Hawai'i: The Big Island

Manta Ray Diving

August 27, 2008 -- After resting at our condo resort for awhile to make up for the lost sleep of the night before, we checked in for our manta ray dive. Manta rays are active at night, so you go out at night to see them. Mantas eat plankton, and plankton are attracted to light, so a whole bunch of divers with lights attracts a whole bunch of mantas.

We set off on the boat and very soon saw a fleet of spinner dolphins. These are smaller than the bottlenose dolphins you are used to seeing at marine mammal parks and shows. They are called spinner dolphins because they do an incredibly cool thing: they jump up in the air and spin around. Really. They do this a lot. When I asked why, our dive guide said, "Because they can." Apparently they just do it. It's quite a sight to behold, especially when they do it in tandem.

We had signed up for two dives, one while it was still light out. I must say that the diving was particularly spectacular. The water was incredibly clear, all sorts of tropical fish abounded, and the coral itself, sheets of pinnacles of it, was gorgeous. It really did look like a huge sheet across the sea, covered with beautiful lumpy green pinnacles full of tropical fish. And, of course, spiky sea urchins that you don't want to touch. One of the first things I learned as a diver: don't touch those urchins! We went to 86 feet, deeper than we had ever been before. On our way back to the boat, we saw a couple of mantas, moving beautifully and elegantly through the water.

We went back up to the boat for snacks and decompression, and watched the sun set over the sea. It was lovely.

Before we went out on the second dive, we learned a lot about manta rays. They can live to be at least 60 years old, and they don't reproduce until they're 12 or so. In these ways, they're similar to humans. Beyond that, well, we're both animal life forms from the planet earth. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, and we both eat meat (plankton in the case of the mantas). Mantas have really, really enormous mouths, even considering their enormous size. The gills are inside this opening. The mantas will swim very close to you, so you can get a serious look deep into their mouths at all the workings of their respiratory systems. It's pretty amazing.

How can I describe the scene? 33 feet down, surrounded by other divers with their bubbles lit up by their lights. That's pretty dreamy and otherworldly in and of itself. But then there are the mantas swimming overhead. 18 of them, swooping around in their smooth and delicate way. I saw one of them doing backflips, over and over again, through a school of fish.

For a few minutes, it was just overwhelmingly magical. Then I started to recognize that we were seeing some of the same mantas over and over. One had an injury to one of her, I guess you'd call them mandibles, near the mouth, so she was easy to pick out. Then there was a male who'd cut himself on something, so he was also relatively easy to identify. The others were harder to distinguish from each other, but as I watched, it seemed there were three or four who kept swooping over us again and again.

And they came really close. You're not supposed to reach up and touch them, because it injures them, but we easily could have. Sometimes I ducked out of their way. It was highly intense.

Eric didn't get any terribly good pictures, but you can see a manta here.

This is supposed to be one of the best diving experiences in the world, and I'm really glad we got to do it. It was one of the things we came to Hawai'i for, and one of the reasons why I picked the Big Island. But I did have a couple of problems. First, the light I was issued ran out of battery charge just about the time I got settled on the bottom. Fortunately, Eric had a small one in his pocket, so I didn't have to wait for the divemaster to go back to the boat to get another one for me. We should have just used our own lights, which Eric had carefully charged before we left home. Then I had a problem when getting back on the boat. When I got to the boat, the divemaster was still dealing with the previous diver's equipment, and so wasn't there to help me. I should have just waited, but I thought I could start taking my fins off anyway. I took off one fin and tried to lift it onto the platform and missed. I tried to grab it in the water, but it was just out of reach. I should have just let it go and had one of the divemasters go back for it. But I didn't think of that right at the time; I thought it would be gone if I didn't grab it, so I dived for it. Of course, with only one fin on, I didn't have the power of movement to which I'm accustomed. I had to get down to about 15 feet before I was able to grab the escaping fin, and one of my ears was in a fair amount of pain by that point. I just shouldn't have done it. And as I finally grabbed the fin, I dropped Eric's little flashlight. I decided not to go after that; a flashlight costs a lot less than a fin, and it also falls through the water a lot faster. I got back to the boat, but my ear hurt for a while afterwards. Someone brought Eric's little flashlight up, and that made me truly feel that diving after the fin had not been worth it -- a large bright green fin would have been much easier to find in the dark underwater than a small black flashlight, and yet even that got found. I just hope I haven't injured my eustachian tubes to the point where I won't be able to dive today. Only time will tell. We're trying not to let that trouble spoil for us what otherwise was an incredible experience.

If you are curious about these manta rays, there is a very informative web site on them at www.mantapacific.org/mantapacific. Interestingly, amidst all the bad news about the oceans today, what with global warming killing the plankton and coral, the population of manta rays in the waters off Kona is actually growing.

Last updated: 09/04/2008 by Eric and Beth Zuckerman