On a recent trip to the Big Island of Hawaii I was lucky enough to go on a night snorkel with the manta rays. I had a lot of questions before going on the tour and I thought others might be looking for the same information. So here’s what to expect when going on a night snorkeling adventure. (Please excuse the low quality of the images in this post, these are all screen grabs from our GoPro video)
There are three ways to see the manta rays in Hawaii, so you can choose your own adventure level. The first to do a night dive with the manta rays. If you’re already certified as a scuba diver this would be an amazing encounter. Check out Alex’s blog to hear about it first hand (https://www.alexinwanderland.com/manta-ray-dive/). The second option is via a snorkeling trip, which is what I’ll detail. The third option is to watch the rays from land. Try Mauna Key hotel north of Kona or the Sheraton Keauhou Bay hotel for dry viewing from the shore.
Before my trip to Hawaii I looked into a dolphin snorkeling tour, who doesn’t want to snorkel with the dolphins, right? But after a lot of research I concluded that the dolphin tours have raised a lot of concerns of putting profits over the health of the dolphins, I just couldn’t do it in good conscious. But I was unable to find anything like that about the manta rays in Hawaii (however there have been some over-tourism concerns in Bora Bora). In fact the dollars generated by tourism far exceed the value of fishing for manta rays.
So what are manta rays? They are like the winged creatures of the water. They have a huge fin span of up to 23 feet and can live up to 25 years. Each ray has unique markings and the Manta Ray Advocate Group (www.mantarayshawaii.com) tracks their movements to learn more about them. Though they are related, manta rays are different from stingrays. The mantas do not have a stinger (and were not responsible for Steve Irwin’s death). They feed at night which is why all of the viewing options are nocturnal.
Manta rays feed on plankton, which luckily for us, are attracted to blue lights in the water. Some ingenious person realized that by shining the light into the water they could attract manta rays. And that in turn would bring the tourists.
Most of the tours depart from the harbor in Kailua. There is a public bathroom and I would suggest using it, there is usually only a marine toilet on the boat, tiny and for emergencies only. Wear your bathing suit and something over it to the departure area, unless you want to change in the public restroom. Bring a towel and maybe a light jacket for the boat ride home. You can bring a change of clothes to leave in your car, or an extra towel to sit on to keep your car dry on your way back to your hotel.
Most tour boats will offer water/soft drinks and some light snacks. We could bring a small bag but there is no place to lock anything up. Granted most of the people are going to be in the water with you, but better safe than sorry and leave your wallet in the car (do bring a little cash for tips for the crew, it’s always appreciated). I debated about bringing my DSLR camera but I’m glad that I didn’t. Not that I thought it would be stolen, but there wasn’t a lot to take photos of along the way and it was more likely to get damaged by water. Instead we opted to bring the GoPro and get video of the experience. We could put our bags in tubs with lids to keep any spray out. We all left our shoes in a bin on the dock. The boats are all pretty small, these aren’t usually the big catamarans that do long tours, these are built for smaller groups.
It was a good forty five minutes to an hour boat ride down to the spot where you actually do the snorkeling (there is another spot closer to the Kailua marina but it depends on weather/water conditions). Crew members will hand out snorkel masks and short wetsuits along the way. Once we reached the location, just off the shore of the Sheraton Keauhou Bay hotel, we joined a bunch of other boats by anchoring up.
While you don’t need to be an Olympic swimmer to enjoy snorkeling you should feel comfortable in the water. The night we snorkeled the waves were huge and remember that you’re in the dark. Our tour company did not automatically give everyone life jackets to wear during the snorkeling, but you could ask for an added floatation device if you wanted it. If you have concerns about your swimming abilities talk to the tour companies in advance.
The big event
I admit that I had a few concerns about making it from the boat to the viewing area. And the possibility of sharks (I did learn to swim when the movie Jaws had just come out). Okay, I had an actual nightmare about it the night before. But it’s really only about 10 feet of water that you need to cross. And our guides explained that the sharks were unlikely to get that close to shore. I’m not sure I believe that but it sounded good at the time.
We were escorted one by one off the back of the boat and over to the floating light barge. Around the edges of the barge were loops of rope to hold onto. We each grabbed a spot and put our faces in the water to watch the show. When viewing the manta rays you need to stay flat on the surface of the water, so you don’t accidentally touch a manta or scare them off. The tour company had pool noodles that they would put under your ankles to keep you legs horizontal on the water’s surface. The platform setup also ensured that we stayed in one place and didn’t bump into other snorkelers.
On the evening of our trip the winds were fierce and the water was very choppy, but the water was perfectly warm. I had to hold onto the rope loop carefully, the waves alternately pushed my head towards the barge or tried to pull me away. It wasn’t difficult and it was completely worth it for the experience. From the first glimpse of a manta ray I forgot all of my concerns.
We had about 45 minutes in the water and I loved every minute of it. Some people decided to go back to the boat early but I was one of the last ones out of the water. You’re not guaranteed to see mantas but we saw several on our trip, and lots of smaller fish that are also attracted to the plankton.
I was afraid that the boat ride back would be cold but the air was warm so a light jacket or towel was sufficient to stay comfortable. By the time we got back to the marina we were mostly dry so we decided to drive home in our suits with a sweatshirt pulled over us, sitting on fresh towels we had left in the car.
Swimming with the Manta rays was the highlight of our trip! So even if you’re a little nervous about going, get out of your comfort zone and do it!