Hawaii’s Big Island is nothing short of a tropical paradise, from its golden beaches lined with swaying palms to its interior, lush with emerald volcanoes and plunging, frothy waterfalls. The district of Kona on the island’s western shore is particularly renowned amongst scuba divers for its spectacular dive sites. Here, clear blue seas and unique marine environments combine to offer divers encounters with some of the underwater world’s most sought-after creatures. From tiger sharks to humpback whales, from turtles to pods of spinner dolphins, Kona is home to an impressive array of big marine species, but its most famous resident is the manta ray. Manta diving off the Kona coast began in 1991, when local dive charters decided to capitalize on the fact that the rays were coming inshore to feed on the plankton attracted by the bright lights of coastal resorts. Since then, the Kona coast has maintained its reputation as one of the most reliable places in the world to see these magnificent animals. While divers can spot mantas on many of Kona’s dive sites, the manta-diving industry revolves around two specific spots that give divers the best possible chance to see the rays, either on scuba or as a snorkeler. Manta Village, located near the Sheraton Resort in Keauhou Bay and Manta Heaven, in Garden Eel Cove near the Kona International Airport offer divers a great chance for encounters.
The rays flock to each of these dive sites at night and, for the most part, the two sites offer much the same experience. Both are in shallow water just 25 to 35 feet (7 to 11 meters) deep, and both experiences use strobes after dark to illuminate the plankton in the water, which in turn attracts the mantas. The difference between the sites is the number of rays that attend the nightly feeding sessions, and the reliability of their appearance. At Manta Village divers can expect to see between one to five mantas on a single dive, whereas Manta Heaven has been known to attract schools of rays numbering over 30 individuals. However, Manta Village offers more reliable sightings, with mantas making an appearance on 90 percent of dives while no-shows are more frequent at Manta Heaven. Either site has the potential to deliver the experience of a lifetime. Typically, your manta adventure will begin at sunset, so that the sea is alive with all the refracted colors of the waning day as your dive boat makes its way to the drop point. As the sun goes down, you’ll be briefed and told to gear up so that when the last of the light fades away, you’re ready to enter the water. Both divers and snorkelers are equipped with a powerful dive light, and it is with these in hand that you take the plunge into the nighttime sea.
The ocean after dusk is a completely different place than the one we know during the day. The velvet blackness of the water around you is all encompassing, save for the glare of your torchlight and that of the divers around you, and the soft luminous glow of the light stick strapped to your cylinder. Everything seems magnified, the sound of your breathing rasping through your second stage, the sudden colors of the bioluminescent organisms in the darkness around you, the silvered gleam of your bubbles as they drift upwards towards the lights of the snorkelers at the surface. The dive site is shallow, so the descent is short. At the bottom, a ring of stones delineates the circle formation that you and your fellow divers will maintain throughout the dive. You settle onto your knees and shine your beam upwards as instructed by your dive guide, and the microscopic plankton upon which the mantas feed are illuminated like motes of dust caught in a sunbeam. You don’t have long to wait for a manta — within minutes the first, and then the second arrives on the scene, the whiteness of their bellies standing out in sharp contrast to the black water around them. They drift, arch and roll with effortless grace through the torchlight, sometimes only inches above your head.
Throughout the hour that you spend underwater, more and more of them join the ballet, which takes place in the pool of light illuminated by your torches. Although these are the smaller of the two manta species, these reef mantas are truly deserving of their reputation for hugeness. From wingtip to wingtip, many of the Kona mantas measure over 12 feet (3.5 meters), and to see them up close is unforgettable. It is also a true privilege, especially as this species is now classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Mantas have been protected in Hawaiian waters since 2009, and to support manta tourism there is to emphasize their value as an economic resource to other countries around the world. The Kona mantas are the subject of considerable research, which has identified over 200 individuals in the district’s waters. There is no peak manta season in Hawaii, meaning that you can encounter these incredible animals off Kona’s shores year round. All that’s left to do is book your trip.