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The manta rays off of Kona, Hawaii are the only known manta rays in the world to feed at night. In the 1980s, construction workers toiled day and night to complete the 100+ room Sheraton hotel. The construction lights triggered plankton to gather, as they are typically activated by sun. Soon, the workers noticed an opportunistic manta ray feeding on the dense concentration of plankton. Today, the resort is now the Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa.
The coastal manta ray is one of the most intelligent fish species in the sea, and has the ability to learn from watching other fish. A few decades later, dozens of mantas have taken on a taste for midnight snacking. But because coastal manta rays only travel within a 50 mile radius, the news has yet to catch on to other manta ray populations throughout Hawaii.
One of the only places to watch this night feeding behavior are around Kona, Island of Hawaii. Tour companies have now made a business of tethering snorkelers to a gigantic light that’s used to attract manta rays.
From the blue below, a black manta ray soars to the surface with its mouth wide open, scooping up plankton who’ve gathered under the massive light on the ocean’s surface. I’m hanging on tight to a floating spotlight, trying to make myself as flat as possible. The manta ray glides onto its back, inches away from me before diving back into the blue, baring her bright white belly freckled with black spots.
“She’s one of the biggest manta rays here,” my shaggy haired snorkel guide explains. The guides who visit the snorkel spot each night know the mantas by name—the graceful creatures are distinguished by their markings, as no two are the same.
Within seconds, the manta ray is back. She continues her acrobatic performance and it seems as though more manta rays want to some time in the spotlight, too. One, two, three, four mantas glide below me, all eager to have their share of the plankton feast. A few other tour companies with lights link to us, and we form a runway. Despite being an ancient creature, the mantas glide down the lit path as if they’ve been doing it long before the advent of artificial lighting. I’m mesmerized by the mantas, and slip into a trance as they move in a manner not like any other creature in neither the marine nor the terrestrial world. They’re one of the few animals who manage to look like they’re flying underwater. An anxious couple on the other side of me forgets their fear of the water as soon as each manta glides by. One of my best friends, Hannah, is beside me.
We’ve travelled around the world in search of incredible ocean experiences and this is easily one of the best.
Fortunately, our night with the mantas is not over quite yet. Hannah and I check into room #1234 at the Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa, which has two balconies overlooking the manta feeding station. The resort’s spotlight stays on late into the night, so we pour a glass of wine and watch the manta rays from a new perspective, almost like being stationed on a marine-style safari.
Guests staying in other rooms gather at the seaside bar, which also has a prime lookout point to see the mantas. The resort also hosts manta ray educational programs, and much of the décor nods to their obvious mascot. During the daylight hours, guests can lounge at the lagoon-style pool or explore Keauhou Bay.
What to Expect
With so many tour companies offering the manta night swim experience, I was skeptical of it being zoo-like. Fortunately, most operators seem to run these tours in a sustainable way.
Guests get into the water and immediately grab onto a floating light. Those who cannot swim or float very well are given a life jacket to stay buoyant and/or a pool noodle to elevate their feet. While there are tens of people in the water at a time, guests are not allowed to chase after the mantas. The rays do come close, however, occasionally brushing up a tourist as they glide near the light.
Practical Guide to the Kona Manta Night Snorkel
There are two main manta ray night snorkeling locations—Keauhou Bay and the Kona International Airport. Most tour boats leave from Honokohau Harbor, about a 20-40 minute boat ride to the snorkel site.
Where to stay: The Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa is the manta ray hotel. You can watch manta rays for hours after your snorkel or night dive, and it’s cool to be so close to the action. While all guests have access to the bar (front row seating to watch the mantas), opt for a room on the ocean-facing towers for a private manta viewing experience. This is one of the coolest resorts in Kona if you love wildlife.
Duration: Expect to have about 30 minutes in the water with the mantas. While tour companies advertise 1.5-2.5 hour experiences, most of that accounts for the boat ride. Guests tend to get cold after 30-40 minutes. Your tour might err on the longer end if you’re not seeing many mantas.
Tips: Some snorkelers are afraid of the dark. If that’s you, ask for a life jacket or flotation device and request to stick close to your guide. Some trips get cancelled for inclement weather—I recommend penning in this tour for the beginning of your stay in Kona, just in case yours is cancelled and you need to rebook. If you’re prone to seasickness, take a remedy before you go. Many people feel that they’re seasickness is worse in the dark. If you lay completely flat and move as little as possible, the manta rays are more likely to swim closer. Splashing or kicking can injure mantas and scare them away.
Packing list: Tour companies will provide a mask, snorkel, and some form of flotation. Most do not allow snorkelers to wear fins as you’re simply floating the entire time. If you’re packing a snorkel and mask for your trip to Hawaii, bring it along on this experience to ensure you have something that fits.
Pack a towel and rain jacket or sweater for the ride back, just in case it’s windy or cold. You might not be given a wetsuit. The water is warm, but you won’t be moving much. If you’re schlepping a wetsuit top or shorty to Kona anyways, it’s worth taking it on this tour.
Tour: We have gone on this trip a few times now. Our favorite tour is through Eka Canoe Adventures. It’s just a five minute ride in a traditional double-hulled canoe to the snorkel spot. Because it only takes 12 people, you don’t have to wait for tons of people to get in and out of the water.
Some tour companies, like Hang Loose Boat Tours or Captain Cook Express on Get Your Guide, have a “manta guarantee” where you can go again for free or half price if no mantas are spotted. Most large boat tour companies offer a similar experience, give or take. These tours take around 30 minutes to reach the manta dive site.
Cost: $80-200 per snorkel session.
Going solo: I have snorkeled at the manta ray site with friends where we brought our own flashlights ($!). The entry and exit points are rocky and can be challenging to navigate in the dark. Because you have just a small light source, the manta rays do not come close–they’re usually busy swimming under the snorkel tour lights. With all the boat traffic, snorkel tour guides telling you off, and navigating out of the water in the dark, we recommend booking an official tour for this experience. It’s not only safer and more sustainable, but you’ll also have a better shot at getting those iconic views of mantas twirling just inches away from you.
The Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa hosted us for our stay. We paid for the manta ray Kona snorkel tour. All opinions are our own.