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Visitors to the Kona Coast of the Big Island have an opportunity to participate in one of the most unique ocean adventures in the world! Manta rays frequent the warm waters of the rocky volcanic coastline in search of plankton, their primary food source. With their giant mouths constantly open, they glide through the water and filter these tiny creatures. There is one particular spot close to the Kona airport where mantas congregate in the early evening, and after dark they are attracted to lights that are placed on the bottom of the ocean in about 30 feet of water. These lights attract clouds of tiny plankton and the plankton attracts the mantas. These giant rays gracefully glide, twirl and do somersaults to swoop up the tiny little food particles, sometimes within a foot or so of the snorkelers! You, too, can witness these spectacular ocean creatures in their magical underwater ballet in an event you’ll never forget!
The manta ray encounters along the Kona coast began back in the early 70’s; a hotel called the “Kona Surf” had bright lights that shined into the ocean and mantas were attracted almost nightly. Scuba operators began doing night dives. While the location gave a reliable chance to see manta rays, the spot was not very protected from ocean swells and sometimes the area would be too rough to dive or snorkel.
In 1999 the Kona Surf Hotel closed and the lights were turned off. The manta rays found a new spot to congregate in a bay near the Kona airport where plankton concentrated in the late afternoon sun. This is the spot where most mantas are now going on a nightly basis and the bay offers a much more protected location from ocean swells. This bay is inaccessible from shore and access requires a boat ride of about 25-30 minutes from the harbor just north of downtown Kailua-Kona.
At first the manta ray encounter began as an event for scuba divers. Over time it became clear that this isn’t just for certified divers! Snorkelers can float at the top and watch the action below. The bright lights that you hold in your hand and shine downward will attract plankton, and the manta rays will swoop up from the deeper water. They often come within inches of you and do a flip as they scoop the plankton out of the water for a tasty snack.
Floating platforms are placed behind the boat and these tiny little “islands” have very bright lights pointing straight down underwater. These bright lights attract the plankton at night, which in turn attracts the manta rays to glide in to scoop up a mouthful of these tiny organisms. When you first enter the water the scene looks like something out of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with rays of light beaming down into the water and attracting a host of tiny fish as well as the giant mantas.
The wetsuit that is provided for snorkelers will do two things for you. First, it will help keep you warm since you are snorkeling after dark. Second, it will help you float. Even if you aren’t a good swimmer, you won’t have any problems floating around at the top while wearing a wetsuit. The floating platforms also add a measure of safety as they give participants a place to hold on so they can stay directly above the manta action.