Monday, June 22, 2015

Manta Ray Night Dive!

Leading up to the trip, our family knew that we wanted to have plenty of time to hang out and relax. In other words, we wanted "nothing planned" on the agenda. We did know, however, that there would be a couple of items we might plan in advance. 

One of these items was the Manta Ray Night Dive. In reading up about Kona activities, this one was listed over and over again as such a unique, once-in-a-lifetime, can't miss experience. I knew JP is really into snorkeling, so I asked him if they would be in for this adventure. Mom and Dad offered to watch the kids that evening, so us 'middle generationers' had a date!

We arrived at the marina in the early evening and met our crew. (We used a company called Neptune Charlie's Ocean Safaris.) 

The boat ride was so fun. Michael and I immediately went up on the bow to feel the wind in our hair, the splash of the water on our legs. We had the sun starting to set ahead of us and the Big Island of Hawaii behind us, with the volcanoes disappearing into the clouds. It was so perfect.

When we arrived at a spot near the Kona airport, there were several other boats ready to go as well. As we waited for darkness to fall, the Neptune Charlie's crew told us stories about the manta rays.

Apparently many years ago, outside of a particular Big Island resort, guests started noticing this big black shadow in a spot of the ocean where the resort was shining a big light. They soon discovered it was a big manta ray, then they started to notice that many more were following this ray's lead and showing up at night. Eventually someone put it together that rays eat plankton, plankton is attracted to light, so this spot off this resort was suddenly a nighttime buffet for manta rays. 

So it became a thing on the Big Island - boats take scuba divers and snorkelers out into spots in the ocean where the plankton is/where the rays are known to come, shine bright lights and observe them.

As soon as the sun was down, we got into our wetsuits, flippers and masks.

I won't lie, it was a little unnerving jumping into the black ocean, but it helped that there were lots of other groups of people doing the same thing. 

Our company had this big surfboard with holes cut into it to shine lights down into the ocean. The surfboard had PVC pipes secured all around it as something for us to hold onto - and to make sure the group stayed together. (They also secured glow sticks to our snorkels so they could see us if we ever got separated. Brilliant idea and a terrifying possibility I hadn't really considered yet.)

 This is a blurry shot, but here's a glimpse of our surfboard from below. (All photos from this point on are stills from JP's Go Pro video.)

We drifted around for a while, looking, looking, watching these little fish who were also trying to gobble up the plankton. And then, out of the darkness came these big shadows. I had gone into this adventure thinking that manta rays were about 5-6 feet long, which already kind of freaked me out. (They're as big as me!) Well...

So the manta rays glide along the bottom of the ocean, their black backs the only thing we can see. Then they curve and come directly upward, opening their giant mouths to suck in as much plankton as possible. We start to see the glow of their white underbelly, then they curve again, completing their C-shaped curl and they come within a foot of us, their white bellies glowing brightly in the light. 

The manta swimming directly at us, with his big, open manta mouth:

A manta passing right under us. You can only see one corner of his belly because he's so close!)

Glowing in the darkness:

I have to tell you, it was incredible. Some of the manta rays were 5-6 feet across...the young ones. The biggest one we saw was reportedly 16 feet across! That was as wide as the boat we came in on! Her name is "Big Bertha" (the companies that do these tours have all named them based on their identifying features like their spots on their bellies and their little mouth fin things) and there were plenty of others that were around 12 feet across. (Including one named Vicki, which I was excited to tell mom about.)

They were just so graceful, so massive but gentle. They would look like they were going to collide with each other (or us!) but then swerve at the last moment. 

Near the end of our tour our guide had us push over to a central area where all the scuba divers gather called "The Campfire." The scuba divers take lights down to the bottom to check out the rays and it was such a cool sight. There were fixed lights and lights that were controlled by people. Bubbles rising and catching the light. Then giant bodies would pass over the lights and you'd see the awesome outline of these creatures.

Here's one final shot that shows how close they come:

This was one of the coolest things we did on the trip and I'm so glad we did it. I couldn't wait to get back to Mom and Dad and tell them how awesome it was. (And hear that the kids had done well - thank goodness!)

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