In early June, Greyson and I went to the Big Island of Hawaii with his family. It was an amazing trip, and one of the highlights was definitely a night snorkeling trip to see manta rays.
We had hoped to do a SCUBA dive while in Hawaii, but I had a sinus infection that made diving impossible, so I got to work looking for something to do instead. We’d planned on doing a night SCUBA dive with mantas, and I stumbled on this post by Simply Taralynn about a night snorkel with manta rays, and I knew that we had to do it. I did a little research, and I ended up booking the same company, Big Island Divers. They were a reasonable price (only $105), just down the street from our vacation rental, and had great reviews.
We had brought our own snorkel gear that we used, but the cost of the excursion includes mask, snorkel, and fins and you can rent a wetsuit for $10. We checked in at the dive shop ahead of the excursion – we were a little confused by this, but you just need to check in ahead of time to get sized for your wetsuit and get directions to the boat. There is also a ton of cute merchandise and gear and the shop, and if you show up before noon, there’s a discount! I had thought that the snorkel was near the downtown of Kailua-Kona, but it was actually a 20 minute boat ride from the marina – and you end up right by the airport.
The crew of Big Island Divers were awesome – funny and knowledgeable. While they got the boat ready, one of the SCUBA guides gave us all a lesson on mantas. Mantas are filter feeders that eat plankton, and, years ago a hotel on the water put in underwater lights to entertain hotel restaurant guests at night. These lights attracted plankton, and surprise – mantas showed up! Once this happened, tour operators realized the draw these amazing creatures have and started running night snorkel and dive tours. Now there are two spots with underwater lights – at the original hotel and at another, less busy spot near the airport where we went. I’m always a little weirded out by tourist activities that alter wild animals behavior, but, apparently these tours are really safe and low impact to the population, and humans have already had a hugely negative impact on these animals already, and the lights help provide them a steady food source.
We hopped on the boat and got the best sunset of our whole vacation. I sadly didn’t get a picture, though. It got dark quickly, and we arrived at the snorkel site. There were a few boats in the water, and it was already starting to become a bit of a zoo. This is definitely a tourist attraction, so you’re not going to have a relaxing, solo experience. One thing that I really appreciated about Big Island Divers is that they obviously really cared about the health and safety of the mantas, and we held off getting in the water until it had cleared out a bit so we didn’t overwhelm the awesome creatures.
While mantas show up most of the time, they are wild animals and their appearance isn’t guaranteed. While we geared up, our guides pointed out that the underwater lights appeared to be flashing. This was actually mantas swimming in front of the lights! I got so excited and couldn’t wait to get in the water. We did have to wait, though, until the SCUBA divers got in the water.
Finally, it was our turn to jump in! How it works is that Big Island Divers have a surfboard with a light on the bottom and a PVC pipe rack around the outside, which the snorkelers held on to. It’s a lot of just holding on and floating, you only kick when your guide directs you to move somewhere. As soon as we were in the water and situated, the mantas showed up. They corkscrew through the water, feeding on the plankton. It was such an incredible experience. In Indonesia, we saw oceanic mantas while diving. While those oceanic mantas are even bigger than the Hawaiian ones and it was one of the coolest things I have ever done, this snorkel was just as cool. Mantas are incredibly smart – they recognize themselves in mirrors, which not even dogs can do! Some have even learned that humans can help them and will go up to diver to get fishing hooks removed.
We were in the water for almost an hour, just watching their acrobatic dance. I could have stayed in the water forever, but it was time to get back on the boat. I was pretty cold at this point – my wetsuit is only a 2.5 thickness and too big for me, and we weren’t moving around at all. When we got back on, the guides had fresh towels and hot chocolates for us. As soon as everyone was aboard (they did a roll call to be sure), we headed back to the harbor.
All in all, it was such an amazing experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the Big Island. Big Island Divers was great, and be sure to bring cash to tip your guides. Also, here’s a video Greyson made of our snorkel – check it out!