Majestic Manta Rays
The warm ocean waters off Hawai‘i Island harbor a vast array of colorful and unusual sea life. Of all marine creatures, hahalua, otherwise known as manta rays (Manta birostris), are one of the most alluring and mysterious. Encountering these magnificent creatures in the wild is an awe-inspiring experience as they command the sea, gliding peacefully like giant underwater butterflies. While years of research have been able to uncover some facts about these unique creatures, to great extent, manta rays continue to be a scientific enigma. Because their presence is unpredictable and due to their large, uncontrollable habitats, manta rays are difficult to study and much of what is known is based on speculation. However, through careful and persistent observation, we have been able to learn more about these majestic sea creatures than ever before.
Translated in Spanish, manta means cloak—quite fitting for the animal’s large blanket-shaped body and massive wingspan. Mantas, along with nine species of devil rays make up a subfamily known as Myliobatidae. This classification contains rays that have common cephalic fins that are an extension of their pectoral fins, which help funnel food into their mouths. On average, most mantas can weight up to 1,500 pounds with a wingspan of about 16 feet in diameter. The largest manta ever recorded was a record 2,900 pounds with a wingspan of over 25 feet!
While mantas dwell throughout the world’s oceans, they are typically found along coastal regions with plenty of coral reefs. Unlike most rays that are bottom feeders, a manta’s mouth is projected forward rather than downward. This evolutionary adaption has proved beneficial by allowing the animal to consume large amounts of small plankton organisms. Water is able to enter their mouths as they swim, also supplying oxygen into their blood. Manta rays typically glide through waters as if performing some kind of underwater ballet; however, they have, on occasion, been seen leaping out of the water, possibly in some form of play or communication.
Little is known about the sensory and learning abilities of mantas, though it is clear that they contain a unique sensory channel that allow them to process information very quickly. As they move through their liquid environment, mantas can easily detect food, mates, and even predators. Stealth-like in appearance, they are actually very gentle giants of the sea. They do not possess stingers like stingrays, or show any aggression towards humans. They are in fact very peaceful and tame animals.
One of the best things about manta rays in Hawai‘i is that you can view them in a variety of ways—snorkeling, scuba diving, or even from shore. They can be spotted day or night, especially during the summer months when ocean waters are relatively calm. Their abundance in Hawaiian waters gives marine biologists—and curious spectators—further opportunities to try and understand these unique creatures.
Here on the Big Island, there are several locations, both in and out of the water, where you can view them safely. One of the more popular spots is located at the south entrance to Keauhou Bay, fronting the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa in Kona. During early evening hours just after sunset, the manta rays come out to eat and play. A large spotlight on shore shines brightly into the water, attracting plankton, and in turn, the manta. Additional underwater luminescence provided by underwater lights enhance the scene and allows for spectacular manta sightings.
On the Kohala Coast, you can see these underwater beauties at Manta Ray Point, situated along the north end of Kauna‘oa Beach at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Here, the oceanfront has long been a popular gathering spot for the star attractions. There’s a circular lava rock observation area right next to the shore with floodlights that provide optimum viewing points. The mantas are clearly visible when conditions are right as they swoop through the water with mouths wide open, feeding on plankton. The amount of manta rays present can vary each night, sometimes there are six or more, and on other occasions, none at all.
Because Hawai‘i is a geographic area that offers warm waters and high levels of plankton, the mantas here have seemed to eliminate the need for migration. After tracking a distinguished manta ray colony off of Kona, there have been no indications of migration, not even to other Hawaiian Islands. What is interesting is that over the past couple decades, some mantas have frequented our island waters so much that spectators have been able to document and identify over 25 individuals in particular—these mantas even have their own names.
James L. Wing of Fair Wind Big Island Ocean Guides is a videographer who has been tracing the mantas off of the Kona Coast for years. In May 2010, he recorded “Big Bertha,” a well-known ray as she was courted by two different males known as “Miles” and “Lightning.” Over a period of time, it was apparent she was pregnant and sometime between June 8 and July 15, 2011, she gave birth. Mantas are not paternal; therefore, pups are independent immediately after birth. Wing’s chronicle proved that there was a pup added to the population with physical underbelly markings that were similar to Big Bertha’s. It can only be assumed that the little one was her offspring. This breakthrough documentation has provided even more insight into the behavior and habits of these extremely mysterious animals.
Fair Wind opportunely offers a Manta Night Snorkel & Dive Adventure out of Keauhou Bay. Guests hop aboard their vessel for a short journey; and after a brief lecture, adventurers can jump right into the mantas’ underwater world and snorkel or dive in the middle of the action! There are very strict regulations (for the safety of both you and the animal), but under the guidance of professionals, you can actually swim alongside these magnificent creatures. Surprisingly, human interaction isn’t harmful or detrimental to the mantas as long as you follow the recommendations; on the contrary, it is beneficial by helping to stimulate their growth and existence. The night dive is such an amazing experience that it was rated by Travel Chanel as one of the “Top Ten Things to Do in Your Lifetime.”
In recent years, manta rays have become a popular item in international fish markets where their value has soared. In some areas of the world, such as the Philippines and Mexico, manta populations have been depleted altogether. But here in Hawai‘i, state laws and codes of conduct have been developed to help minimize negative human impact upon the animals. The State of Hawai‘i has gone to great lengths to preserve the manta ray population, and laws currently exist that prohibit hunting or the intentional killing of manta rays in Hawaiian waters.
Through eco-tourism efforts, the manta populations in Hawai‘i continue to grow at a steady rate. Other areas around the world that are involved with manta ray preservation have seen the same positive results. But more general awareness needs to be done. Witnessing a manta ray in Hawai‘i is truly a special experience. If you see one in the water, please don’t touch, harass, or chase after them. By showing patience and respect, in all likelihood, these spectacular creatures may approach you for a closer look—it doesn’t get much better than that!
To book a Manta Night Snorkel & Dive Adventure, contact Fair Wind at (808) 345-6213 or visit www.fair-wind.com. Or, check out Manta Ray Point at the famed Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.