In the shadow of the ocean I can make out a huge black maw big enough to swallow my head.
Night has fallen, but lamps illuminate the water and attract plankton, tiny microscopic organisms that look like dust particles floating in space. It’s unleashed an underwater feeding frenzy among a dozen manta rays, or “hahalua” in Hawaiian, off the coast of Kona on the island of Hawaii.
Just as the manta’s mouth seems close enough to kiss me, the mobulid rolls backwards into a somersault, sucking up thousands of these organisms in the process. Each ray repeats the barrel rolls as if in a kind of hypnotic trance. To give you a sense of size, a manta ray’s wingspan can easily reach up to four meters.
Just before sunset, six of us paddled out to sea in a traditional double-hulled Hawaiian canoe and watched the sun slowly disappear from the sky and roll gently to the movement of the ocean, each of us bathed in an afterglow.
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“Looks like perfect conditions for a green flash,” says Iko Balanga, founder of manta ray snorkeling company Anelakai Adventures. Hawaiian Aquarius and his wife Holly Crane offer guided tours into the water to see manta rays at night.
The manta rays were only recently discovered in this part of Hawaii in the last few decades, when a nearby waterfront resort turned on floodlights for guests to see the ocean. What they didn’t realize was that the light attracted phytoplankton like moths to a blaze, a manta ray’s main food source, which then attracted the rays.
The area is now famous for its manta ray snorkeling and diving tours. But the heavy boat traffic that brings tourists and swimmers to the feeding sites can be at the expense of wildlife – something Balanga and Crane are trying to counteract with a greener option. Wildlife encounters can inspire guests and travelers to learn more about the ocean and become advocates for the species that call it home when conducted in a way that has little impact on the environment, people or animals does little damage.
The island of Hawaii has a concept called the Pono Pledge, where visitors to the island are encouraged to live Pono by respecting the land, the ocean, its natural forces, and all of its inhabitants. With a maximum of six guests at a time, Anelaki is the only non-motorized, paddle-only company offering manta viewing from a double-hulled canoe, using the same method of sea travel used by the ancient Hawaiian and Polynesian peoples.
It is a very grounding experience as you must use your own strength to propel the canoe and work together in unity to provide a more authentic and rewarding tourism experience aligned with Hawaiian cultural values. During the voyage, Balanga and Crane share tales of ancient Hawaiians, telling tales of battles that took place on land while highlighting the importance of protecting the ocean and the life that lives beneath the surface.
“The Hawaiians have a very close physical and spiritual connection with the land and the ocean, and every part of the earth and the ocean has mana or a spiritual presence, including manta rays, of course,” Crane explains.
“Hahalua, meaning two breaths in Hawaiian, and all sea creatures are Amakua Aumakua or personal power animals, and manta rays are a significant Aumakua to many Hawaiians and Polynesians as they are symbols of wisdom, grace and strength.
“In Polynesian canoeing, travelers would know when they were approaching land if they saw certain species of animals, including the near-shore manta ray that we see (manta alfredi), as well as birds and other animals.”
When we go out to sea, we hold on to a pole attached to the canoe so we don’t drift away in the swell. Floating as the sea and sky darken, our eyes wide with anticipation behind our snorkel masks. From a distance I see a dark shadow appearing that is slowly approaching us. The closer it gets, the more apparent its size becomes, and soon I’m overshadowed by the incredible wingspan of these majestic filter feeders.
Barrel roll after barrel roll, the manta rays swoop up off the seabed and always seem to do their feeding somersaults at the very last minute. Mesmerized by the ritual, the time in the ocean passes quickly until I realize that the other boats around us are all but gone and the cold is starting to set in.
While the other boats with many tourists honk away with their propellers and motors, we get out of the water very carefully and back into the canoe. Crane lowers a small stepladder into the water but advises us to walk quickly so we can pull it out quickly to prevent a manta ray from stumbling onto it. It’s impressive how careful they are to not harm these creatures.
“The ancient Hawaiians were incredibly sustainable people who lived in harmony with the island and the sea. They understood that if they took too much, it wouldn’t be there for future generations,” says Crane.
“We have chosen to remain a small, non-invasive and truly eco-friendly company and share our love for our ocean with every single guest we take with us. We believe that when we give them that aloha feeling and share our love for our oceans and manta rays, they will be inspired to protect them and enlighten others as well.”
One of the most important things in any wildlife interaction is non-touching – this is especially true for manta rays, which have a protective coating on their bodies to prevent bacteria and other harmful things in the ocean. When a human touches their body, it affects this layer, the manta ray’s skin turns brown and makes it susceptible to infection.
Global manta ray tourism is worth around US$140 million annually, with major hotspots such as Indonesia, Fiji and the Maldives. But manta rays are an endangered species – propeller strike is one of the biggest risks, plus they become by-products of net fishing and accidental catches.
“We’ve noticed a lot of scars and injuries on manta rays from propellers and fishing lines,” says Crane. She and Balanga would like to see more restrictions on manta ray tours, such as: B. Propeller protection for motor boats, a limit on the number of guests a company can have in the water at any time per night, and a ban on diving. They use dive buoys as markers, which have led to entanglement with the manta rays.
“Our dream would be to have all the canoes or paddle boats in the area, with no motorized boats. This would drastically reduce the number of manta ray propeller injuries as well as the number of guests that would be in the water at one time.”
When done well, manta tourism can educate people and encourage donations to conservation efforts, which in turn helps local and global projects invest more in their care, monitoring and protection. For local communities, it provides jobs and employment and an opportunity to share indigenous culture and beliefs with a global community.
It would be impossible to see these friendly giants of the sea without wanting to stand up for them. Safe and ethical wildlife encounters can be deeply life-changing experiences, turning observers into advocates for our oceans. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain to friends and family that manta rays can’t sting and eat you; so many of us have so little understanding of the life that inhabits 70% of the planet.
Paddling with smiles as wide as a crescent, our little party of six must again work together as one to propel the canoe, a final demonstration of unity, strengthened by the bond that comes with a shared experience, witnessing one of the most majestic underwater animals of the world.
Get there: Hawaiian Airlines flies direct from Auckland to Honolulu and has a daily connecting flight to Kona. See: hawaiianairlines.com. Flying causes CO2 emissions. To offset yours, go to hawaiianairlines.conservation.org
Stay there: Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa, from US$259 (NZD460) per night. See: outrigger.com
Play there: Manta Ray Night Snorkel with Anelakai Adventures: $150 per person. See: anelakaiadventures.com
The author was a guest of the Hawaiian Tourism Authority.