One of the most magical things about learning to snorkel is the new experiences available to you and your child. The underwater world is filled with creatures that we still know so little about, some so fantastical, they seem like something we created in a dream.
Manta Rays, the ballet dancers of the sea, who glide and twirl and occasionally leap out of the water, are one such dream-like creature. And in Kona, Hawai’i, you can have a close encounter snorkeling with manta rays, as they feed on plankton at sunset. You and your child will float on the water’s surface while you witness what seems like a well-choreographed performance just beneath you. Read on for more on how you can experience this magic!
What is a Manta Ray? Where do they live and what do they eat?
There are many types of rays, but Manta Rays, the big ones you have probably seen in photographs, are uniquely identified as the largest of the species. There are 2 different types of mantas; the ones you would most likely encounter on your snorkeling experience in Kona, known as the reef manta, grow to about 11 or 12 feet (3-4 meters) from tip to tip. The larger Mantas, known as the giant manta, may have a wingspan of up to 29 feet (almost 9 meters!)!
Mantas are an incredibly intelligent ocean species, and their feeding method demonstrates this. Their mouths act as a filter (no they can’t bite you and they are certainly not interested in eating you!) as they “sift” the water, capturing plankton in the process. The acrobatics and somersault performance you will witness while snorkeling is the result of them repeating this “sifting” process when there are high concentrations of microplankton. Kind of like returning to an all-you-can-eat buffet!
And the question that is always asked: Can I get stung by a manta ray? The answer is no. Their tail spine does not have a venomous barb on it at all.
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Manta Ray Adventures – Why Go?
Like so many other creatures, the greatest threat to Mantas are humans. Mantas are often caught, either as a bycatch (meaning not intentionally, but caught and perish when fishermen are targeting another catch) or targeted (due to an idea that they provide cures to an assortment of ailments, without any scientific evidence to prove this). Mantas have a very slow reproduction rate, with females typically producing offspring only once every 2 years, making them very vulnerable to overfishing.
But studies have proven that manta tourism may be a key to protecting them, as the money generated through these encounters is repeatable and far surpasses the immediate one-time payment for a single manta caught by fishing. This may help shift the mindsets of local communities to support a sustainable tourism solution rather than overfishing. By choosing an ethical and reputable operator, you can help drive tourism dollars back into the local economy.
Planning Your Trip to Snorkel with Manta Rays
1. Where to Go
Kona, Hawai’i, located on the Western coast of the Big Island, is one of the most famous places in the world for manta ray encounters. Scuba divers and snorkelers alike have the opportunity to have up-close observation of the feeding habits of these graceful giants.
If you are flying into Honolulu first, Kona is a short 35-minute flight from the main island of Hawai’i. Alternatively, there is another airport on the other side of the Big Island in Hilo. If you fly in, be prepared to drive for a few hours to get to Kona on the west side. Due to this lengthy drive, it makes sense to do this activity while you are staying somewhere closer to the West side of the island since it is a night activity and you likely won’t want to make the long drive back after returning to the boat.
2. When to Go
The manta population on the west coast of the Big Island is present year-round, so in terms of seasonality, this presents a lot of opportunities for you to schedule your snorkeling with manta rays experience. However, any activity like this is weather-dependent and the area typically sees larger swells and rougher seas from January through March, which would impact the tour. If you plan to try to book during this time, I recommend making the booking early in your vacation so you have some flexibility should it be rescheduled for inclement weather.
Additionally, be mindful that this is a popular activity and sells out frequently, particularly in the high tourism season and on weekends. I recommend making a booking as soon as you have a sense of your travel dates and itinerary.
3. Manta Ray Snorkeling Tour Operators
For our snorkeling with manta rays adventure, we booked with Sea Paradise. We had an excellent experience on their very nicely appointed catamaran that allowed seating around the boat, some covered and some uncovered. There is a netted area on the front, known in boat terms as the “trampoline”, that allows you to almost feel like you are riding directly on the water – a highlight for the kiddos! We loved watching the sunset as we rode out to sea. The team at Sea Paradise is efficient and professional and will explain all that you need for your tour. Their tours include some non-alcoholic beverages, and they also have a restroom on board the boat. I definitely recommend them! Children from 6 years upwards are welcome to participate in snorkeling with manta rays if they are competent. Younger children (4 and older) can also “ride along” on the boat only, provided you have an adult who will mind them.
However, if Sea Paradise is not available, there are several reputable and reliable operators in the area. Some operators will also provide a pool noodle to help you float as you are holding on to the giant floating specially designed night light. The nuances of beverages and bathroom may vary, but the general experience once you are in the water snorkeling with manta rays is similar from boat to boat, and ultimately, nature will do what it likes. A lot of the operators will be in the same area at sunset, known as Manta Ray Village.
It’s important to note that this once-in-a-lifetime experience may appear more expensive than other activities, but as noted above, this money goes back into the local community and ultimately helps protect the mantas (see Section of this post: “Manta Ray Encounters: Why Go?”). Overall, I feel this activity is very fairly priced for the experience and service.
4. Preparing to Snorkel with Manta Rays: Swimming and Snorkeling Ability
Swimming and snorkeling competence is needed for this activity. Your wetsuit does help by creating additional buoyancy. You’ll be holding on to the manta flotation device (which is kind of like a giant surfboard with a night light) and looking down underneath the water’s surface.
I would recommend getting comfortable using a mask and snorkel beforehand so that you are not spending a lot of time adjusting masks. If this isn’t something you have done before, I have an easy four-step process on my Instagram you should check out that works great for anyone new to the experience before you plan your snorkeling with manta rays encounter.
Additionally, keep in mind that this is an evening swim. For the plankton to be drawn to the surface (which is the snack du jour for our manta friends and a key component for snorkeling with manta rays’ success), the special lights need to be turned on and not conflict with sun rays. There is nothing to be afraid of nor reason for concern getting into the water at this time, I want to point this out, as this may make some folks nervous. If you feel a little hesitant as you start to get in the water, I find it helpful to just focus on your breathing, very slowly, in and out. Don’t think about anything else and you’ll start to relax.
For the best experience for you and the others on your tour, everyone must be calm in the water. I think it’s important to remember that children feed off the energy around them, so it’s helpful if you remain supportive, calm, and positive (even in those moments when you might not totally feel it!).
5. What to Bring
You don’t need to bring much! Your tour provider will bring most of the critical items you’ll need for your time snorkeling with manta rays. That being said, there are a few items that may make your tour experience more enjoyable:
- Wear a swimsuit and easy-to-remove shoes. Your tour provider will fit everyone in your group with a wetsuit to keep you comfortable during your time in the water. If you are concerned about staying warm, you can wear a rash guard and leggings under your wetsuit instead.
- A towel. You’ll want to bundle up after your time in the water. It’s helpful to put this in a small dry bag to keep it from getting wet.
- Sweatshirt or jacket. Once the sun sets, it can get a little chilly. I recommend bringing a hooded sweatshirt, particularly since this is an evening activity and it can be a little windy on the ride back to shore.
- Snacks: Rule number one traveling with children – ALWAYS bring snacks. Always. Keep in mind that this activity takes place around dinner time, so I recommend having a heavy late lunch beforehand, so you aren’t starving while you are out snorkeling with mantas rays. Additionally, please be mindful of the packaging of any snacks and be sure to take care that no wrapping ends up in the water. Fresh fruit, cheese sticks, dried fruit, and trail mix are great options.
- Snorkel & Mask: Tour operators will have these available and will allow you to select one before you board the boat. However, I always prefer to bring our own, as I know they will fit perfectly and not leak. A mask leak can make for a much less enjoyable underwater experience. I also always have a comfort strap on ours to avoid pulling hair.
- Dry Change of Clothes. Once you are back at the dock, the operator may have an area or access to a public restroom for you to comfortably change into dry clothes for your ride home.
- Extra Cash: Always bring a little extra cash to tip your guides and boat captain.
6. What to Expect
The experience will follow the same general steps for most of the operators in the area.
- You’ll arrive at the dock a little before sunset and get fitted for your wetsuit. Be sure to allow yourself enough time to find the location and find parking (if you are driving), as the boat needs to depart in a timely fashion. Be mindful not to leave valuables in your parked vehicle. If you don’t have a car, it may be useful to arrange transport for the return trip ahead of time, so you aren’t stuck or waiting when you return to shore after your snorkel experience.
- Once you are suited up, you’ll board the boat and head out. Expect glorious Hawai’ian sunsets as you head out to the location.
- The boat ride will typically be about 10 minutes and you’ll arrive at the site where they will turn off the motors. The manta flotation device will be placed in the water and tour guides will be in the water with you as you and your fellow participants get into the water and assume a spot along the edges of the light.
- Your eyes will slowly adjust to the underwater view. It might take a little bit for the mantas to show up, but I promise it is worth it. You will see the large, elegant wings slowly appear out of the dark and start the dance below you. As you are floating on the top, the mantas may come under you, but they generally don’t come too close. They aren’t keen to get kicked either! They move slowly and seemingly effortlessly with their large filter mouth open. They might dip and twirl and loop around, coming back for another serving of the plankton that is invisible to your eyes. If you are lucky, you might see several dancing together in perfectly harmonized choreography. The 45 minutes that you get to watch this performance will go by fast. My best advice is to relax and enjoy the show.
- Don’t try to touch or kick the mantas – your hands carry bacteria that can harm them. Do not attempt to feed the manta rays. This time you have in their home is a gift and you are a guest. Maintain respect for these extraordinarily unique creatures.
- After your time in the water is done, you’ll return to the boat to dry off as you return to shore. Your heart will be very full, and you’ll still be trying to hold on to the euphoric feeling of what you have just witnessed.
7. Learn More, Take Action!
In the US, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has listed the Giant Manta Ray as threatened, under the Endangered Species Act, since 2019. Like most ocean creatures, the manta rays are impacted by rising ocean temperatures (which also impacts the plankton they feed on), pollution and toxic waste dumped in the ocean, and direct and indirect fishing.
In addition to being aware of your own personal actions and how this impacts the ocean, your specific in-ocean behavior around manta rays has an important role. Manta rays are very sensitive to disturbance, making it even more critical that you and your travel partners are mindful when in the presence of these extraordinary creatures. The Manta Trust has produced an exemplary short film you can watch here to learn more before you embark on your snorkeling with manta rays trip.
As a citizen scientist, you can also assist in identifying manta rays for scientists, as the spots on the underside are unique markers, like a thumbprint for each individual Manta. This helps track populations and migration behavior.
8. Read More! (some of our favorite Manta Ray books)
My hope is that by witnessing the extraordinary beauty of manta ray feeding you will develop a new love and respect for this fascinating and unique creature. You are now a Manta Ray Ambassador and when we know more, we have a responsibility to do more. So, please be sure to educate those around you on how they can also help protect manta rays. Are you ready to plan your snorkeling with manta rays experience? Let us know below! Happy Roaming!