Read Part I of my Big Island diving experience here.
So far, our night was brimming with good fortune. Our boat’s wake became a playground for passing dolphins, and our first dive was filled with colorful coral and mysterious critters. We had even spotted a manta ray in the distance as we began to ascend — an omen, we hoped, for the dive ahead of us.
Because while this very dive site is famous as the world’s most reliable place to see manta rays, they are still wild animals without too much care for how far you traveled or how much you paid to see them. In the hilarious and puppet-assisted briefing, our dive guides Jordan and David told us that sometimes there are twenty rays, sometimes there are five, sometimes –though rare — there are none at all.
We were to be very, very lucky that night.
Kona Diving Company makes a point to enter the water last out of all the dive schools, so that they can also exit last, and have some alone time with the mantas. Even knowing that, it was hard to wait when muffled squeals came trumpeting out of the other group’s snorkels. Finally it was our turn to enter the water and because I hate jumping into dark water and waiting for my dive buddy, Heather indulged me by going in first. Once our group was all at the surface, we descended together and swam towards the large circle the other dive schools had formed. I couldn’t help but let out a squeal myself as my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I saw the elegant lines of the mantas swooping and swimming in the distance. As when I first laid eyes on a whale shark, I felt tears springing in my mask.
These creatures are truly magnificent — their wingspan can reach up to 20 feet. I love the photo below right for the sense of scale that it gives. Though it is strictly forbidden to touch the manta rays, you can’t stop them from touching you. We saw more than twenty individual mantas that night, and I’m positive I went to second base with at least four of them.
Because there are so many people that want to experience the mantas, and just one site to see them, all the dive companies in Kona work together. Each company has a different color of glow stick assigned to them, which is attached to the back of each diver’s tank and each snorkeler’s mask. That way everyone can stick with their group — it would definitely prove helpful with the madness below.
While the amount of people you share this experience with might seem like a burden, it’s actually necessary to attract the great creatures. These pacific manta rays feed on plankton, which are attracted to the divers’ and snorkelers’ bright lights. They feed by straining the plankton through their mouths and out of their gills as they swim, often by performing underwater back flips and somersaults.
Still, when the other dive groups started to get low on air and retreat back to their boats, I was grateful for our time alone with the mantas. It’s a good thing I had had time to get comfortable though, as when the other diver’s left so did their lights and it was truly pitch black save for the beam of our own torches.
I will remember this hour underwater for the rest of my life. As I watching the show these acrobats of the sea put on for us, I felt humbled by nature and by the power of the ocean. I marvel that these were wild animals, free to come and go as they please, and felt grateful that they chose to spent time with us. I was so grateful for a guilt-free animal encounter. While I admit I’m a fairly easily impressed diver, this was without a doubt one of the best dives of my life.
If you are lucky enough to come experience this yourself, I can’t sing the praises of Kona Diving Company more highly. As we were forking over more than $166 per person (including all gear rental, taxes, and fees), I turned to my trusty Scubaboard, the web’s biggest diving forum, for a recommendation. It didn’t let me down. After diving in more than 10 countries I can say Kona Diving Company is one of the best operators I’ve ever had the pleasure of diving with.
The briefings were funny and thorough, though perhaps at times a bit too thorough — Heather remarked she felt she was retaking her Open Water course. The equipment was top-notch and all set up and broken down for us (and, um, did you see our awesome dive hoods?), warm water showers were provided, and as I mentioned, their late entry into the water allowed us prime solo time with the mantas. But best of all, there was more food than you can even imagine. Not only were goldfish, trail mix and sodas available and hot chocolate, tea and instant noodles provided, but wraps and homemade brownies were served on the surface interval! So yeah, you can pretty much always win me over with food. But on top of it all, Divemaster Jordan was extremely sweet to Heather and I and gave us staff towels when we stupidly brought none, and gave us suggestions of safe places to park our Jeep, also known as our hotel for the night, to sleep. Kona Diving Company made me thrilled to hand over a huge amount of cash for a dive — not an easy feat.
Now, photographing the mantas only captures a sliver of their essence. To really understand them, you need to see them move. You won’t regret the two minutes spent watching this movie.
What has been your most awe-inspiring animal encounter or other experience in nature? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it to my bucket list!
Note: Kona Diving Company in no way paid or perked me to write this review. In fact, they didn’t even know I was a blogger! Just sharing an amazing experience I had with a great company.