Hawaii’s manta rays are testing my patience. Floating just off Hawaii Island’s Kona Coast in the dark, I’m holding onto a spotlight-laden long raft along with other snorkellers, waiting for the gentle giants of the sea to show up.
We’re in a spot known as Manta Village where there’s an excellent chance that some of the area’s 150-plus manta rays will come along to feed on plankton. After all, the manta rays have been turning up here since 1972, when the Kona Surf Hotel first pointed a spotlight out onto the ocean beyond the black-lava rocks below. The light attracted plankton, a manta ray’s favourite food, and just like that, a new tourism industry was born.
That hotel is today the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, which continues to shine a light upon the ocean. Diners sitting at the hotel’s open-air Rays on the Bay restaurant can easily spy the giant wings of manta rays from the comfort of their dinner table.
It’s a five-minute walk from the hotel to the Hula Kai catamaran that ferries snorkellers around to the viewing spot in front of the hotel. We wriggle into full wetsuits on shore, listen to an information session aboard the boat (no, the rays won’t sting or bite us) and then flop into the water with flippers, snorkel and a foam noodle in hand.
Taking up position along the foam-filled raft, we pop the noodle under our ankles to help us float horizontally (and not kick the manta rays). Five minutes in, two rays glide past and disappear. I’m struck by their velvety looking skin, how big their open mouths are and their sheer size. Then we wait. Even with a wetsuit and a mild ocean temperature, it starts to feel a little chilly. Just as I’m pondering whether to return to the catamaran for a warming cup of Kona coffee, a collective squeal goes up from a neighbouring pod of snorkellers (other boats, swimmers, kayakers and paddle-boarders are near us, also waiting for a glimpse of the manta rays).
The cause of the commotion soon glides into view: a somersaulting manta ray. It flips up and over, hoovering the snowstorm of plankton, repeating the pattern, revealing the markings on its underbelly that help identify if we’re looking at Jana Ray, Sugar Ray, X-Ray or Darth Ray-der (a database at www.mantarayshawaii.com details individual rays). We know the manta rays won’t touch us - electro-receptors allow them to steer clear of objects in the water – but the gentle giant glides so close to my face that, before I know it, I also become one of the squealers. The manta ray is just centimetres from my face when it pirouettes away, as graceful as any ballet dancer. The creature’s wing span is so massive that it’s easy to imagine it could simply enfold you within its wings and whisk you away.
More manta rays turn up: I’m entranced by the creatures and their behaviour. I have no idea how much time passes as I watch their astonishing underwater performances but, at some point, the manta rays move on and I look up to realise I’m one of the few people still floating in the water. Back on board the boat, I change back into my clothes and sip a warming cup of soup and then a hot chocolate. I’ll do a lot of other things in Hawaii – watch the sun rise from the top of a volcano, stroll among turtles on a beach, try my hand at surfing - but nothing, it turns out, will beat this.
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