KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii -- The current moves as manta rays with 10- or
12-foot wing spans sail by, so closely I have to duck. It's
Watching such majestic animals in their environment evokes
powerful emotions. Even after diving at many wonderful
destinations, watching mantas in their graceful dance for blooming
plankton stands out as a highlight of my underwater
In fact, the Big Island is one of the few places in the world
where divers can see giant manta rays up close in water as shallow
as 20 feet.
Eco-Adventures, a 12-year-old company based on the Big Island,
specializes in manta ray night dives. The two-tank twilight/night
dive begins with a check-in at about 4 p.m. (times fluctuate
depending on the sunset) and a relatively shallow (up to 50 feet)
first dive to examine the changes in the marine life just before it
gets dark, said Amanda Steenman, an instructor with
Divers exit the water in time to refuel with snacks and
nonalcoholic beverages and watch the sunset from the company's
The boat is certified for 98 passengers, but Steenman said they
keep the number of divers aboard to fewer than 20 so there's ample
room to move around.
Between dives, the crew will change tanks for you. Indeed,
handling gear is a nonissue. Crew members load equipment on the
boat, set it up, break it down and rinse it afterward.
For those traveling without their own regulator, light and
buoyancy control device, Eco rents each item for $5, meaning divers
can outfit themselves completely for less than $20.
After participating in the first, predarkness dive, I listened
to what Steenman described as "a great, very thorough marine
An instructor explained the mantas' behavior and diving
Microscopic organisms called plankton are attracted to light;
mantas eat plankton by swimming through masses of it with their
mouths wide open.
Touching the mantas at any time was forbidden, as was scaring
them with a quick exit or ascent (which no sensible diver would do
During this time, instructors also answered questions
participants might have about the first dive and the marine life
they saw -- in our case, a shark sleeping in a cave.
The catamaran then traveled to the best location to view the
mantas. When darkness fell, the scuba divers jumped in -- carrying
more weight on their belts than usual -- and sank to the bottom
shrouded in black.
As we were told before entering the water, we directed our
lights toward the surface. And waited. Gradually, plankton became
more visible. Then the mantas began to arrive. We saw only two
swimming in graceful, roller-coaster-like circles around each
other, but that was plenty.
Night diving is not for everyone. The feeling of weightlessness
combined with absolute darkness was more than a little
disconcerting -- especially when your goal is to attract animals
much larger than yourself. But as Steenman said, "This is probably
one of the easiest night dives you can do."
That's because this is not a blue-water (very deep) dive, and
guests are not disappearing by twos into the abyss. Everyone sticks
And with all of the lights shining, there are moments when it
doesn't feel like a night dive at all.
Steenman said beginners are welcome as long as they feel
comfortable in the water. Each instructor handles no more than six
Even snorkelers are welcome to participate in these dives, as
the mantas can sometimes swim within inches of the surface. The
vantage point is different, and you don't need to be a certified
scuba diver to enjoy the adventure.
The twilight/night manta ray two-tank dive costs $102 per
person. Snorkel dives are $65, including gear.
Travel agents earn 10% commission; group commission varies.
Hotel/car/dive packages are available on the company's Web site
There also are three-tank, all-day charters; wall dives; morning
and evening charters; and blue-water excursions.
Advanced divers can enroll in Nitrox, Trimix or rebreather
courses as part of a trip package.
For additional information, call (800) 949-3483.
To contact reporter Katherine Nichols, send e-mail to [email protected].