Saturday, December 8, 2012

Big Island: Mantas

My wife is a Scuba diver (I am not). She had read about an activity run by dive shops on the Big Island, where you can dive with Manta rays at night. This is the kind of thing she absolutely loves, so she found a dive operator who could accommodate snorkelers as well as divers.

The day of the dive, we were sorting through our laundry in the hotel room, when she glanced at her watch and realized that we should have left for the dive boat 15 minutes ago. “We have to leave now!” she exclaimed, and we raced to the car.

I broke several state, federal and international driving laws, screeching through Kailua, flying down Queen Kaahumanu Highway, all with my wife shouting and lamenting the fact that we were going to miss the boat.

I swerved around a corner and skidded into a parking spot at the marina. We rushed to the dock, only to find the laid-back staff attending to other divers. “Sorry we’re late!” I blurted.

“Hey, no worries,” the captain told us.”This is Hawaii. Nothing starts on time. We would have waited for you.” As it turned out, we weren't the last to arrive. In no time, we were on our way into the sunset, watching Spinner dolphins fly through the air in the distance.


The dive crew gave us our instructions, assisted by a Manta ray puppet.


We were told that Mantas eat plankton. However, we were also told that plankton is not one species. Plankton is anything that a) is alive, b) is floating in the water, and c) does not swim very fast. It has nothing to do with size. In other words, while we were in the water, we were plankton.

However, we were in no danger, because Mantas have no teeth, no stinger and no spines. Plus, they can’t swallow anything bigger than a hot dog.

The dive crew also told us that sometimes, the Mantas don’t show up. We crossed our fingers.

We tied up at a buoy in a small bay along with other dive boats. There was an eerie glow in the water. The dive operators had installed lights on the bottom, 40 feet down. The lights attract plankton, which in turn attracts Mantas.


We had to don wetsuits, which ranks among the hardest tasks I have ever had to perform. It was like trying to enter a locked room through the keyhole.

The boats deployed surfboards with lights mounted through holes, shining down. The snorkelers hung onto the surfboard, and the divers descended to form a circle around the lights on the bottom.


The plankton was like snow, clouding the water. Small hot dog-sized fish darted around, apparently unaware of what was coming.


And then, like apparitions, the first Mantas showed up, spooky shadows on the fringes of our lights.


Soon, they were swooping in from every direction, performing loops and barrel rolls, gorging themselves on the minute organisms floating in the water. Some were huge, with 10-foot wingspans. I had a still camera and was able to get these shots.






For an hour we watched, breathless, as these huge animals flew by, often within inches of our faces. By the end, the plankton was gone and the water was clear as vodka.


Here is a video that my wife shot from the bottom, which I have edited down to about 6 minutes.

On the trip back, the sea had gotten a bit rough. My wife and I had taken Dramamine, so we hung out in the cabin with the crew on the trip back, laughing and eating snacks, while the rest of our group hunched over the rail on deck. I thought the experience was fantastic, but I suspect their memories will be a bit less wonderful.

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