Swim With Manta Rays In Hawaii, A Bucket List Wildlife Adventure
Wildlife vacations hold a top spot on many travelers’ bucket lists. Observing animals as they eat, play, and live in their natural habitats brings us closer to nature, highlighting how we’re all linked in an important way. Whether you’re gorilla tracking in Rwanda and Uganda, photographing polar bears on the shores of the Hudson Bay in Canada, seeing the big five on a safari in Kenya, or visiting the Galapagos Islands, one of the most biologically diverse locales on the planet, your dollars likely are helping to support the local communities as well.
You don’t have to leave the United States, however, to see wildlife and experience spectacular animal encounters. Watch bison in Yellowstone National Park as they move the heavy snow pack with their massive heads; hear herds of elk bugle in Grand Teton National Park, Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park; and witness the sandhill crane migration along the Platte River in Nebraska. Further afield, there’s another bucket list-worthy adventure like no other: swimming with manta rays in the warm waters off the Kona coast on the Big Island of Hawai‘i.
Members of the cartilaginous fish family, alongside other fish made of cartilage rather than bone such as whale sharks, great white sharks, and stingrays, manta rays are the largest species of rays on the planet. Known as the “birds of the ocean”, these passive filter feeders are drawn to this area to feed on plankton in the moonlight.
Tour operators will shine a bright light in the water, which allures the source of food, and while manta rays whirl with their mouths open, smaller fish come to clean the parasites off their bodies. When you enter the water for an otherworldly nighttime snorkel experience with these graceful and gentle creatures that can weight up to 3,000 pounds, you will undoubtably feel excitement paired with a little apprehension.
You’ll want to be as still as possible, keeping splashing and fin kicking to a minimum as manta rays are sensitive to disturbance—let the manta ray come to you. And, even though manta rays might travel close to your body, within inches at times, do not touch them as you may unintentionally harm them by damaging their protective mucous coating that wards off bacterial infections.
These massive, balletic, and intelligent species, spanning up to 16 feet-long with wingspans of around 20 feet-wide, neither sting nor bite and they’re considered one of the safest large animal encounters to enjoy. When they approach, you’ll marvel at their bony undersides, long spiny tails, and mammoth open mouths as they roll, turn, and move around you. The markings—spots and splotches—on their underbodies are like a human fingerprint in that they’re all unique. Researchers are straightforwardly able to track individual manta rays and can identify them from year to year.
The Big Island is quite unique and remarkable for manta ray sightings. There are three feeding locations where manta rays are consistently seen in the evening: Manta Village, Manta Heaven, and near the Kawaihae harbor. The manta rays off the coast of the Big Island do not migrate and can be seen along the feeding grounds year-round, which means that the best time to swim with them is any time.
On land, you can spot manta rays in the water at properties like the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Autograph Collection, a picturesque resort nestled along the white sand horseshoe of Kauna‘oa Bay. The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel turns on floodlights over the water after sunset, which attracts microscopic sea organisms, enticing manta rays. See the creatures’ massive shadows at the lookout called “Manta Ray Point”. For the full up-close experience, however, book a manta ray boat tour for an evening snorkel or scuba adventure.