Black Magic: Night Diving with Manta Rays in Kona, Hawaii

Nothing in life is guaranteed. Mantas are (gorgeous) wild animals, and they dance to their own tune. But on the west coast of Hawaii Island, mantas have been showing up to the party with fairly predictable regularity at a dive site just north of Kona Kailua, near the airport.

Imagine this: The fiery sun sets on the horizon. Soon, a flotilla of day boats arrives in the twilight, with their loads of divers and snorkelers nervously gearing up on their decks. These operators send down their divemasters to place some bright lights on the ocean floor, to shine up toward the surface. They also shine down lights from the boats, setting the stage for what is not unlike a light show at a rock concert. The site itself is a rubbly amphitheater on the flats, just above a pretty dive site called Garden Eel Cove.

The numerous divers and snorkelers start splashing into the ocean as darkness descends. The divers drop down to perch on the bottom in about 35 feet of water, lining up behind the lights, while the snorkelers orbit above.

And then, if you are lucky, the mantas show up.

They arrive in squadrons. Sometimes just a handful of animals come to thrill, sometimes a bounty. We hit the jackpot on our manta dive in September 2015, with at least 18 gorgeous, otherworldly rays being counted.

The Kona Aggressor has a great routine for this very special night dive. The boat anchors on its usual mooring for the site, and its passengers have dinner and then leisurely get ready for the dive. Meanwhile, the masses from the many day boats are already enjoying their manta experience. As those divers and snorkelers begin to be wrangled back onto their boats, the Aggressor’s divers jump in off the dive deck, descend, and swim towards the glow of lights in the distance.

And what a scene it is. As I said above, it was not unlike a rock concert, only strangely silent — many beams of light traveling up and down, through the water, lighting up the virtual stage, and the clouds of plankton. Huge stealth bomber-like, black-and-white beasts soaring and zooming and doing tight barrel rolls in front of and over the audience, at times bumping into each other, and occasionally into the divers perched on the bottom. It is beautiful chaos.

It is hard to describe the absolute joy, and awe, of being in the water with these massive, graceful animals. I have been very fortunate and have seen mantas in several locations in my dive travels, besides this recent trip to Hawaii — in Australia, Indonesia, Palau and Thailand. They awe with their size, their sheer poetry of motion, their incredible agility (they can turn on a dime, and give a nickel in change), their strangely beautiful eyes, set far apart on the sides of their wide heads, their gaping mouths as they vacuum up the tiny zooplankton that are attracted to the lights, and their odd cephalic (chin) fins which they can roll up when cruising — or deploy when they are feeding to help to direct the plankton to their mouths. They are truly weird and wonderful critters.

Manta rays are filter feeders (so no big teeth!) and have no other defense mechanism (unlike their cousin the stingray with its treacherous tail), other than their large size — they can grow more than 20 feet in wing span! They feed by opening their cavernous mouths, taking in huge volumes of water and its tiny inhabitants, and filtering out the food through a large amount of spongy tissue in the back of their gullets, while the water passes over their gills.

They come to the site at Garden Eel Cove because of the lights. The nearby night-lit airport, and the added lights from boats and divers, attracts the zooplankton, which makes for fairly easy pickings for the mantas.

And so, unlike seeing mantas beautifully winging their way down a reef, or seeing mantas coming to a cleaning station on a reef to be de-loused (both are also great experiences), the manta night dive in Kona is pretty much a feeding frenzy. It is an exhilarating dive, and the 90 minutes or so that we had to enjoy the show passed so quickly. As we were the last divers in the water, and took our lights with us when we left, several of the mantas actually followed us back to the boat, and hung around off the swim grid for several hours, taking advantage of the lights shining off the stern of the boat to keep the food coming.

So, three final words about the Kona Manta Night Dive: Just Do It. Hawaii diving is lovely, if not hugely diverse. I will be writing more about the nice reef diving and endemic critters, and sharing pictures of both of these in an upcoming article. Kona’s easy accessibility from the west coast of North America makes it a good dive destination. The Manta Night Dive makes it a great one.

Judy G is a traveling underwater photographer. Check out her blog HERE and follow her on Facebook: Judy G Diver

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