Swimming with Manta Rays

Manta Ray

When traveling, it seems only right to participate in the unique events that are available at that particular location.  For me that does not mean a luau and dancing for the tourists, rather a nighttime dive with manta rays seemed like a great experience I had not heard offered elsewhere.  The catamaran journey begins about an hour before sunset.  Very high waves this evening made for a rough ride.  Our captain said you can usually count on at least two people getting sick in these conditions.  I hoped it would not be me and he was eventually right.

When we finally arrived at the dive site there were eight to ten additional boats waiting for darkness to fall.  The whole process is based on bright lights attracting plankton which then attract the manta rays.  These rays have an eight foot wingspan.  So it is not like fishing where you wish there were fewer boats, here the more the merrier, apparently.  One of the lead boats has a huge array of lights which they refer to as the campfire.  Boats like ours had two flotation devices which akin to surfboards with bright lights shining downward attracting the plankton.  Three people with snorkel gear hang onto bars on each side of the surfboard.  I, of course, needed special corrective lens goggles.  Two people on board were there for their second time as they failed to see any mantas their first night out.  Some nights the mantas never show and at other times they will completely abandon an area where they have been feeding for 30 years.  Nobody knows why they recently left the closer ‘airport’ location.

floatation board

Wet suits are provided for warmth since you do not expend much energy simply floating in the ocean.  The buoyancy of the flippers help you lie horizontally in they water.  After a few minutes of paddling toward the campfire I spotted a large manta ray effortlessly gliding fifteen feet below.  This is about what I was expecting, but the action soon picked up dramatically.  The plankton are attracted to the underwater flashlights like a moth to a light bulb, so the food source for the manta is just inches from your face.  Soon I was staring down a manta ray’s mouth the size of a bushel basket.  Thankfully, their throats appear to only be a few inches in diameter.

Manta Ray MouthFlipper-like structures on each side of the ray’s mouth help direct the very visible plankton floating in our light beams into their mouth.

Soon multiple rays are doing back flips and barrel rolls inches from us, scooping up their dinner of plankton.  Over and over they glided upwards toward the lights, at times scrapping against my chest.  It was a very memorable experience, as were the sounds of women screaming through their snorkel gear.

 

Manta Ray bellyAll the mantas are named and identifiable by unique body spots on their undersides.

A dedicated group of Manta Ray Advocates have logged photos and documentation for the names of the mantas over the last 20 years.  For more information you can visit their WEB site and support their cause:  http://www.mantarayshawaii.com/

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