The famous manta ray night dive in Kona is widely regarded as one of the most memorable dives on the planet. We agree with the experts and think that swimming with manta rays is one of the Big Island activities that you shouldn’t miss.
This guide is structured as follows: first, we explain why we think that swimming with the manta rays is such a memorable experience. Then, we give you a complete overview of the different ways in which you can hop in and try it yourself.
What are the Kona Manta Rays like?
The manta rays that inhabit Hawaiian waters belong to the Mobula alfredi species. These so-called reef manta rays are the second largest species of manta rays in the world, and can grow up to a wingspan of 18 ft (5.5m)! On average, the manta rays you can see around Kona will be about 12 ft.
Manta rays eat plankton, which they filter out of the water by swimming with their (giant) mouths open. The reef manta rays in Hawaii do not migrate and spend their lives in the coastal waters around the islands. Manta rays can live to be 50 years old, and all of the specimens in the waters off Kona have been given their own name.
What makes the Manta ray dive/snorkel in Kona so special?
Hawai’i is not the only place where you can swim with manta rays. Other popular places to dive with these gentle giants are, for example, the Maldives, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Galapagos islands. Most manta ray dives at these locations are made at so-called “cleaning stations,” where the manta rays get their skin cleaned by smaller creatures (more information).
What makes Hawaii so special is the time when you are in the water with the manta rays: dinner time!
Perhaps the best way to express how special an experience the manta ray night dive is by quoting a certified and seasoned dive instructor:
Diving with mantas is one of the most satisfying things a person can do in the water. It’s impossible to describe the feeling of watching a massive fish the shape of a stealth bomber coming into vision. It’s akin to watching your child ride a bike for the first time or finding a winning lottery ticket. In fact, I often use the phrase ‘like watching a manta ray swim by’ as a way to describe the feeling of something awesome. Samuel Beckett -- Planet Dive.
The 3 locations where you can see the manta rays on the Big Island are so-called “feeding stations”. The manta rays first started coming to these places to eat the plankton that was attracted by bright lights that shone on the water either from hotels or from divers.
Nowadays the plankton also gets attracted by lights brought by tour operators. Divers carry a light and shine it up towards the surface, while snorkelers hold on to a float with a light that shines down. The manta rays feed on the plankton attracted by these lights and filter it out of the ocean by swooping through the water with their mouths open. While feeding, the manta rays swim, turn, and somersault gracefully in the light beams, giving you an unforgettable sight!
Manta Ray Tours
Tour operators in Hawai’i operate under strict and self-enforced standards. This is necessary to protect the manta rays and we urge you to choose a tour provider that follows these standards. You can find an up-to-date list of these tour operators in the following green list.
What is it like to go on a manta ray night dive/snorkel?
Manta ray tours normally start at the harbor from which the boat departs. This boat will take you to one of the manta ray feeding zones. Before boarding or during your trip to the feeding grounds, the crew will teach you how to behave while in the water and explain a thing or two about the manta rays.
You can get an impression of how it is to go on a manta ray night dive from the following video. In it, you see Keller Laros (founder of the Manta Pacific Research Foundation) give a presentation on how to behave during the dive to a group of people about to go diving. The last few minutes show footage of that same manta ray dive.
1. Manta Ray Night Dive
During the manta ray night dive you will spend most of your time sitting on the ocean floor while the manta rays feed in the water above you. Manta rays can come as close as a nose-length during the night dive.
You need to be a certified scuba diver to join the manta ray night dive. There are many companies on the Kona coast offer this option. Walk around town (Ali’i drive in Kona) to find special offers, use a price comparison website like hawaiiactivities1, or have a look at the website of the Jack’s Diving Locker.
2. Manta Ray Night Snorkel
During the manta ray night snorkel you will spend your time in the water holding on to a floating board looking down. The bright light attached to this board shines into the water attracting plankton. The manta rays feed on this plankton and come very close to the water surface while feeding.
It is not possible to do “free snorkeling” during the tour because your snorkel and fins can hurt the manta rays. Touching them can remove their protective skin coating and the mantas will likely leave if touched.
There are many companies on the Kona coast that take you out at night on the manta ray night snorkel. Walk around town (Ali’i Drive) to find special last-minute offers, use a price comparison website like hawaiiactivities1, or have a look at the following two companies that are preferred members of the Manta Ray Green List and get consistently great reviews:
The 3 best location to see manta rays on the Big Island
The two most consistent and popular places to see manta rays at night are nicknamed “Manta Village” and “Manta Heaven”. A third, less reliable but also less crowded location, is in Waikoloa near the Kohala Coast Resorts. These 3 locations are discussed below:
Manta Village (south of Kona)
This is the original manta ray night dive location. Manta Village is located off the coast from of the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa in Keauhou, about 7 miles south of Kona.
It is the location with the highest success rate in manta ray sightings. In 2013, for example, a staggering 96% of all manta ray tours reported seeing manta rays, with an average of 4 manta rays per night (source).
There are a few local operators (such as Sea Paradise) that operate from the nearby Keauhou Bay to reach this site. This cuts down travel time down from 45+ minutes to only a few, which is great for those of you prone to sea sickness, and also means you will be exposed to the elements for a much shorter time after being submerged in the ocean for 45 min to an hour (it can get cold at night on the ocean).
The Manta Learning Center in the Sheraton Kona resort
Fronting the Manta Village location is the Sheraton Kona resort in which you can find the manta learning center. This is a 700 square ft space where you can see beautiful manta ray photos, as well as general information about manta ray anatomy, life cycle and feeding, reproductive and behavioral patterns. There is also a 15-minute video display showing footage shot during night dives, and every day at 6 pm you can listen to a presentation about manta rays.
Manta Heaven (north of Kona)
This site is located offshore of the Kona International Airport, about 8 miles north of Kona. Manta Heaven is a very popular spot for daylight dives, and is also known as “Garden Eel Cove”.
Of course, this spot is also known for manta ray night dives. The success rate at Manta Heaven is a bit lower than that at the Manta Village location, with 90%, is still very high. The big selling point for this location is the number of manta rays you can see. The average number of manta rays seen here per night in 2013 was 11, compared to ‘only’ 4 at Manta Village.
Kohala Coast (near Waikoloa)
This is the most northern location on the Big Island to see the manta rays. It is located close to Waikoloa Village and the Kohala Resorts, near Kawaihae Harbor.
The main selling point for this manta ray night dive spot is the lack of other tourists. At the other two locations, you can find yourself in the water with 50 to 100 other people at a time! That will never happen here, and sometimes the group that you are with is the only one in the water. The reason for this is also the main disadvantage of this location: there are fewer manta rays and they are seen here less frequently.
Guidelines for a manta ray encounter:
While manta rays in Hawaiian waters are protected by law from being hunted, the increasing popularity of manta ray dives and the associated crowding of their feeding zones puts them in a vulnerable position. Because of this the Ocean Recreation Council of Hawaii and PADI’s Project AWARE (Aquatic World Awareness, Responsibility, and Education) drafted the following guidelines to be followed by all participants of the Kona Manta Ray Night Dive/Snorkel:
- Observe only: No touching. 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 doesn’t benefit the animal in anyway.
- Diver position: Divers, please stay on or near the sand, rubble or 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.
- Use of lights: Divers, please shine lights up into the water column to attract plankton. Snorkelers, please shine lights down.
- Making bubbles: Divers, please avoid exhaling bubbles directly into the mantas’ faces.
- Taking photos or videos: Be considerate of people and mantas when taking underwater photos or video. Minimize your equipment in the water column and let the mantas come to you.
Frequently Asked Questions about Manta Rays:
Below we list the answers to questions that we are often asked. Please get in touch with us if you have a manta ray question that has not been answered yet.
The biggest difference between the night dive and the night snorkel is your (vertical) location.
- If you go on a snorkeling tour you will stay near the water surface, probably holding on to a flotation device that also has lights attached to it to attract plankton and thus the manta rays.
- If you go on a diving tour you will be sitting on the ocean floor close and see the manta rays by looking up.
The difference between the is nicely illustrated in the following video, which was filmed during a manta ray night dive in Kona. In it you can see the divers sitting on the ocean floor looking up while the manta rays are swirling around to eat the plankton. On the water surface you can see stagnant and floating lights on the surface. This is where the people snorkeling are looking down to see the manta rays.