Close encounters of the manta kind
By Sarah Sekula
It’s 7 o’clock in Mantaville. Population uncertain.
We’re motoring along in a skiff, a small, inflatable craft with an outboard motor. It quickly transports us from the Safari Explorer, a luxury mega-yacht that is our home base for the week, to an area off the coast of Kona, Hawaii. On board, seven manta ray watchers from Denmark, Australia, and the U.S., snugly outfitted in wetsuits and snorkel gear, anxiously await what comes next.
One by one we climb down the ladder into the 75-degree water. I swim toward a surfboard outfitted with lights on its underbelly. This attracts plankton; the perfect snack for Giant Pacific Manta Rays.
Before I know it, the first ray arrives to what I hope will be a well-attended party. With a wing span of about 12 feet, this guy is utterly graceful; cruising along like a stealth bomber. His gaping mouth could easily swallow a small coffee table; good thing he is toothless. Plus, unlike stingrays, mantas have no poisonous barbs. Even though they are closely related to sharks and can weigh up to 3,000 pounds, diving with them is perfectly safe.
The gentle giant is only a few feet below me at this point. He propels upward, then turns a back flip. And as if that wasn’t cool enough, he does it again. And again. And again. And again.
Giggling through my snorkel, I notice a blue light shining from the ocean floor. Another. And another. Until the whole area glows ethereally like we’ve stumbled upon the mystical world of Atlantis. Then thousands of bubbles rise to meet my face mask. The seemingly surreal moment eventually makes sense: There are scuba divers below, and waterproof spotlights are sitting on the sea floor.
Even more startling, there must be almost two dozen rays swimming beneath us now. Just imagine an underwater performance with all the theatrics of a ballet. Better yet, there’s a backup dancer: a bottlenose dolphin, which is, apparently, pretty rare in these parts.
Happily, I soak up every facet around me. I feel fortunate to witness this, and I’m hardly alone in my amazement. In fact, some say this is the number one snorkel experience in the world. My cohorts seem to agree, they are all squealing with delight.
Back on the skiff, teeth chattering, everyone is atwitter. To sum it up, a white-haired lady plops into her seat and immediately says, in her distinct New Jersey accent: “Okay, I can die now.”
As we head back to the ship in time for dinner, I wonder if anything else during my 7-night cruise aboard the Safari Explorer will top this experience. Now that I look back, I’d say nothing did. A few things came close, however. Like the time a whale surfaced at the stern of the ship. Or the time we traveled via Pinzgauers, German all-terrain vehicles, to North Kohala.
Let me put it this way: The waters off of Kona, Hawaii, are not, by any measure, ordinary. And if you are ever presented with the chance to swim alongside manta rays, by all means, do it.
If you go:
Many cruise lines offer this excursion. I was onboard American Safari Cruises. You may also book directly with companies like Jack’s Diving Locker or Sea Paradise.
American Safari Cruises
3826 18th Avenue West
Seattle, WA 98119
Thanks to American Safari Cruises for sponsoring my trip.