DREAMING OF GETTING UP CLOSE TO GIANT MANTA RAYS WHILE IN HAWAII - AWESOME! WE WERE TOO. EXPLORE OUR PERSONAL GUIDE ON ALL THINGS SNORKELING WITH MANTA RAYS, INCLUDING HOW TO DO IT SUSTAINABLY.
We definitely didn't know what to expect from snorkeling with manta rays. While we had talked to our friends about their own experiences being so close to the gentle giants, we knew that because they had been scuba diving and not snorkeling (aka they were at the bottom of the ocean while we would be floating up top) our experiences would likely be quite different.
The one thing we did expect though was to be totally amazed and in total awe of the large marine creatures. And we were definitely not disappointed.
Below is a breakdown of our own personal experience snorkeling with manta rays off of the coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. This guide includes some helpful information about the manta rays themselves - including how they are different from stingrays and eagle rays (two types of rays also found in Hawaii) - as well as information on how to be a sustainable traveler - especially when it comes to interacting with the manta rays - and also, finally what to expect when you head out to swim with the massive marine creatures yourself.
MANTA RAYS VS OTHER RAYS
One key thing to know before snorkeling with manta rays is that though they are big (very big), they are entirely harmless. They are very much gentle giants of the ocean more than anything else. While it might be a tad confusing since they are a "ray," manta rays are quite unlike their cousin the stingray (which can be somewhat dangerous). Below are a few of the main differences between a manta ray and a stingray:
| In terms of size, manta rays are almost always much larger than stingrays.
| A big difference is the tail - manta rays don't have a barbed tail whereas stingrays do (this is what causes the most harm).
| Overall temperament - manta rays are considered to be very gentle and curious, while stingrays can be slightly more aggressive and unpredictable, especially if cornered.
| How they swim and live - manta rays glide through the water and often do loops and acrobatic flips, while stingrays are commonly found hanging out on the bottom of the ocean (they are bottom feeders while manta rays are not).
Another somewhat commonly seen animal in Hawaii is the eagle ray, which, like a stingray, does have a barbed tail. But these majestic sea creatures are quite harmless and very shy. While they are regularly seen gliding in warm shallow water, they are easily spooked. You will know it is an eagle ray by the numerous white spots on its back.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT MANTA RAYS
Below are a few interesting facts about manta rays (because why not learn more about these unique creatures).
1 | The manta rays that live near the Big Island are thought to be between 60 and 80 years old (scientists have tracked them).
2 | On average, manta rays weigh around 100 pounds per foot. Likewise, most manta rays are around 12 feet wide (aka they are heaaaavy).
3 | At birth, the manta rays are roughly already 4 feet wide. They also automatically know how to swim.
4 | The biggest manta ray in the area is a female known as Big Bertha. She is around 16 feet wide. Also, females are usually larger than the males.
5 | The manta rays have to eat around 30% of their body weight every week.
6 | The glowing blue light that is used during the dive (see the photos below) attracts plankton, which then attracts the manta rays (along with other fish). The different types of zooplankton are the main food source of the manta rays.
7 | Manta rays and stingrays have both garnered a reputation for their high levels of intelligence. In particular, manta rays are thought to be some of the most intelligent animals on the planet. This might be because they possess the largest brains, as well as the largest brain-to-body ratio, of any fish.
EXPLORE MORE | OUR ULTIMATE TRAVEL GUIDE TO THE BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII
\\ Our Experience Snorkeling with Manta Rays in Hawaii
Interacting with the manta rays is not necessarily a new activity on the Big Island. According to our dive instructors, snorkeling with manta rays started roughly 50 years ago at the Sheraton Hotel (now the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa). The local restaurant/bar would put out bright lights to attract the manta rays to the surface so their guests could see them up close. Also, they may or may not have let some people grab onto the rays and ride them around (that would hopefully not fly nowadays).
One thing they do know they did, was allow people to touch the manta rays. But eventually, people (especially scientists) started noticing that the rays were getting these red splotches on their undersides. Turns out, when humans touch the manta rays they scrape off a bit of the safety layer on the outside of the ray's skin. This can then cause the manta rays to be more susceptible to infections. In fact, the biggest danger to manta rays is humans. So remember: NEVER touch a manta ray.
We ended up booking our manta ray dive through Big Island Divers. This locally owned dive shop was super friendly and helpful and also very knowledgeable about the manta rays and the whole marine ecosystem along the Big Island. Plus, they provided wetsuits, snorkel gear and fins at no extra cost. Likewise, once on board their boat, we also were given free snacks and warm cookies and hot chocolate after the dive (which was great because we were quite cold).
Altogether, Big Island Divers were a really great company to do the snorkel with since you could easily tell they actually cared about sustainably interacting with the manta rays - which is super important when it comes to wildlife-focused activities.
💸 COST: $129 per person
🕝 TIME: 45 minutes out in the water looking at the manta rays and a 25-minute boat ride to and from the marina.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we do recommend packing warmer clothes to put on after snorkeling for it does get pretty cold on the boat - especially after being in the water. We packed extra jackets and towels and were pretty warm on the ride back into the marina. Also, Big Island Divers does provide individual plastic boxes that you can store all of your stuff in - including any tech and extra clothes.
The actual snorkeling adventure begins once night falls. For that is when the various diving companies start setting up the bright blue lights - both on the boards you will be holding onto (see photo above) and down on the bottom of the ocean (this is called "the campfire"). This bright, glowing blue light is what attracts the plankton (and therefore also the manta rays).
Once everything is set up, you will get a quick debrief on what you are expected to do and not do: do hold onto the board the whole time and do try to keep your body as flat as possible (splashing scares the plankton and rays away), do NOT touch the manta rays (this will get repeated about 100 times because it is by far the most important rule).
Then it is time to get into your wetsuit, don your large fins and prep your snorkel mask. Soon enough you will be jumping into the water and grabbing onto the floating (and now glowing) board. Then it is time to wait for the manta rays to arrive.
💬 INSIDER TIP: just a heads up, but you should be prepared to feel a bit cold out in the water - especially if you are someone who is extra susceptible to colder temperatures. While the provided wetsuits definitely help, you will still likely be a bit chilled by the end of the 45 minutes.
After a bit of waiting, you will slowly start seeing your first manta rays swim (really glide) beneath you. And oh man it is likely a moment you won't forget. The large marine creatures are just so incredibly majestic - even mythical in a sense. With their silent gliding and massive size they almost feel unreal. Plus, they just pop out of the dark water and act like you aren't even there. In fact, you should be prepared for them to get quite close to you - so close that you might think they are going to touch you (don't worry they are very spatially aware). During our snorkeling adventure, we had a couple of large manta rays come within a few inches of us as they did barrel rolls and twists (see the video below for a better idea of what we mean).
Always remember that even if the manta rays do get within a couple of inches of you, do NOT ever reach out and touch them. We know how easy and inviting it looks, but remember to always be a sustainable traveler and follow all animal welfare practices - which in this case means NO TOUCHING.
Soon enough (too soon really) the 45 minutes allotted for snorkeling will be over and it will be time to hop back onto the boat. Once aboard, you will discard your snorkel gear - including wetsuits and fins. If you are heading out with Big Island Divers you will then also be rewarded with hot chocolate and some delicious cookies. Then it is time to head back to the boat marina where the whole adventure began (this ride takes about 25 minutes each way). During the boat ride back, make sure to keep an eye out for bioluminescent plankton in the churning waves.