Snorkling with Manta Rays Off the Kona Coast

Just off the Kona coast, visitors with a snorkel mask can see manta rays twist, turn, and twirl and feast.


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Unlike any of America’s other states, its 50th is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Blessed with abundant sunshine, tropical breezes, and healthy marine life, Hawai’i is truly a paradise. But sunscreen-wearing, beachgoing, mai-tai drinking tourists aren’t the only ones who consider it nirvana. Just off the Big Island’s Kona coast, where the ocean crashes against rocky shoreline, manta rays swim beneath the watery depths searching for their own slice of the paradise pie.

In photographs, they resemble some kind of alien space being. These aquatic gentle giants possess wingspans that can reach 20 feet across; so it’s not all that inconceivable to imagine hitching a ride atop one of them as the animated sea creatures did in Finding Nemo.

That maneuver would undoubtedly prove stressful for the manta rays, but nonetheless there is a way to come face-to-face with these denizens of the deep.

Just up the road from downtown Kona, you’ll find Big Island Divers, which runs snorkeling trips for those adventurous souls who want to get wet with mantas. Since this is a nighttime activity, you’ll need to arrive at twilight to be fitted with a wetsuit, snorkel, mask, and fins. Afterward, you’ll climb aboard a boat for a 15-minute ride to the cove where your swim will take place.

Although several such companies operate independently in the same area, they all work together to keep the experience as unique and safe as possible for animal and human alike. Like covered wagons on the prairie, the boats anchor in close proximity. Then passengers receive instructions for interacting safely—and respectfully—with the resident mantas.

After plunging into the water, check to make sure your mask and mouthpiece fit snugly and securely. Once you’ve adjusted your equipment and allowed your heart to beat more steadily, it’s time to get into position.

Lying prone atop the water, you’ll turn on the handheld flashlight you’ve been given and point it downwards. Tiny plankton are what you are summoning with your flashlight beams. Floating there in a completely flat position, with nothing but the sound of your breath going in and out of the snorkel, you need only wait.

From the dark depths of the crystalline water, the mantas will suddenly appear like apparitions in a dream. Weaving in and out of the flashlights’ glow, they perform a magical, mesmerizing, underwater ballet as their graceful bodies twist, turn, and twirl as the mantas feast on the plankton you’ve attracted.

As they pass within inches of your body, never once making contact, you’ll be spellbound by the creatures’ barrel-shaped mouths as they take in the microscopic animals by the hundreds at this nighttime seafood buffet.

In what is surely one of the most surreal and wondrous scenes in nature, it’s easy to be reminded that paradise really does exist, just off the coast of our nation’s 50th state.

Big Island Divers, 74-5467 Kaiwi St., Kailua-Kona, Hawai’i, 808-329-6068, www.BigIslandDivers.com/MantaDive.html.

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