Manta rays are graceful, beautiful and large sea creatures that live in Hawaiian waters. They do in fact live worldwide in warm water. They have wide triangular wings that sometimes reach as much as 16 to 20 feet across. Their body consists of a cartilaginous skeleton giving them graceful flexibility. They are filter feeders and they feed on plankton. They can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds in body weight and they have to eat their body weight in plankton per day. They possess cephalic (head) fins that they use to help funnel food and water into their cavernous mouths.
They are not to be confused with Sting Rays. They do not have teeth or tail stingers and are gentle and harmless to people. They are, however, threatened by over-fishing in several countries due to their slow low birth rate, late sexual maturity and limited migration.
The Manta Rays are one of the largest animals in the ocean. Their Hawaiian name is Hahalua. The Kona Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to respectfully observe Mantas. Close to shore, at night, a huge underwater light is regularly lit up approximately 30 to 40 feet down on the ocean floor. This light, along with the underwater lights used by divers and snorkelers, attract the plankton that the Manta feed on. The Manta rays glide, pivot and somersault within the lit area, scooping up the plankton and mesmerizing the divers and snorkelers alike.
(Please refer to ‘Guidelines for your Manta encounter’ as it is important that all divers and snorkelers adhere to strict conservation guidelines during their encounter.)
My first experience: (by Hannelore)
I had no idea what to expect. I had never seen a Manta Ray before. It was 2002, and we enjoyed a spectacular sunset cruise into the small bay the Night Dive was to occur. As it was getting dark, the lights on the boat were turned on. It did not take long and there they were - several large Manta Rays swimming around the boat. The Scuba Divers gently went into the water first and swam toward the main light that was placed approximately 30 to 40 feet deep on the ocean floor and about 150 yards away from the boat. It was now our turn. There is something a little eerie about getting into the water after dark. I am so used to snorkeling in crystal clear water with the sunlight streaming in. As I was about to gently ease myself into the water, there were two large Mantas right below me. I waited for them to move and into the water I went. Within an instant, there I was face-to-face with this enormous Manta. Its mouth, big enough for me to fit inside, was wide open. I made a squeal thru my snorkel and backed up, only to find that directly behind me was another Manta… another squeal from my snorkel. They both somersaulted missing me by mere inches. This was to be my experience for the next hour, one of the most thrilling experiences of my life! The lights on the boat were turned off, encouraging those of us that were snorkeling (only two of us at that time) to swim toward the large underwater light a few meters away, a little unnerving to say the least. There we were the two of us alone in the dark water, not much visibility and heading toward a light off in the distance. At this point, I must say it was reassuring to remember the words of our guide on the boat informing us that the greatest danger we might encounter is being hit by another snorkelers fins! The movie, ‘The Abyss’ came to my thoughts. The experience of being in the water, in the dark and suddenly coming across this bright light with ‘angelic’ type creatures gliding around seemed unworldly. Once at the main light, we joined other snorkelers from other boats. The sounds of ‘squeals’ coming from my fellow adventurers became a common occurrence. It is that scary and exciting at the same time sound. In the beam of the main light, there was hundreds of small silvery fish swimming in a spiral. Not one ended up in the cavity of the Mantas. Below us, and surrounding the main light, were the rays of light coming from about a dozen underwater flashlights that were held by the scuba divers. They were sitting still on the ocean floor in a large circle while being held down with their diving weights. From the surface of the water rays of light were shining down from the underwater flashlights being held by the snorkelers. In the center of all of this were about 6 large Manta Rays all gracefully somersaulting and scooping up the plankton. They would swim toward the beams of light we were all holding and always just missing us by a few inches.
I shared this experience with my groups at the 2008, ‘Communing with Dolphins’ retreats. We organized two dives and the feedback was that this was as exciting as their experience with the Dolphins. I have now incorporated The Sunset boat cruise and Manta Ray night dive/snorkel for all future dates. For those a little squeamish, you can see them from the boat and do not have to go in – even though most do when they see just how elated their ‘brave’ buddies are.
I was holding hands with one of my group who was nervous to say the least. Every time a Manta came close she would put a vise grip on my hand. I would look at her face to see eyes as wide as saucers and a great bit smile. (The thing about smiling with a mask on is that your cheeks expand and water ends up leaking in – a minor detail but one that with practice can be avoided..!) At the end of one of our swims, I decided to ‘linger’ awhile, and not get back on the boat right away with the others. It was all very surreal. It seemed I was all alone with these beings when I noticed the ocean floor coming to life. The scuba divers, who were up to now very still, were slowly moving. That in itself was amazing to view. They were heading back to their boats. The Mantas knew their time for easy food supply was ending, and their movements became much quicker. I heard the final call to return, and reluctantly swam back to the boat. I was greeted with many happy smiles and lots of excited sharing of personal experiences. Wow!!
Guidelines for Manta Ray Encounters:
Observe only: Do not touch! Resist the urge to ‘pet’ the mantas. This will rub off their protective mucus coating. Do not chase, grab, or try to take a ride on the mantas. This doe not benefit the animal in any way.
Diver Position: Divers please stay on or near the sand, rubble of boulder bottom. An open water column is necessary for the mantas to maneuver. Avoid contact with coral, sea urchins, or other marine life. Form a semi-circle with your group.
Snorkeler Position: snorkelers please stay on the surface. Do not dive down into the water column where the mantas are feeding.
Lights: Divers please shine lights up into the water column to attract plankton. Snorkelers please shine lights down.
Bubbles: divers please try to time your breathing so that you don’t blow bubbles into the manta if it passes over your head.
Taking Photos and Video: when taking underwater photos or video, please be considerate of others. Adhere to these guidelines and let the Mantas come to you.
(These guidelines were originally drafted by the dive operators in Kona, Hawaii and PADI/s (Professional Association of Divers Instructors) Project Aware. Project Aware Foundation supports the Manta Pacific Research Foundation in their efforts to learn more about these magnificent animals. www.mantapicific.org )