Near the top of most avid snorkeler's bucket list is the manta ray night snorkel off Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. Cruising a 30 mile stretch of southwest Big Island coastline are over 250 resident manta rays. These hahalua (Hawaiian for manta ray) can have a wingspan over 15 feet and weigh over 1,000 pounds. The docile manta rays spend their days filtering the ocean water for plankton as food - up to 10% of their weight weekly.
Night snorkeling with manta rays started two decades ago offshore of the Sheraton Kona Resort at the mouth off Keauhou Bay south of Kailua-Kona (aka Manta Village). Initially, snorkelers would head out in the evening with an inner-tube and a flash light in the 35 foot deep water to attract plankton that draw the manta rays near to feed. Overtime, the setup had become more sophisticated with lighted paddleboard bottom surfaces, and the discovery of other dive sites including the Eel Cove off the Kona airport. Also, the manta rays have adapted to these nightly feed opportunities and have developed a unique, acrobatic barrel-roll loop to maximize their plankton intake.
Presently, there are over a dozen charters offering manta ray night snorkel tours out of the marinas north and south of Kona. The charters vary by their start times, duration on site, professionalism, tour size and the paddleboard lighting technology (light color and power are considered to attract the plankton differently). The larger Eel Cove site off the airport tends to have more consistent nightly appearances of mantas, which is never guaranteed (typically 80% of evenings). There are now about a half dozen mooring buoys at Eel Cove and therefore it attracts numerous dive boats nightly.
Since this experience is in rolling open-water at night, it is recommended for advanced snorkelers. The duration of the night snorkeling can be up to an hour, so make sure you have a full wetsuit since many inexperienced snorkelers end up bailing after 15 minutes before the manta rays even appear. When choosing a manta ray night snorkel tour, make sure to go on a snorkeler-only boat to avoid lengthy waiting on the scuba divers to enter and exit the water. Each company has a different length tour ranging from 1.25 hours to 3.5 hours, and has different amenities, so make sure to choose carefully. On average, manta rays are only sighted on 8 out of 10 evenings, so make sure to book a tour with a company that offers a guarantee for a replacement trip (don't book this tour on the last night of your stay). The longer the tour means the longer your time in the water and the higher the likelihood of seeing a manta ray.
A highly recommended manta ray night snorkel tour is Manta Adventures. Captain Dan and diver Tanner truly go out of their way to ensure you have a great manta ray snorkeling experience. Luckily, the Manta Adventures tour starts much earlier than all the other manta ray snorkel tours - they get out to Garden Eel Cove first to get the prime mooring buoy. They provide plenty of time to get in a leisurely snorkel at twilight, and pass fresh pineapple during the manta safety story while gearing up in their provided long-sleeve wetsuits. The crew are very attentive and knowledgeable with a definite safety focus to make everyone feel very comfortable. For the tour guests who were prone to sea sickness, the crew comes prepared with plenty of local preventive remedies (various forms of ginger).
The approach of Manta Adventures is clearly different than the chaos observed with the late arriving snorkel boats. The late arriving boats were scrambling to find mooring buoys in the dark or just dropping people in the water with the motors running. Since it does take a while after the underwater lights go on for the manta rays to appear, you really want to be the last in the water. Since many of the other manta ray tours were on tight schedules or didn't have a mooring buoy, their guests were dropped in the water early and were exposed to the boats motoring around in the dark. Don't be surprised to see multi-engine boats backing up into the cove to within 10 feet of large groups of snorkelers to drop off their 20+ snorkelers! It is truly chaos and makes one appreciate the safety approach of Manta Adventures.
With Manta Adventures, they use the combined underwater lighting systems of the boat and paddleboard to attract plankton, but it still takes another 20 minutes for the manta rays to arrive. It is nice to wait onboard in the warm evening air. Other tour company guests were already offloaded into the cold water waiting for 20 minutes for the mantas to appear. Once the first manta started appearing, calmly enter the water. Even so, it still took another 20-30 minutes in the water until the manta rays start to regularly coming by and then to perform their barrel-rolls dance to feed on the plankton.
By the time the manta rays really started their dance, many of the other tour companies had already collected their guests and departed in order to stay on schedule for the next night snorkel trip. The Manta Adventures staff was very patient and supportive to wait out the manta rays until they started their feeding dance. It is not unusual for half of the snorkelers to get cold and leave the water before the full manta show gets going. While you may be really cold after being in the water for 45-60 minutes, the experience is well worth it! Overall, on a typical night you may be lucky enough to see a half-dozen different manta rays ranging from 5-10 feet across. During the barrel-roll feeding frenzy, the manta rays can come right up to your chest under the bright paddleboard lights before a looping dive back down to the 20 foot deep bottom.
After reluctantly bidding the mantas goodnight, the Manta Adventures staff will greet you back onboard with an unexpected hot water shower to cut the deep chill. While Manta Adventures is usually the first snorkel boat at the moorings, they are also usually the last boat to leave. After stripping out of the wetsuit, the crew offers big warm cookies which are greatly appreciated during the quick ride back into Honokohau harbor. Back at the marina, after tipping the crew and changing into dry clothes, you may want to check out the Harbor House Restaurant which is well known for its cheap chilled schooners and some of the best fish-n-chips on the Big Island.
More Details: Best Manta Ray Night Snorkel
Contact: Manta Adventures