By George Christopher Thomas, Travel Writer
On a visit to Kona, Hawaii earlier this year, I did what is probably the coolest activity ever. My family and I decided to go night snorkeling with manta rays. From what I had read and heard, this experience promised to be a life-changing activity. From then on out, there would be my life before the manta ray
night snorkel, and every moment afterward.
We booked our experience with “China Mike” and his Sunlight On the Water tour company. We met up at the harbor at around 4:00 p.m., and the actual dive/snorkel site was quite a boat ride away. There is definitely something about watching the sun set over the water as you get escorted out on a really cool boat to swim with manta rays that kind of gets your Aloha in perspective.
We had a briefing on the boat ride out to the spot, which is right at the end of the airport runway. This meant while I waited for the sun to go down, I enjoyed watching the airplanes taking off and landing. The rest of the family apparently found the sunset and the coastline of the Big Island more enticing.
We were fitted for wetsuits, snorkels and masks, and were explicitly told not to pee in the wetsuits. Knowing how absolutely great it is to pee in a wetsuit, I totally understand why “T” from Tahiti was telling us not to. The next time I am in Kona, I will bring my own wetsuit, as I discovered it does get a little cold snorkeling at night in Hawaii with manta rays. We waited until after sunset to get into the water, and the reason for that is kept top secret. Once in the ocean we split into small groups, each holding onto a floating ring equipped with lights.
This snorkel spot is especially special because the manta ray community has come to learn to be there at that special time in the evening. Every snorkeler and scuba diver — from our Sunlight on the Water boat as well as several other tour boats — is given an underwater flashlight. Shining the light downward attracts plankton, and the plankton is what brings the manta rays, who feast and frolic in the ocean above the scuba divers and below the ring-bound snorkelers. The tour companies have discovered the perfect spot for all of this, which takes place in about 30 feet of water. The scuba divers all go down to the ocean floor, and the snorkelers all float on the surface, with both groups remaining as still as possible. With the scuba divers shining light up from below, and us snorkelers shining light down from above, the plankton come in the hundreds of millions. If the manta rays weren’t so cool, I could have just watched the plankton swim around as these minuscule marine creatures are quite fascinating as well.
It was a special night, because we must have seen more than a dozen enormous manta rays up close and personal. It really did take my breath away, though fortunately my instincts reminded me that breathing while snorkeling is quite important. When the rays swim so close to you that you can touch them (don’t – it’s not allowed), doing underwater flips and silently gliding through the partially illuminated ocean, your heart might just skip a beat, because it is an absolutely incredible and unworldly sight. With all those flashlights above and below, it looked like something out of “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.”
I shared the night snorkel with my lady Joanne, my mom and dad, and my cousin Kara and her significant other. Doing this as a family really linked us closer together and gave us a story we can share forever. The natural high you feel afterward will make it really hard to sleep that night. I suggest heading to the Kona Brewing Company and throwing back a few just to calm down. You will want to send a postcard to someone on the mainland; it really is something to write home about.
Snorkeling with manta rays — whether you’ve been fortunate enough to experience it, or are planning on booking your flight to Kona right now and heading to China Mike’s boat dock — will make you want to learn a lot more about these fascinating gentle giants. Sunlight on the Water offers plenty of interesting information about manta rays on their website (check out www.sunlightonwater.com). Here are some facts I learned:
• Sometimes referred to as the “Butterflies of the Sea,” manta rays are beautiful sea creatures that live in warm tropical waters. Their side fins have evolved into wide triangular wings with which they use to “fly” through the water. These wings range from 4 to 20 feet across, making them amongst the largest sea creatures anywhere.
• Believed to have a lifespan of up to 25 years, this greatest of the ray family has been documented swimming at depths of 100 feet, but no one really knows how deep they can swim.
• Unlike most of their relatives, manta rays have no teeth, stinger or barbs and are completely safe to be around.
• The forward-pointing, paddle-like organs at each corner of a manta’s mouth are termed “cephalic lobes.” They are basically forward extensions of the pectoral wings, complete with supporting radial cartilages. Mantas have been observed using their cephalic lobes like scoops to help push plankton-bearing water into their mouths. When mantas are not actively feeding, the cephalic lobes are often furled like a flag ready for storage or held with their tips touching. Either of these cephalic lobe positions may reduce drag during long-distance swimming.
• Mantas are known to leap completely out of the water and do so for a variety of possible reasons. They may do it to escape a potential predator or to rid themselves of skin parasites. Or they may leap to communicate to others of their own species — the great, crashing splash of their re-entries can often be heard from miles away. It’s anyone’s guess what they may be trying to communicate. Leaping male mantas may be demonstrating their fitness as part of a courtship display. Since these leaps are highly energetic and often repeated several times in succession, they may also represent a form of play.
• Why does Sunlight on the Water take you snorkeling with the Mantas at night? Although mantas are most commonly seen during daylight hours, it’s only because that is when most observers are in the water. Scientifically, we do not know exactly what mantas do at night or how active they are, but they may feed most actively at night, when many planktonic creatures naturally rise surfaceward, providing a rich bounty on which mantas may feed. Using dive lights attracts concentrations of these plankton and therefore attract the mantas.
• More than 190 Manta Rays have been identified and named along the Kona Coast.