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Manta Heaven (Hawaii, Day 2)

Last Updated on August 3, 2023

A manta ray at night off the coast of Hawaii's Big Island.
A manta ray approaches me almost as soon as I’ve jumped in the water.

When I made my to-do list for my Big Isle trip, I had one item at the very tip-top of the list: dive with manta rays. I’ve read oodles about this dive, with many sources declaring it a dive of a lifetime, the pinnacle of underwater adventures, and other superlatives. After diving with great whites, I thought that swimming with plankton eaters would be rather anti-climatic. I was greatly mistaken.

We started our diving day at Garden Eel Cove, a sandy-bottomed locale with numerous pencil-thin eels who sway in the surge like seagrass. A coral reef flocked with critters surrounded the cove, which counted for less than a few minutes of the entire dive, and we spotted several other eel relatives in the craggy nooks that were only yards away from the man-made ring of stones that would act as the focus of the night dive ahead.

After downing some sandwiches (mine was a lemongrass tofu baguette from Ba-Le, of course), during which we watched the sun fade into the ocean, we prepared for the main event. A cluster of other watercraft had invaded our mooring site and, as we donned our gear, we spotted one of our visual prey gliding through the water just yards from the line shining beneath our boat. When the first two divers into the water shouted back that there was “a big ‘un right below us!” I long-strided in and immediately sank my face downwards, my flashlight bobbing about for the 14-footer they’d spotted.

I didn’t have to look far. Rising from the midnight blue depths — headed straight towards me and the diver on my right — came the manta, his eyes seemingly intent on looking me face on. Once he’d reached my knees, he opened his maw so that my beacon shone straight into his ribbed cavern of a mouth, his wings still propelling him towards me as if he meant to suck me in like a Hoover. He stopped, hovering, just inches from my mask, taking in both my features and the multitude of plankton that had flocked to my flashlight’s beam like microscopic moths. I managed to snap a few photos with my “can’t go deeper than 10 feet” camera, but I only got off one shot where you can almost make out the manta shape.

As we flippered over to the designated manta meeting grounds, an unearthly blue glow loomed up ahead, causing images of James Cameron’s aquatic aliens to float through my head. As we drew nearer, we realized we weren’t the first arrivals at manta central: At least three other dive boats had claimed their places around the ring. Their divers’ flashlight beams formed pillars of light that appeared to hold up the water’s surface, where snorkelers splashed about, gazing down upon the underwater Druid ceremony below them. At the center of the ring lay a large milk crate stuffed with high-powered beams that created a stationary Klieg light in which a school of plankton-hungry fish darted about. In the divers’ beams, silvery bubbles rose to the surface. Ring within ring within ring, we awaited the guests of honor.

And waited. And waited.

After about 10 minutes of shivering on the ocean floor, divemaster Bo switched to plan B, and we and the other divers reluctantly swam off. Just when we were almost out of sight of the blue glow, in swooped the enormo manta who’d tried to make out with me earlier, followed by another a foot or so smaller. They slid through the water over our heads, sometimes tapping us with their wings as they passed, their ever-searching mouths widened to take in as much miniscule matter as possible. One diver, who’d brought along a high-powered light for his cumbersome camera, attracted them most, so I quickly made my way to his side for a ringside view. The surge grew stronger, so I wrapped my legs around a large rock anchored to the sea bed and took in the mantas, who were now somersaulting before us to grab as much food as possible.

For the first few minutes back on the boat, few of us could speak, although our ear-to-ear grins spoke volumes. Then slowly the chatter started, and we returned to our chatty selves, several of the older female divers donning red glowsticks as earrings in celebration. What could possibly top an experience like that?

Second best experience of the day: Kona Brewing Company‘s strawberry and spinach salad. Ever since having it on Oahu last year, I’ve been craving its tangy sweetness. Washed down with their pale ale, it’s second only to the manta experience. And a far second at that.

Day 1: Escape From Cube Life
Day 2: Manta Heaven
Day 3: Paddling to My Death
Day 4: The Southernmost Gaffe in the United States
Day 5: Somewhere Over Polulu
Day 6: Grounded in Hilo
Day 7: To Fly or Not to Fly
Day 8: Don’t Make Me Go!

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