Off the coast of the Hawaiian Islands, hundreds of unique sea creatures are teeming beneath the waves. Various kinds of honu (green sea turtles), dolphins, sharks and reef fish make it a popular snorkeling and scuba diving locations. However, one of the most exhilarating experiences both tourists and locals can enjoy is taking the plunge into vast waters to see the majestic manta rays swim.
Manta rays are giant eagle rays from the Manta genus. The word manta comes from the Portuguese word for “mantle” or “cloak” as the traps once used for catching rays were fashioned in a blanket or cloak. These wondrous creatures have long triangle-shaped pectoral fins which span an enormous reach of up to 20 feet or more. They also are known for their cephalic fins, which are shaped like horns, earning them the description of “sea-devil” in spite of their gentle demeanor. Manta rays migrate through tropical waters, swimming with their mouths open to trap and swallow zooplankton for nourishment. They glide through the waters by gracefully waving their fins like bird wings, traveling solo or in groups. Though manta rays mostly stay under water, like whales, they will breach completely, leaping out over the waves. This provides a spectacular show for anyone fortunate enough to witness it.
Manta rays are considered a vulnerable species, primarily due to threats such as pollution, sharks and poachers looking to harvest parts of their gills for use in Chinese medicines. Fortunately, the rays are protected by the Convention of Migratory Species of Wild Animals in international oceans. Manta rays were revered by sailors because of their horns, open mouths and sheer size of fins, which gave them an outwardly aggressive appearance. However, the manta rays are fairly docile creatures that do not have deadly stingers on their tails, unlike the sting ray. The size of these mammoth mantas makes them very difficult to capture and showcase. As a result very few aquariums have manta rays; so the best place to see one is in the wild.
Hawaii is the ideal vacation destination for marine life enthusiasts who want to see manta rays first hand. Guests can snorkel, scuba dive with the rays or take a tour cruise across the waves where the mantas most frequently swim. As it has been described as one of the top ten best experienced a human can have, swimming with manta rays will prove to be an unforgettable adventure.
Visitors can find ample opportunities to dive with manta rays on the Big Island’s Kona coast, where over 200 rays are known to reside. Guests set sail on a sunset cruise, where they will learn about manta rays before going for the night dive. Experienced certified scuba divers can venture deep below the waves with the mantas, while others can opt for snorkeling above the glorious sea creatures. Illuminated with underwater lights, the mantas can be seen serenely swimming by, feeding on the zooplankton drawn by the underwater lights. For those who prefer to stay on the shore, resorts such as Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay and the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel provide special viewing locations where visitors can see manta rays swim by at night.
Unlike whale-watching excursions, manta ray sightings occur year round. So whatever time of the year you travel to Hawaii, a dive with manta rays will always be an option. Those staying in Maui can also enjoy a daytime Pacific manta ray encounter at the “cleaning stations” at the base of the West Maui Mountains, where the rays congregate to be picked clean by the Hawaiian wrasse fish. Diving and snorkeling tours in Maui also showcase reef areas where manta rays frequent.
Scuba divers on the island of Lanai have also come across manta rays at the world famous diving hot-spot called “The Cathedrals.” However in the opinion of many, for the best up-close views of manta rays the Big Island of Hawaii is the place to be.