The Big Island's reputation for fields of fresh lava rock and rich coffee, it turns out, is closely rivaled for an activity exclusive to its shores (and the Maldives): swims with the massive Manta Rays. I read about this crazy activity in guide books before our trip, but wasn't sure Walker would be up for missing a dinner to jump into night waters, the condition for seeing them.
Luckily, with help from my mother-in-law, and the fact that it was Valentine's Day, Walker kindly obliged his kooky wife and agreed to drive me an hour down the coast to experience this phenomenon together. Melt my travel-loving heart.
Our concierge had suggested a tour with Wahine (who took us on the dolphin swim) or Kona Ocean Adventures, and only the latter had availability, so we booked a sunset swim with them. Our captains Daniel and Travis were the best guides of the trip, and took us and four new friends (hi Gail, Mike, Skooter and Justin!) out just before the sun started to slip. We wore wet suits and shivered a little as we lost light.
After about 30 minutes, we arrived at the area where the mantas come most nights. Other boats sat waiting already, and I was a little worried the numbers of people would scare them off, but Travis told us the opposite was true: they were more likely to come if there were a lot of boats/lights.
Our crew explained that the LED lights from the boats highlight plankton that the mantas then see, and come up to feed on. They had rigged up a surfboard with lights that we were all supposed to hold onto so our legs would float up, and the mantas would skim high as possible.
Even before we got in, we could see mantas swimming up, so just as the sun set, we jumped in with snorkels, and Daniel pulled us along the top of the water to where the mantas were.
Nearly instantly, a few were right underneath us. I futilely tried to click iPhone photos, but thankfully Walker caught them on the underwater camera. All mine turned out to be snorkel selfies, which was funny to everyone except me.
The mantas were massive; they can get up to 17-20 feet in wingspan. I'm guessing these were closer to 15. They don't have stingers or teeth, so, as Travis explained to us, they are just big pancakes. These photos aren't zoomed in; they swam so high up they rubbed against us.
After the initial feeding of the first two, we waited about five minutes to see others. Large fish were attracted to the lights too, and swam in schools that flapped into our faces. It was a strange sensation and not one I need to experience again: the thick fish tails against my cheeks.
I got a bit of a chill and was starting to wonder if it was worth it. And then, we all gasped as they came into the light, a stream of probably 10 or more that just kept sliding up and up, then back down.
What looks like a massive mouth is really just a filter for the plankton and their actual mouths are very tiny, we were told.
The gentle giants swam so calmly, so majestically through the water coming up for food, and skimming right under our bellies.
We couldn't stop watching this acrobatic, incessant majesty right below us. It was the most breathtaking experience to be in their presence.
I love these photos because you can see just how many we could see at once, rotating up through this imaginary, huge sphere.
I forgot how cold I was in the thick of the show, but then they drifted off and it was time to swim (or rather, be pulled along by Daniel) back to the boat.
I wish we had a photo of our whole gang on the boat, because we truly had such a fun time with the others, but we all enjoyed the warm shower spray and hot cocoa as we furiously dried off and raced back to land.
We've heard from others that they didn't enjoy this activity with other guides, so we feel really lucky to have had such an impressive, educated crew that made the whole experience seamless and, because we weren't worrying about safety, magical. Kudos again to KOA for showing us the beauty beneath the waves off of Kona.
p.s. For our other ray experience, click here to see us swimming with stingrays in Grand Cayman!