Scuba diving with giant manta rays in Hawaii
People often ask about our favorite state or favorite trip. That’s such a tough question to answer because we’ve had so many memorable experiences. I think the one that tops the list, though, was scuba diving with giant manta rays in Hawaii. It was a thrilling climax to an unforgettable trip to Hawaii.
Recently, my daughter Corinne had to write a paper for her Philosophy 101 class in college about her most exhilarating experience. It wasn’t at all surprising to me that she chose our manta ray dive in Hawaii as the subject. Her professor added a twist to the assignment: any form of the verb “to be” (is, are, was, were) was prohibited. The result was an exciting tale that is as good or better than anything I could have written myself. It was like reliving the experience when I read her story. Her professor liked it too; he gave her an A.
I think my readers will like it too, and so I asked Corinne for permission to publish it here. I hope you like it as much as I do. And if it inspires you to take a trip to Hawaii or to try scuba diving, please let me know. I’d love to help plan a trip as memorable for your family as this one was for mine.
Manta Rays: A Dark Encounter
by Corinne Weeks
In the summer of 2015, my family and I visited our 50th state: Hawaii. Nestled in the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii exhibits exotic wildlife and terrain. The surface offers volcanos, black sand beaches, and rainforests; however, just below the surface, aquatic creatures thrive off the vibrant reefs. My family planned to end our trip exploring the underwater realm while scuba diving. As my siblings and I had just recently started the scuba diving certification process, we still needed to complete our open-water dives to become certified. Over the course of a day and a half, we spent several hours submerged in the warm Pacific waters practicing vital skills such as providing our “buddy” with air should he or she run out while underwater. We emerged from our training with an open water diving certification, which served as proof of our mastery of the scuba diving basics, but more importantly, gave us access to more adventurous dives. Of course, we had one specific dive in mind. Many local scuba shops regularly take trips to an area of the reef just off the coast of Kona, Hawaii. At night, scuba divers can bring lights to attract microscopic plankton, a manta ray’s favorite snack.
The nighttime manta ray dive followed an afternoon dive in the same area. We had the opportunity to explore the reef in the daylight before later braving it with a flashlight as our guide. Eels slunk from their hiding spots while we scoped the range of our visibility for manta rays in anticipation of the dive to come. We surfaced after about an hour, climbed aboard the boat, and grabbed a bite to eat while the diving guides briefed us on the specifics of the dive. Communication becomes virtually impossible underwater, especially at night when hand signals become obsolete without well-aimed flashlight beams. To ease the passage from the boat to the site of the dive, groups of divers displayed colored lights mounted on their tanks to distinguish them from other groups.
As we watched the sun set, we knew the time had come. My family and I headed over to our equipment. I sat down before putting on my buoyancy control device (BCD). When I stood up, I felt the weight of the air tank bearing down on my back. I secured my mask in place as the scuba guides herded us to the back of the boat. The short walk became far more challenging with flippers attached to my feet, especially coupled with the large swells rocking the boat up and down. The line in front of me shrank as divers stepped into the dark waters with a distinctive splash. I felt the apprehension in my chest grow as I bit down on the mouthpiece of my regulator and inhaled the dry, tasteless air from my tank. I held my regulator to my mouth as the person in front of me cleared the entry zone of the water, and per our training, I took a giant stride into the void.
When I hit the water, I felt my wetsuit saturate with the temperate sea water. While submerged, I took my first breath underwater and heard the oddly comforting wheezing sound as the air left the tank and entered my lungs. I bobbed to the surface and let my powerful fins guide me from the boat. Several feet away, I spotted the rest of my family gathered around the guide. Together, we deflated our BCDs and let the water rise over our heads. The steady sound of my breathing replaced the sloshing of the water and the quiet chatter of nearby divers. I leveled my flashlight beam and began to follow the guide towards the nearly invisible reef below. The pressure against my ears became uncomfortable, and I used my free hand to pinch my nose and relieve the pressure with a swift blow. I repeated this process several times during our descent. As we neared the bottom, I observed other guides positioning a crate that abounded with blue-tinted light directed toward the surface.
The first surge came as an unwelcome surprise. In less than a second, like an unexpected gust of wind knocking us off balance, our entire group drifted more than ten feet, carried by the shifting ocean. Earlier in the day, we experienced similar surges, but at night, only the lights of nearby divers provided knowledge of our periphery. With the added fact that we would need to hover just above the reef’s floor, I began to fear for each surge. I arrived at the bottom right next to my father; in the darkness, I had lost track of my mother and siblings in the multitude of divers now gathering around each crate of light. I inspected the seafloor for a place to hold onto, so the next surge would not carry me away. My left hand found a slippery but sturdy rock while my right still clenched my flashlight over my head. The light attracted the plankton, enticing the manta rays to come closer to us. When the next surge came, I dropped my flashlight hand to the seafloor as well and gripped another rock. After the surge faded, I glanced back to my feet and dug my flippers into the gaps in the coral. Now noticing that violet sea urchins littered the entire area, I checked that none could puncture my skin if I shifted during a surge.
When I finally felt well situated, I took a chance to take in the dark surroundings. My dad appeared to have a good hold on some coral, understandably disregarding our instructions to not touch any. Over my shoulder, I discovered my mother and siblings just ten feet away, clinging to the edge of a drop-off. Looking up, the surface now rippled forty feet away. Shadows of scattered boats blocked out the moonlit waves. For the first time, I noticed snorkelers gathered in large rings, shining light down from the surface. I realized how unnatural it seemed for all of us to cling to the aquatic terrain, forty feet from the atmosphere, yet air filled our lungs with every breath. Feeling confident enough to release one of my hands from its handhold, I pulled out my dive computer. We started our descent only five minutes ago; it felt more like twenty.
I began to wonder if we would even see any manta rays. After all, the guides reported seeing manta rays on only ninety percent of dives. With every breath, each passing second dragged on for an eternity as my mind focused solely on keeping my hold on the rocks and holding my flashlight over my head. Particles of sand spiraled through the water violently with each surge. When I again succumbed to the need to check how long we had waited, my computer read ten minutes. I looked over to my dad as he scanned the vicinity for manta rays. The light that emanated from the crate granted only about thirty feet of visibility in the otherwise pitch-dark waters. The whole situation felt like an underwater campfire with everyone looking up, waiting for the first shooting star to appear. I watched my father raise a pointed finger. My breath audibly quickened, and my heart pounded in my chest. Fifty feet away, a manta ray materialized from the inky abyss. The creature had long triangular “wings” that guided it through the water with unquestionable strength. The massive ray measured more than fifteen feet across, but its mouth seemed even bigger. Two fins extended from its “head”, forming a sort of funnel for its cavernous mouth. The manta ray dove towards the center of our group and swooped right over the central crate, filling its mouth with the invisible plankton. With a simple wave of its fins, the creature floated over some nearby divers and disappeared from view again.
When I remembered to breathe, my thoughts raced with optimism. We’d seen a manta ray! Every torturous surge and every second of waiting became utterly worthwhile in just a few moments. I continued to scan the murky horizon for signs of a manta ray, when I sensed one of the creatures just a foot over my head. After instinctually ducking, I tilted my head to see two rows of gills lining its white underside. Grey spots sprinkled its body as it tapered into a long pointy tail. The manta ray glided forward, its mouth wide as it scooped up plankton; however, instead of speeding off into the dark as the previous ray had, this one tilted its head toward the sky and somersaulted back through the light. The ray’s back camouflaged with the dark waters, although white powdered its “shoulders” and the tips of its wings.
In the next few seconds, two more rays entered our illuminated dome; one headed straight for me and my father. As it approached, I could see straight into the depths of its hollowed mouth. It had a skeletal character, with white strips of cartilage giving the appearance of a rib cage. As the distance between us closed, I ducked and my concern grew as the manta ray continued without swerving from its trajectory. I questioned if the ray could even see us with its eyes positioned on either side of its head. Then, at the last moment, the manta ray tilted upward, its body clearing my ducked head by only a few centimeters. I glanced to my father, who similarly cowered while dutifully trying to capture the moment with his GoPro.
The next several minutes blurred together. Manta Rays passed in and out of vicinity; at one point I counted at least six manta rays. Our guide emerged from the darkness and gestured to my flashlight. I surmised I needed to hold it higher so the manta rays would not draw as low to the coral, in which case the rays often brushed our crouched bodies. As I struggled to maintain my flashlight over my head, my left hand released its grip on the rock in favor of a sea-urchin-covered but secure piece of coral. With the high number of manta rays circling through our vicinity, they seemed bound to run into each other eventually. When I realized two appeared as though they would collide, I waited in apprehension until they flipped backwards at the last moment, twisted their bodies around, and swam in different directions. They danced in complete synchronicity like a choreographed ballet, elegantly and effortlessly putting on a show for us. Through the remainder of the dive, any thoughts of the periodic surges or even my remaining air level deserted my mind as I absorbed every movement of the majestic creatures.
Today, I still can’t remember when or how we resurfaced. I know my dive log reports we stayed under for just over an hour, and I know we stayed under for as long as our limited air supply would allow. I will always remember reuniting with my family aboard the boat and knowing without speaking that our trip to Hawaii culminated in the most extraordinary, most exhilarating, and most unforgettable encounter we had ever experienced and perhaps would ever experience.
Want to read about our other experiences in Hawaii? Check out 37 Reasons to Vacation in Hawaii.