Sunset on the Kona coast marks the start of what is perhaps the Big Island’s most intriguing nighttime show – the manta ray feeding frenzy taking place inches from curious ocean lovers submerged in the dark sea. Manta ray dives have been a coveted experience for over a decade, offering guests a front row seat for the manta’s graceful dance.
Every night Manta Ray Dives Hawaii guides around 20 people to popular manta feeding waters near the Keahole Airport. Snorkelers float on the water’s surface while certified divers linger 25-feet below, both groups making large circles by holding on to pool rings in which the mantas swim in the center. Dive lights attract plankton which bring a swarm of mantas, the largest dubbed Big Bertha boasting a 16-foot wing span. “It’s a joyful experience, everyone leaves very happy,” says Bryn Bonham, office manager of the 15 year old company.
Bonham says brine shrimp, manta’s favorite plankton, envelope the guests and “The mantas come within inches of everyone. You can hear people screaming excitedly.” The unique experience is open to people of all ages (the youngest guest was four), and divers needn’t be intimidated since the gentle and shy animals lack stingers and teeth. Gills filter water sucked in through the mouth and plankton is siphoned to the stomach.
Although sightings can’t exactly be guaranteed, Bonham says a manta free dive is rare. “For the last couple of months we’ve seen 20 to 25 a night,” she says. And for the rare occasion mantas don’t line up at the plankton buffet? Not to worry, says Bonham, “If you don’t see mantas you’re invited to come again for free.”
Dives happen year round since Kona sees only a slight variation in water temperature keeping the family run company busy. Nearly three years ago Bonham’s mother Dani Knapp-Bonham purchased the company. Her two other children work as snorkel guides, helping groups of visitors and the occasional local navigate the waters and educate them on manta etiquette. “It’s important for divers not to touch the animals. They’re covered in a protective mucus membrane and even a light touch from a human can cause an infection or lesion,” Bonham advises.
The Kona dives offer a rare chance to come face to face with mantas, many distinctly marked and named. Because of their size they’re rarely kept in captivity and only a small number of aquariums world wide have mantas on display.