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Manta rays are majestic and beautiful creatures, gliding and spinning in what seems like a choreographed dance through the water. These gentle giants are intelligent, social, and inquisitive, making any encounter with them a memorable experience. And what could be more magical than a moonlit manta ray night snorkeling experience?
In this guide, we give you info and tips about manta ray night snorkel and dives. We also share some facts about these graceful giants of the ocean.
Some of the most popular places to swim with mantas are Hawaii, the Maldives, the Galapagos Islands, and the Great Barrier Reef. Many manta dives are at “cleaning stations.” These are places where mantas go to get their skin cleaned by smaller animals like wrasse. It’s kind of like a day spa run by tiny fish.
But it’s the “feeding stations” where you can have the best close encounter with mantas. Manta rays like to return to the same place to eat plankton. Watching them actively feed is even more incredible than watching them be groomed. Hawaii is one of the best places to stop by these manta restaurants. The three top viewing sites on Big Island are Manta Heaven, Manta Village, and a spot off the Kohala coast.
The night is the best time to experience manta rays, wherever you’re doing it. Mantas feed on plankton, and plankton is attracted to light. On a manta ray night snorkeling trip, you’ll shine lights in the ocean to draw these tiny organisms toward you. The mantas see this irresistible feast gathering and come right up close to feed.
Manta rays love warm and calm water (just like most people!). So, the summer months can be the best time to arrange your unforgettable experience with manta. From January through March, there are fewer manta ray sightings in Hawaiian waters.
In Hawaii, you’ll snorkel or dive with the reef manta ray (Manta alfredi), rather than the ocean-faring giant Manta birostris ray.
Hawaii’s Big Island is world-famous for its manta experiences. Kailua-Kona on the west coast has a long history of manta ray diving.
Manta Village is south of Kona, just off the coast of Keauhou Bay. This site has the highest success rate, with around 96% of tours reporting seeing mantas. A few operators leave from Keauhou Bay, which can reduce your travel time. The Sheraton Kona Coast resort also has a manta learning center, well worth a visit.
Manta Heaven is about 8 miles north of Kona. It’s great for a daytime dive or a manta ray night snorkeling experience. The success rate is a bit lower at this site than at others, but it’s still very high at 90%! The average number of individual mantas seen at this site is also higher than some others.
The Kohala coast site is near Kawaihe Harbor, close to the Kohala Resorts and Waikola. It’s a great spot, and it tends to get fewer tourists. Often, your tour will be the only one in the water at a time. However, there are fewer mantas here, and the success rate is a bit lower.
One of the great things about a Hawaii manta ray night snorkel is the chance to meet the resident manta rays. All mantas have distinct patterns on their bodies, kind of like fingerprints. This means they can be identified individually – and given their own names.
Some of the Big Island locals have names like Shadow, Midnight, and Big Bertha. They also have their own personalities!
The Manta Identification Project was started in 1991, and you can jump over to their website to find out more. There are 240 residents on the Kona Coast. The Manta Pacific Research Foundation is another organization involved in keeping track of manta numbers.
You can get a front-row seat to the spectacle as a diver or snorkeler.
On a manta ray night snorkel tour, you’ll usually be given a float. You can hold onto it while you look down toward the ocean floor. Bright lights are projected down, and the mantas come quite close to the surface as they feed on the plankton attracted to this light. It’s one of the best snorkeling experiences you can expect to have!
For a night scuba dive, you’ll need to be scuba certified. Divers sit on the ocean floor, and lights are shone upwards. Manta will feed around you and, if there’s lots of light and plankton around your mask, can be nose-distance away. This is a truly close encounter. You need to be careful, though. Remember, it’s nighttime, so you need to check the ground to make sure you don’t sit on something spiny like a sea urchin!
Snorkeling or diving with manta rays is totally worth it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience – unless you decide to enjoy it more than once, which we’re sure you’ll want to!
As well as getting to swim with these creatures for about 30-45 minutes, expert guides will talk to you about the rays. You’ll have a chance to learn about manta behavior and their local significance and doubtless hear a good story or two.
Manta rays aren’t called “gentle giants” for nothing. Though they’re huge, mantas are harmless creatures (unless you’re a delicious microscopic organism). While some of them can be huge, there’s nothing to fear from getting in the water with them.
In fact, many of the safety rules are there to protect them from us. For example: Don’t touch the mantas or any wildlife underwater! It might rub the protective membrane covering off their skin, exposing them to damage. Plus, how would you feel having hundreds of people trying to touch you day after day?
The same water safety rules apply here as anywhere. You do need to be conscious that on a night snorkel, you’re in the dark. You should already be confident in the water – nighttime is not the time to learn! To dive, you must be certified. Make sure you check your dive or snorkel gear before you go.
A good tour provider will give you a thorough safety briefing prior to setting off. You should always ask questions if you have them.
You can expect an incredible manta experience!
Tours normally start from the harbor where the boat leaves. Make sure to be a few minutes early so that you don’t miss your boat. During the boat ride, the captain and the crew will instruct you on how to behave and swim for the best experience. You’ll also learn about the mantas.
Most tours provide guests with the necessary equipment, including flotation devices for those choosing to snorkel. You will get a wetsuit and snorkel gear, and light snacks will also be available on board. However, you should bring your own towel and swimwear, as well as warm and dry clothes.
Boat rides can take a few hours. So, be prepared if you tend to get seasick.
Manta ray night snorkeling can be a great adventure for families. Review information on whether minimum age restrictions apply and email your tour provider if you have any doubts. We also recommend that you make a reservation during earlier hours if you have small children.
Tours are popular and require reservations to join. So, book early (or maybe even book now) to avoid missing out!
It’s not guaranteed that you will see mantas during your manta ray night snorkeling trip. It’s important to remember these are wild animals, not pets. However, mantas are creatures of habit, and they’re smart. They’ve learned some of the best places to get food. The tours know this, and you’re likely to have a decent success rate spotting and swimming with them.
If you have any questions about this, review your tour provider’s refund policy before booking.
Manta ray tours are increasingly popular. They are great for people to experience mantas and understand first-hand why they’re amazing. However, it does put more pressure on the feeding zones and can put mantas in a vulnerable position.
It’s good to do some research about your tour provider. Not all tours have the same focus on the well-being of mantas and marine life. In Hawaii, tours operate under self-enforced standards. There’s a “green list” of providers that uphold these standards. We also recommend looking for companies that operate sustainably.
Your behavior in the water is crucial. Mantas need an open water column to move and feed. Your snorkel and fins could potentially damage the mantas if you’re not behaving respectfully.
We offer this advice, based on the rules drafted by the Ocean Recreation Council of Hawaii and PADI’s Project AWARE:
If you’re not convinced yet, here are a few facts about these majestic manta rays. Just a few, because there’s so much to love, yet we don’t have enough space!
There are two species of manta rays. These are reef manta rays or Manta alfredi and can grow to a wingspan of 18 feet. The giant manta, Manta birostris, has a wingspan of up to 29 feet and lives in the open ocean. Their size only makes their grace and poise all the more impressive.
These rays were recently recognized as two separate species based on genetic evidence. As well as being bigger, giant manta rays have a caudal thorn and a rougher skin appearance. The two species can also be distinguished by their coloration. Giant mantas generally have a black mouth with two white dorsal patches, forming a black “T.” Reef mantas have a white mouth, and white dorsal patches form a black “Y.”
As we already learned, manta rays all have their own unique patterns that allow us to identify individuals. One of the world’s oldest known manta rays, Taurus, was recently spotted again at the Great Barrier Reef. At 50 years old, that’s an impressive lifespan to go with that wingspan!
Manta rays belong to the genus Mobula, which eight species of devil ray (not as threatening as they sound!) also belong to.
These huge creatures eat microscopic plankton. Considering they need to eat about 10 percent of their body weight each day, it’s no wonder they spend a lot of time feeding!
One of their most spectacular behaviors is “cyclone feeding.” In areas with dense plankton, manta rays can gather in high numbers, and often circle the food together. This forms a swirling cyclone of mantas. To keep feeding on the same spot, they also “barrel roll,” turning over continually with their mouths open.
Manta ray numbers are decreasing around the world.
Giant manta rays are recognized as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This means that they could soon be at risk of extinction in a large area of their natural range. The Red List of Threatened Species classifies giant manta rays as endangered and reef manta rays as “vulnerable with decreasing numbers.”
Tracking the number of manta rays can be challenging. There is a range of organizations that keep statistics on mantas in different parts of the world. They rely on members of the public reporting sightings as well – citizen science in action!
Mantas have protection under CITES (the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species). This restricts their international trade as a way to try and protect the species from extinction in the wild by human trade.
Humans are the biggest threat to manta rays.
Like so many oceanic species, their main threat is commercial fishing. Mantas are caught as bycatch, as a number of fisheries are found throughout the species’ global range.
They are also targeted for their gill rakers for some traditional Chinese medicines, although their use is not supported by science or traditional texts. This growing demand is having a tragic impact on the species.
Get involved in a manta watch program. This helps to track the number of mantas and better understand their behaviors and what’s impacting their lives. Organizations like the Manta Ray Trust have some great information to help you get started.
When you’re a tourist, be responsible. Activities like a manta ray night snorkel tour are a great chance for advocacy and to personally understand why these creatures need protection. Nonetheless, the way tourism is approached is important.
If you eat fish, think about how your fish has been caught before you buy it. Try to buy your food from companies that take sustainable approaches and avoid ones that don’t. This will ensure that fewer manta rays become bycatch.