The one dive that all my diving friends had repeatedly told me to do was the nighttime manta ray dive off of Kona. The boat charter for the dive, however, costs $100 per person through a dive shop. Between, me, the Housemate, and his brother, that adds up to quite a steep price. Luckily, the Housemate's brother works at a company that happens to be right next to the cove where the boat charters go to see the mantas, allowing us to drive in through their gates at night and park our car right near the shoreline. Boat charters are expensive, but shore diving is free.
As the sun set, we scouted out the black lava rock shoreline and moved our gear next to what looked to be the most promising entry point. The rocks were jagged, but more importantly slippery where wet, so it wasn't going to be the easiest shore dive. Still, it seemed manageable. About seven or eight boats were clustered at the mouth of the cove, much closer to shore than I'd expected. That meant that once we got in the water, we wouldn't have to swim far to get to whatever point they were sending their divers. The sunset was a lovely pinky orange--sunsets in Kona tend to be colorful, I believe thanks to the vog (volcanic fog)--but a few low clouds eliminated any green flash we might have had a chance to see otherwise. By the time the sun set, we were ready to start assembling our gear.
From the shore, we could see the spot where the bright lights on the seafloor were shining up. It's the bright lights that attract the plankton on which the manta rays feed. Snorkelers were already floating on the surface, though I wasn't paying close enough attention to tell when the divers from the boats jumped in. As it got dark, we heard the first wave of delighted screams from the snorkelers out in the bay. Clearly, the manta rays had begun to arrive. We hurried to finish putting our gear together, now in the darkness, lit by the underwater flashlights we'd rented. We also had glow sticks to attach to the top of our air tanks to make it easier to see one another, but one of the three sticks turned out to be a dud. The Housemate opted to go without one; we had flashlights, and it was a simple dive (swim out to the mantas, sit there, then swim back), so it didn't seem too bad to go without a glow stick. Then we were all geared up, and it was time to get into the water.
The Housemate's brother went first. I watched him climb down from above, shining my flashlight to light his way, with the Housemate assisting next to him. I was surprised at how long it took him to get in the water--as with the dolphins that morning, I was growing impatient. But once it was my turn to get into the water, I saw how complicated it actually was. Stepping down large, slippery rocks with 50-60 lbs of gear on your back is pretty scary. I started to see why the $100 for the boat charter might be worth it...I could just picture one of us getting injured with a medical bill over $300, and then we'd wish we'd gone with the boat. But I was so close at this point, I couldn't turn back. Finding stable places to put my feet was almost as tricky as finding ways to position my overloaded torso so that my hands could be planted in useful places. At least I had rubber-soled booties, so I could climb down without either flip-flopping in my fins or cutting my bare feet on the sharp rocks. I used to think the one-piece fins were more convenient, but now I really appreciate the benefit of having open-heeled fins with separate boots. The swell was small, so fortunately the waves weren't particularly threatening once I got to the water level. If the waves had been larger, this entry would have been impossible.
After much encouragement from the Housemate and his brother, and no small amount of cursing on my part, I was finally in the water. Thank goodness for the wetsuit, which made the entry into the dark water quite comfortable. I pulled on my fins and swam clear of the rocks near the shore. The Housemate had an easier time entering the water, having the longest legs of the three of us, but it still took him a couple minutes. We shined our flashlights as well as we could to light his way, but from the water level it was hard to light the top of the rocks onto which he was stepping down. Before long, though, we were all in the water.
We had left our snorkels on shore, as we'd learned that was the protocol put in place to avoid scraping the underbellies of the manta rays swimming too close overhead. Thus, I suggested we "otter paddle" out to where the manta rays were (on our backs, kicking our fins) to conserve air. It was only a three or four minute swim, and we could still hear snorkelers calling out in joy, so we knew we hadn't missed the mantas. Once we were maybe 50 feet from the snorkelers, we decided to go down and swim the rest of the way underwater. We gave the signal to submerge, then sank under the black water, our flashlights illuminating the rocky, pebbly floor. It was really shallow, probably between 30 and 40 feet, so we didn't have to go down far. Then we continued swimming in the direction of the snorkelers and the light.
As we swam along, what had started as a fuzzy glow in the distance began to resolve itself out of the veil of visibility. A cluster of four bright spotlights sat on the ocean bottom, shining up toward the surface. All around it in a circle knelt about forty divers, each holding their own flashlight and pointing it upwards. It looked a bit like some sort of mysterious pagan ritual in a movie: hooded beings kneeling around a fire, holding candles and chanting, to summon the great beasts out of the darkness.
And what magnificent beasts they were! Massive and solid, with 10-foot wingspans, they danced in the beams of light that attracted clouds of their tiny food. We hastened to take our places, kneeling on the seafloor at the outer edge of the circle, shining our own flashlights to the surface. I counted eight or nine of the giant rays. I found out later that we were pretty lucky to see that many; sometimes there are only maybe three, or none at all (in which case I hope the boat charters give people their money back!). Someone at the dive shop told us that the mantas were really "going off" this week. There's even a chance there was more than nine--it was difficult to count the mantas with them darting in and out of the light.
I was in awe. They looked so unlike anything we see on land, they seemed almost alien. Wide, gaping mouths with flaps on the side, which you can see right into as they approach. One expects to see darkness when looking into a creature's mouth, signifying the gullet leading down to the stomach, but the mantas' mouths were like sterile, empty, echoing chambers which you could fully illuminate with a flashlight. Five gill slits sat on each side of their white but spotted underbellies, and at the right angle we could see the feathery flesh hidden inside the gills. Their topsides were dark; such "counter-shading"--dark on top and light on bottom--is quite common in the ocean. Their large, circular eyes watched us, seemingly with knowing and understanding, though that was probably just my imagination--they are fish, after all (cartilaginous fish, related to sharks). Still, I found myself wondering what they thought of the whole ordeal, and of us, their odd, noisy spectators. What are you crazy people doing down here? perhaps, or maybe Thanks for all the zooplankton! Maybe just Mmmmm. If I did that dive often enough, I could probably learn to identify the different mantas. The spots on their bellies were all distinctive, and some had distinguishing characteristics--one was missing its tail, one was missing half a tail, and another had a fish hook stuck on its "lip". They weren't all the same size, either, though all of them were pretty huge.
The mantas soared and swirled above us, flying through the water, graceful and perfect. Sometimes, two would be about to swim into each other head on, but then both would do a back-flip to avoid crashing. They'd swoop down right over our heads. Had I not known that they had neither the desire nor the capacity to eat me, it would have been quite terrifying seeing a giant creature swim straight towards my head with an open mouth. Mostly, they were very good at calculating exactly how low they could go and still avoid hitting us, but a couple times we had to duck. Whenever one swam right above my head, missing by just an inch, I'd let out a high-pitched squeal of excitement until it had passed. It was all I could do to keep from reaching out and touching the lovely beast, as such behavior would be frowned upon. I could hear the Housemate let out a low laugh when he had to duck from an approaching manta. And the close encounters didn't get old--each time one narrowly missed the top of my head, it was a thrilling experience.
Time seemed to stop down there with the manta rays. The mantas weren't in a hurry. They just had to fly and flip, moving and eating and breathing all in the same motion. At one point I stopped to examine this manta food that was swimming in my flashlight beam. Tiny little zooplankton in constant motion, swimming and drifting at once, with no idea they had been lured into a trap. But I left the identification to the Housemate, the biological oceanographer. I was there for the mantas. The darkness surrounding us, the bright lights in the circle, and the steady, beautiful mantas combined to create a mesmerizing, otherworldly experience.
Sadly, the moment couldn't last forever. We were intruders to that realm, with a limited air supply. Maybe half an hour after we got there (it was hard to tell time, remember), a diver went over and turned off the bright lights in the center of the circle. The divers with the boat charters, who had been in the water longer than we had, began to trickle up to the surface as they ran low on air. As more people left, and fewer lights remained to attract the mantas and their prey, more of the mantas decided their meal was finished and swam off. It also became harder to see the mantas that remained. Soon there were only a couple clusters of divers left, and three or four manta rays. Then it was only the three of us.
We clustered together to shine our flashlights alongside each other, hoping that the single brighter beam would keep the manta rays coming back. One manta ray came by for one last swirl through the beam of light. It passed through the beam, then turned around to swim through again, clipping me with its wing on the left side of my head from behind. A firm, blunt, but harmless clunk. It did one more back-flip through the flashlight beam, mouth open, catching what plankton were there. Then it was gone.
We looked around for a couple minutes longer, but it was clear that the mantas had all moved on. A couple of red-orange squirrelfish (or something similar) swam by, but there wasn't much else to see on the coarse sand and rocky bottom. We swam back in the direction of the shore, this time underwater using our remaining air, as we still had plenty (more than a third of the tank).
It took us a little time to find the spot on shore where we'd entered; we decided next time we'd bring an extra glow stick to mark our entry and exit point. Still, once we found it, getting out was much easier than getting in. The Housemate's brother got out first, clambered up the rocks, and took off his gear, followed by the Housemate, who did the same. Once I got onto the rocky ledge, I stood up with the water just at my ankles, and the Housemate was able to reach down and lift my scuba gear up off of me. Climbing up without gear was a lot simpler than climbing down with gear.
As we packed up our equipment, we excitedly talked about the dive. We laughed a bit, mentioning our close calls and crashes, discussing how the mantas would do back-flips to avoid crashing, comparing the details about the mantas that we'd noticed, guessing at plankton species. But it was hard to put into words just how we were feeling. It's an elation that comes from experiencing something more beautiful, mystical, serene, and wild than you'd ever expected. That morning, I got to swim with dolphins for the first time ever--a lifelong dream come true. Swimming with the manta rays, however, was an experience truly beyond my wildest dreams.
Click here to find posts about the rest of my Big Island trip.
Update: I returned a year later to see the manta rays, this time armed with a camera. See the video here.