tip of wing flaps gently over your shoulder. A full open mouth headed to your head as you would be the next meal. For the next 40 minutes, feel the thrill of the Manta Ray Night Dive, Kona, and why this is a one of the must-do Big Island of Hawaii things to do.
And indeed a big island Hawaii manta night dive is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
We were so glad to catch these giant manta rays on our GoPro. Underwater photography, especially at night, can be tricky.
Best Scuba Diving, Big Island Hawaii-Style
As Advanced PADI Open Water certified divers, we had 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 know that we were a small group that night, primarily composed of Bruno and myself, two other divers, and our divemaster.
One of the two other divers was a divemaster herself, the second diver was recently certified, so they buddied together. Bruno and I dove in the morning with the same divemaster, so he knew about my nervousness, and managed the group accordingly, giving us (me!) time to get into the water.
Hawaii Big Island: Manta Ray Night Dive Experience
As we reached our destination, our divemaster signaled us to stay put as he was setting up the different dive lamps. Light during the night will attract plankton, which in turns draws the manta rays. We were trying to hold onto 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 regular boat mooring and because of the powerful surge in the area that might roll us like a dishwasher. We were limiting our hand-anchoring by just grabbing the corals with two fingers, but boy, the surge was indeed powerful. Soon, 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.
Shortly after the lights were set, a shade 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.
Manta Tango Dance
Soon a second, and a third manta ray came in, joining the graceful ballet the gentle monsters were performing in front of us. Their presence was somewhat 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 to 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 an enormous volume of zooplankton (shrimps, planktonic crabs). The mantas consume up to 13% of their body per week, filtering 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.
Close Manta Encounter
As I turned my head after following one of the mantas, I came face to face – literally – with a full open mouth, big enough to swallow my head and 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 mantas to the humans there, and that specific manta over the others, I am guessing her wingspan 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 delighted we were diving, so we could enjoy these creatures from up close and stay with them as long as we did. Absolutely worth it, a unique experience!
Marine Life At Night
The 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 lovely round-shaped 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 weighing 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 admittedly hadn’t expected to see them (wildlife always has a hard time keeping up with appointment…), and I would never have thought to see them that close! Diving with manta rays 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 Kona scuba diving is the way to go – if you can, you won’t regret it.
Best time to Dive Kona in Big Island of Hawaii
Diving is possible throughout the year in Hawaii. However, the seasons impact the water conditions and might affect your travel plans.
- Winter / Peak Season: the winter months of December to March have the large swells from the North Pacific making some dive sites challenging, when not closed off entirely. Given the Christmas and New Year holidays, this period is also the busy Peak Season. If you are interested in whale watching, this is the best season to go.
- Spring & Fall / Low Season: By far the best time to travel to and dive on Big Island. Calm water, beautiful weather, and excellent visibility make for the perfect scuba-diving combination. With fewer visitors, you might get better travel deals, except for the busy and expensive Easter and Thanksgiving weeks.
- Summer: A high season for US residents that travel to Hawaii for the summer break.
Big Island Scuba Diving Conditions
Water temperatures: 75-80°F (24-27°C) throughout the year. Slight variations show mid-70s F during winter and spring (with rains between November and March), and low 80s in fall (with September the warmest) and summer.
Visibility: Average 100 feet (30 meters) but it’s not uncommon for even better visibility. During the winter months and high surf, the distance can drop to less 30 feet.
Currents: As it is often the case with diving sites, the currents vary depending on where and when, from mild to strong. However, they tend to be constant, and a knowledgeable divemaster will know how to address and evaluate the dive conditions.
When to Dive with Manta Rays in Big Island
Manta Rays are present all year round, with between 5 to 15 mantas usually present at the dive site. However, the water conditions vary depending on the seasons, where surf and waves of the winter months of January and February might make the diving conditions challenging, even barely diveable.
Big Island Dive Sites
While Big Island is famous for its manta ray night dive, the island doesn’t lack stunning dive sites. With over 50 locations to choose from, explore lava formations, meet turtles, black-tip reef sharks, moray eels, among other endemic marine life. Top big island shore diving Sites include Two Steps, Honaunau Bay (City of Refuge), Kealakekua Bay (Captain Cook), Pentagon, Mauna Lani Fingers, Puako 76, Alice’s Wonderland, Crystal Cove, Lava Dome, Harlequin, and Turtle Pinnacle.
Experienced divers might consider exploring the black deepwater to find whales and other deep-water animals. From dolphins, hammerheads, whale sharks, in addition to the giant mantas, the deep water is full of surprises.
Manta Ray Night Dive Log
- Bottom time: 1 hour. Time with Mantas: 40 minutes
- Gear: full wetsuit, booties
- Depth: 30 feet (10 meters)
- Water temperatures: 75 Fahrenheit (25 Celcius)
Kailua Kona Hotels
Big Island is not as touristy as Oahu or Maui, but by no means lack accommodation. From a Kona seaside hotel or Kona village resort, a Kona Inn, or one of the several Kona vacation rentals, Kona lodging includes options for cheap hotels in Kona to the best resorts on the Big Island, even for those looking for a Hawaii honeymoon resort!.
Things to Do in Kona
It comes as no surprise that scuba-diving and snorkeling are amongst the most popular Big Island activities. However, the Big Island offers excellent outdoor options for adventurous travelers. Check these tours for learning how to dive or diving tanks, and snorkeling with manta rays in Big Island.
Other things to do in Big Island include trekking the Volcanoes National Park, watching the stars from the Mauna Kea Summit, or getting up close to the hot lava on a helicopter flight from Kona. Short on time? Check this Big Island in A Day tour.
Big Island of Hawaii Travel Resources
Want to read more about adventure travel on Big Island? Check our posts about our Nāpau Crater Trekking adventure in the Volcanoes National Park.
Interested in more scuba-diving trips? If you are in Hawaii, diving is one of the Oahu things to do. And outside the Hawaii islands, check our Bonaire Salt Pier Diving report, our Great Barrier Reef Liveaboard experience, or read about Raja Ampat dive sites.
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August 5, 2017 at 5:49 am
I like how you mentioned that night diving with manta rays is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was nice how you included that having the manta rays swim close to you was a majestic experience. My sister and her husband are going to Hawaii for their anniversary. It could be a fun option for them to consider night diving with manta rays as part of their trip.
August 14, 2017 at 8:54 am
Totally recommend this Manta night diving for sure! It was one of the highlights of our Big Island trip! Wish your sister and her husband a great time in Hawaii!