“Arms out straight; legs out straight; cameras at the ready. Float straight so that a manta can’t swim over the top of you and drown you. And whatever you do, don’t let go of the raft!”
I’m off the Kona coast of Hawaii’s Big Island listening to our guide’s instructions as I prepare to jump into the ocean to go night swimming with the manta rays. I’ll put it out there now, it’s one of the best things I’ve done in my 28 years.
We head out on a boat just before dusk where we are briefed and given our wet suits and snorkel gear. There is an option to go diving if you have your license, but seeing as I don’t, I chose the snorkelling option.
I have to admit, hopping into the water after dark makes me nervous, with all sorts of horrific thoughts running through my mind of all that could happen. But as the guide explains, manta rays have nothing that can bite or sting you, making them the gentle giants of the sea and one of the safest large animal encounters around. They have distinctive black and white markings so a lot of the mantas that regulate the area are named and identified easily like Big Bertha, Sugar Ray and Vinny.
One by one we dismount the boat and take our place in the water holding onto surfboard-like rafts. The guide does all the work once we’re in place, guiding us to the best vantage points. All we have to do is hang on and watch (with our arms out straight; legs out straight; cameras at the ready).
Waiting for the mantas to come feels like an age, but then I hear our guide telling us to look to our left and we see our first manta rays that have come to have their supper. Lights on the bottom of the ocean floor and attached to our rafts attract plankton, which is what the mantas feed on.
We were told earlier that the mantas often slide up very close to people, but that doesn’t prepare me when a manta with a good three metre wingspan curls over and glides underneath me, a foot away from my stomach. I can’t help but squeal just a little (as well as one can when submerged underwater with a snorkel).
Before long, there are around 20 mantas putting on a show, gliding through the water with such grace and power, flirting with the divers who are able to roam the bottom of the ocean. It’s an exhilarating yet peaceful experience.
We stay there for a time gazing in wonder; I myself wishing that I had my diving license so I could get underwater further. But it has to end at some time and we are eventually led back to the boat to excitedly discuss our encounter over a hot cocoa.
Would you swim with manta rays?
Writer: Danielle Parker – [email protected]
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