This is what it's like to snorkel with manta rays at night in Hawaii

Travel News from Stuff - 03-10-2022 stuff.co.nz

In the shadows of the ocean, I can make out an enormous gaping black mouth, big enough to swallow my head.

Night has fallen, but lamps are illuminating the water, attracting screeds of , tiny microscopic organisms which look like specs of dust floating in space. It’s sparked an underwater feeding frenzy amongst a dozen manta rays, or ‘hahalua’ in Hawaiian, off the coast of Kona on the .

Just when the manta’s mouth appears close enough to kiss me, the mobulid rolls backwards into a somersault, hoovering up thousands of these organisms in the process. Each ray repeats the barrel rolls as if in some kind of hypnotic trance. To give you a sense of the size, a wingspan can easily reach up to four metres.

Just before sunset, six of us paddled out to sea on a traditional Hawaiian double hull canoe, watching the sun slowly disappear from the sky, gently rolling to the motion of the ocean, each of us bathed in a sunset afterglow.

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“Looks like the perfect conditions for a green flash,” says Iko Balanga, founder of manta ray snorkelling company Anelakai Adventures. The Hawaiian waterman and his wife Holly Crane run guided tours out into the water to see the manta rays at night.

The mantas were only recently discovered in this part of Hawaii in the last few decades, when a nearby waterfront resort would turn on floodlights for guests so they could see the ocean. What they didn’t realise was that the light was attracting phytoplankton like moths to a flame, a manta’s key food source, which then attracted the rays.

The area has now become famous for its manta ray snorkelling and diving tours. But the heavy boat traffic bringing tourists and swimmers to the feeding sites can come at a cost to the wildlife – something Balanga and Crane are trying to counteract with a more eco-friendly option. When done in a way that has little environmental impact and poses little harm to humans or animals, can inspire guests and travellers to learn more about the ocean and become advocates for the species that call it home.

The Island of Hawaii has a concept called the , where visitors to the island are encouraged to ‘live pono’ by respecting the land, the ocean, its natural forces, and all its inhabitants. With a maximum of six guests at a time, Anelaki is the only non-motorised, purely paddle power company that offers manta viewing from a double hull canoe, using the same method of sea voyaging as ancient Hawaiian and Polynesiasn peoples.

It’s a very grounding experience when you have to use your own strength to power the canoe and work together in unity, offering a more authentic and rewarding tourism experience aligned with Hawaii’s cultural values. During the journey, Balanga and Crane share tales of ancient Hawaiians, the stories of battles that took place on the land, while drilling home the importance of protecting the ocean and the life that lives below the surface.

“Hawaiians have a very intimate physical and spiritual connection with the land and the ocean, and every part of the earth and the ocean has mana, or a spiritual presence, of course including manta ray,” explains Crane.

“Hahalua, meaning two breaths in Hawaiian, and all ocean animals are amakua aumakua, or personal spirit animals, and manta rays are a significant aumakua to many Hawaiian and Polynesian people, being a symbol of wisdom, grace and strength.

“In Polynesian canoe voyaging, the voyagers knew when they were getting close to land when they saw certain species of animals, including the near shore manta ray that we see (manta alfredi) as well as birds and other animals.”

When we climb into the ocean, we hold onto a pole attached to the canoe so we don’t drift away in the swell. Floating as the ocean and sky get darker, our eyes wide with anticipation behind our snorkel masks. I see a dark shadow emerge from the distance, slowly drifting closer towards us. The closer it gets, the more its size becomes apparent and soon I am dwarfed by the incredible wingspan of these majestic filter feeders.

Barrel roll after barrel roll, the manta rays swoop up from the ocean floor, always seeming to veer away into its feeding somersault at the very last minute. Spellbound by the ritual, the time in the ocean passes quickly until I realise the other boats around us are all but gone, and the cold is starting to set in.

While the other boats carrying large tourist numbers hoon off with their propellers and engines, we take extreme care climbing back into the canoe from the water. Crane lowers a small step ladder into the water, but advises us to move quickly so we can pull it out quickly to prevent a manta ray bumping into it. The care taken to avoid any harm to these creatures is impressive.

“Ancient Hawaiians were incredibly sustainable people, living in harmony with the island and the sea. They understood that if they took too much it wouldn’t be there for future generations,” says Crane.

“We choose to remain a small, non invasive and truly eco-friendly company, and share our love of our ocean with every single guest that we take out. We feel that if we give them that feeling of Aloha and share our love of our ocean and manta rays with them, they will then be inspired to protect it and educate others as well.”

One of the most important things with all wildlife interactions is no touching - this is particularly the case for manta rays, which have a protective coating on their bodies to prevent bacteria and other harmful things in the ocean. If a human touches their bodies, it compromises this layer, the manta’s skin turns brown and leaves them open to infection.

Manta tourism globally is worth around USD $140 million annually, with major hot spots including Indonesia, Fiji and the Maldives. But mantas are a threatened species - propeller strike being one of the major risks, as well as becoming byproducts of net fishing and accidental catches.

“We have noticed a lot of scars and injuries on manta rays that are from propellers and fishing lines,” says Crane. She and Balanga would like to see more restrictions in place for manta tours,such as propeller guards for motorised boats, a limit on how many guests a company can have in the water at any time per night, and a ban on scuba diving, as they use dive buoys as markers which have resulted in entanglement with the mantas.

“Our dream would be to have all canoes or paddle power vessels in the area, with no motorised boats allowed. This would drastically reduce the number of propeller injuries to manta rays, as well as the number of guests that would be in the water at a time.”

Manta tourism, when done well, can educate people, promote fundraising for conservation efforts, which in turn helps local and global projects invest more into their care, monitoring and protection. For local communities, it provides jobs and employment and a chance to share indigenous culture and beliefs with a global community.

It would be impossible to see these friendly giants of the sea without wanting to become an advocate for them. Safe and ethical wildlife encounters can be profoundly life changing experiences and transform observers into advocates for our oceans. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain to friends and family that manta rays do not sting and cannot eat you; so many of us have such little understanding of the life that lives in 70% of the planet.

Paddling back to shore with smiles as wide as a crescent moon, our little group of six must work together as one again to power the canoe, a final show of unity, strengthened by the bond that comes with a shared experience of witnessing one of the most majestic underwater animals in the world.

Hawaiian Airlines flies direct from Auckland to Honolulu, and daily connecting flight to Kona. See: hawaiianairlines.com. Flying causes carbon emissions. To offset yours, head to hawaiianairlines.conservation.org

Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa, from US$259 (NZ$460) per night. See: outrigger.com

Manta ray night snorkel with Anelakai Adventures: US$150 per person. See: anelakaiadventures.com

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