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Near Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii, are two very famous dive sites known for being the world’s most reliable place to see manta rays. As the story goes, a hotel discovered that the spotlights it beamed into the ocean at night attracted a gathering of manta rays and soon afterwards, started offering trips to view these majestic creatures at night. Today, this is considered one of the top night dives in the world, but it’s also a popular experience for snorkelers.
The chance to see such massive, beautiful rays in their natural home was one I couldn’t pass up, even if there was no guarantee of seeing rays. For the trip, my sister and I split up. She went out for a two-tank dive with Kona Diving Company while I chose to tour with Coral Reef Snorkel Adventures instead. Although almost all dive operators invite snorkelers to join their dive charters, it’s been my prior experience that sharing a boat with divers is never as fun as heading out on a snorkeler-specific tour. Additionally, I wanted to make the trip on a smaller boat with fewer passengers, a decision I’ve never regretted in all my years of touring.
Departing from Honokau Marina, my small group of five passengers headed out in relatively choppy waters. Along the way, our crew regaled us with stories of life in Hawaii, the marine life they’d recently encountered, and “secret” locations to visit on the Big Island. The conversation was light and playful while we built up anticipation for our manta ray encounter until the boat stopped abruptly.
Whale! someone shouted. Sure enough, there was the spray from a whale’s blowhole, followed by the playful antics of a young whale.
I’ve seen humpback whales before and while they always fascinate me, their behemoth scale seemed even grander with them so close to such a small boat. Despite the incredible show we were watching, we had to press onward. This was a manta ray tour after all, and we weren’t quite yet at our chosen site. As we continued, the crew went over instructions for our snorkel experience, helped us shimmy into wetsuits, and reminded us time and time again that we were in search for wild animals that would come and go as they pleased. Ironically, as they mentioned this, we saw a manta ray swim up toward the surface of the water, adding a sense of urgency to our desire to get into the water!
Just after sunset, we plunged into the surprisingly cool waters with a plan to spend about 45 minutes holding onto a giant flotation device concocted out of a surfboard, styrofoam noodles, and flashlights. For some reason, it seemed like a good idea to snorkel in the dark, hoping that gigantic manta rays would swim within inches of us underwater.
While it might sound crazy, manta rays are graceful creatures average 5-8 feet in wingspan and at times can be double that size! Either way, these are friendly, harmless animals who feed on microscopic plankton in Kona’s waters with neither teeth nor a stinger to defend themselves. If anything resembled an alien, it was more likely to be us, looking awfully silly in a wetsuit, snorkel gear, and water-activated lights while awkwardly trying to swim without kicking anyone else.
And so I peered underwater, hoping for a glimpse of these gentle giants. Instructed to look to both sides as well as directly below you, I moved my gaze, constantly looking for rays. Instead, I saw scuba divers attempting to stay weighted to the sea floor, silver fish swimming in small schools, and a whole lot of darkness.
Ever hopeful, knowing our odds were good and that at least one manta ray had been in the area around sunset, we continued to float on the surface, waiting for the manta ray ballet to begin. Time continued to pass until we were chilled and out of time. The manta rays had not come that night.
Although this part of the world is home to ~175 manta rays who frequent the area to feed on plankton, they are wild animals who simply don’t care if you’ve flown from the east coast and then paid $100 to observe them for the evening. Nature is unpredictable, and on this particular night, it didn’t align with my plans.
Fortunate for my sister, she had entered the water just a tad earlier, when the lone ray I had seen from the boat was swimming through the area. For five or ten minutes, she enjoyed an incredible show.
On this particular occasion, nature surprised me. I was out of luck as far as seeing the manta rays, but was able to watch whales that came with mere feet of my boat. It may not have been the experience I had intended on, but it was still an amazing evening.
If you go…
You’ll find dozens of tour operators, each offering their own combination of snorkeling or scuba diving, heading by boat or by kayak, and going at sunset or later at night. We chose Coral Reef Snorkel Adventures and Kona Diving Company, both of whom we’d highly recommend and neither of which perked us for this review. Trips are expensive, but often come with online booking discounts, especially if you commit at least a day or two in advance.
Has Mother Nature ever surprised you? Was it for a better or worse experience than you expected — or was it simply different, the way mine was? Share your stories in the comments!