It is difficult to wrap your head around an event that is simultaneously irritating and sublime, but this was my experience on a dive with manta rays recently. It was not always so. The Internet is full of testimonials of what a powerful and exhilarating experience it is to do a night SCUBA dive among the huge manta rays off the coast of the Big Island in Hawaii. Indeed, this was exactly my feeling, too, when I first did the dive two years ago.
The idea is simple. Some 200 manta rays, some with wingspans as much as 12-15 feet wide, feed on plankton off the coast near Kona. They are no danger to divers. On a night dive, every diver has a light which is pointed up toward the surface of the water. The light attracts plankton, and the plankton attracts the manta rays. This has been going on long enough, there is an 85 percent chance divers will attract at least a few of the resident rays to the night-time feeding station.
Not everyone dives. Most boats plying the “manta ray trade” carry snorkelers as well. On our boat on our most recent trip, two-thirds of the customers were snorkelers and one-third were divers. The snorkelers hang onto a kind of raft that has room for perhaps 8-10 people to gather around it, with lights that shine down to attract plankton.
On a good night, the manta rays perform an underwater ballet in the 25-40 feet of water between the snorkelers on top and the divers below. The snorkelers are instructed to hang onto the raft at all times. No free diving is allowed. The divers have been instructed to remove the snorkels they would normally wear, since the manta rays will come so close, within inches of a diver’s head, the snorkels can scrape off some of the mucus on the ray’s body that is important to their health. The divers have also been instructed to sit on the bottom of the ocean and to remain as still as possible. The weight belts divers use to get under water have all been over-weighted with lead to make this possible.
Each diver in a diving “group” of perhaps five or six divers, with a dive master, wears a distinctive glow light of a particular color on the air tank, so you can find your group once you get underwater. Getting to the bottom is not a particularly subtle process on a manta ray dive, like it can be on other reef dives. If you are born with good ear structure and can equilibrate the increasing ear pressure easily, it is simply a matter of letting all the air out of your buoyancy control device (BCD) and sinking quickly to the bottom in your over-weighted condition. Divers without this particular advantage, who take longer to equilibrate, may find the peer pressure as daunting as the water pressure. My wife, who always takes longer to get to depth, and who lost the hearing in one ear for a month after descending too fast on our our last manta ray dive, chose to join the snorkelers on our most recent trip.
Once underwater and on the bottom, it is truly a sublime experience, unlike anything else I have experienced in the natural world. The manta rays are magnificent, and are easily identified when back on the boat by the distinctive markings, almost like fingerprints, on their undersides. They literally fly underwater in the most intricate and ballet-like maneuvers, sometimes heading directly toward you until a minor mid-course correction sends them directly over your head, sometimes brushing your mask as you look on in amazement. Often, your first sight of a manta ray is when the light suddenly darkens and it comes up from behind you, pushing all else in your awareness out of existence.
On our first dive, a dozen rays were in the water, an extraordinary experience, but in retrospect it was just too much. There was action everywhere and you had no idea where and what to watch next. On our last dive, two rays showed up initially, to be joined by a third later. I found I enjoyed the less frantic viewing a great deal more than I anticipated I would. I was able to concentrate more closely on the details of each ray.
The irritating part of the manta ray experience is that, like many a good thing that makes boatloads (literally) of money for the locals, it has become too popular. Dive shops use the manta ray dives to stay afloat both literally and figuratively. The result, frankly, is chaos.
On our most recent trip, I counted at least 20 boats, both big and small, tied up together in the small cove. Small boats, usually filled with snorkelers, motor in at dusk to tie up to the larger, commercial dive shop boats, that attach to the few mooring lines available. When the wind blows, boats are crashing into one another, tangling lines. When it came my turn to get into the water on our latest dive, there was no room to get in. Another boat had drifted into the back of ours. It is no wonder there is pressure to get under water. You are likely to get smacked by a boat otherwise.
The small boat operators appear to be catering to a younger audience, probably because they offer less expensive trips. And, a great many of these younger people appear to have come directly from some kind of raucous party to the boat. Some of these groups are loud, obnoxious, and completely undisciplined. On our most recent trip, one young woman screamed, loudly and continuously, for nearly an hour. They pound and splash in the water, kicking nearby snorkelers, trying to get the attention of the rays, presumably. Others free dive down into the space that is suppose to be reserved for the rays, tying to touch them. Boat operators appear unable to control the party atmosphere.
The cove is completely unregulated. The more responsible boat operators, usually the larger ones, have recognized the problem and have held meetings to work on a self-regulating solution. Unfortunately, the problem operators don’t come to the meetings, so self-regulation is not working as well as it could.
The people I talked to about the problem don’t know if a final solution that is fair to both large and small boat operators can be found. In the meantime, what should be a profound and meaningful encounter with the natural world is being turned into a circus. It’s too bad, the manta rays deserve better.
Manta ray pictures in this post compliments of Brian Fanning. Taken with a GoPro camera with a self-built underwater camera mount.