One of the most incredible things to do in Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii is snorkeling with manta rays. But there are a few unique aspects of this activity- you’ll be swimming with the fifth largest fish species in the world, in the middle of the ocean, at night.
So if you’ve got questions about the experience, we’ve got the answers- here’s everything you need to know about manta ray snorkeling in Kona (including the most ethical, experienced, and well rated tour operator you should book with!).
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Kona is one of the best places to swim with manta rays on the planet. While there’s other locations throughout the globe, like Indonesia or the Maldives, where you can swim with these beautiful creatures, Kona is one of the only places on the planet where mantas are consistently found every day of the year.
But first, let’s back up.
So, uh, what’s a manta ray?
Manta rays are enormous fish- in fact, they’re the biggest ray, with the largest species boasting a wingspan of up to 29 feet! The mantas found in Kona, colloquially called “reef mantas”, are the second largest species and on average, typically have a wingspan of around 12 feet.
While manta rays may look a little spooky, they’re gentle giants of the sea and are filter feeders, meaning they feed exclusively on microscopic plankton near the surface of the water. Even when small fish swim into their mouths, a manta ray will quickly spit it out (so don’t be worried about being eaten by one!).
Additionally, while manta rays are related to stingrays, their tails lack the pointy barb that stingrays have (which ultimately did our good friend, Steve Irwin, in).
So, in sum, manta rays are friends, not foe- and won’t hurt you.
Beyond not eating you or whatever, they also happen to be incredibly intelligent, having the largest brain to body ratio of any fish. Research also suggests that they recognize themselves in mirrors, a sign of self-awareness (pretty wild, huh?), which is quite unusual amongst our fish friends. Perhaps it’s all that brain power or something, but these fish are unusually friendly and curious.
What is a manta ray snorkeling tour?
There’s dozens and dozens of tour operators in Kona that offer manta ray snorkeling tours that all follow essentially the same formula.
Guests will meet at a harbor and then be taken out in a boat to one of the spots in Kona where manta rays like to hang out (more on that below!). As you cruise to the snorkeling spot, the guides will explain how the manta ray snorkeling will work and provide information about manta rays and how to behave around them.
The operator then has a series of rafts that float on top of the water, with attached lights underneath them that shine down into the water. These lights attract plankton, which, in turn, attract the manta rays that like to eat them.
In order for this process to work, it has to be dark out and thus, the tour takes place at night (otherwise, during the day, plankton is attracted to the sunlight and thus, will not be concentrated where you’re snorkeling).
The guests will be taken out, one-by-one, by the guides to the lighting apparatus. During the tour, you won’t actually be swimming around and rather, just floating on top of the water and hanging on to the lighting device (which is surprisingly quite the arm workout!).
This is for two reasons:
- It’s probably not a great idea to have a bunch of tourists freely swimming around in the middle of the ocean at night.
- The manta rays have a protective coat of mucus, which largely functions as their immune system, on their skin. If humans (or anything else solid, like a flipper) touches the manta rays, it rubs off this protective coating, which can cause lesions on their skin or otherwise harm them.
Accordingly, to protect the manta rays during the tour, you will not be wearing flippers and will have limited movement in your legs to ensure the mantas aren’t kicked. When my husband, Justin, and I went on our manta ray snorkeling tour, the guides gave us pool noodles to loop beneath our ankles so that they’d float near the surface while we were hanging on to the raft.
The feeding manta rays will then swoop and somersault through the water beneath you, sometimes just inches from your face, as they have their nightly feast. After about 45 minutes or so in the water, you’ll head back to the boat and sail back to shore.
Where can you find manta rays in Kona?
Manta rays are habitual creatures and typically feed in the same spots every day.
In Kona, manta rays typically hang out in three spots:
- Manta Ray Village is the original manta ray snorkeling spot in Kona and the most popular location for tours. It’s located directly in front of the Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, which is to the south of Kona.
Out of all the manta ray feeding spots in Kona, you’ll have the best chance of seeing mantas at Manta Ray Village- tours reportedly see an average of four manta rays per tour, with a manta ray sighting rate of 95%!
- Manta Ray Heaven is north of Kona by Keahole Point, the most western tip of the island, and offshore of Kona International Airport. This site tends to be more popular with manta ray dive tours (where you scuba dive to the seafloor and observe the manta rays swooping overhead), but there’s also a few night snorkel tours that come here as well.
Out of all of the locations of manta ray snorkeling tours in Kona, you’ll have a slightly lower sighting rate if you go here as opposed to heading to Manta Ray Village, but you’ll have a better chance of getting to snorkel with multiple mantas at a time.
- Manta Point is located north of Kona in Kauna’oa Bay, by the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Motorized boats are prohibited from entering the private property, so there’s no tours that come here.
Which Manta Ray Snorkeling Tour in Kona Should I Book?
Beyond just being beautiful and graceful creatures, manta rays are actually considered threatened, due to their slow reproductive cycle and the fact that they are hunted in certain parts of the world for their gill-rakers (the part that filters out plankton).
So it’s incredibly important that you choose a tour company that educates its guests and takes protecting the manta rays seriously. Per the non-profit Hawaii Ocean Watch, less than 50% of operators on the Big Island comply with industry standards that protect these gentle creatures from injury during these tours.
Accordingly, I’d highly recommend only booking a tour through one of Hawaii Ocean Watch’s Green List preferred providers.These preferred providers meet a number of criteria, including following sustainable practices, like not using a propeller or anchoring on coral, and collect a nature fee that funds training for the boating industry to promote manta ray safety.
The best manta ray night snorkel tour, in my opinion, is Sea Paradise, which has nightly tours departing from Keauhou Bay, less than a five minute boat ride from Manta Ray Village.
This was the tour company that Justin and I went with and I HIGHLY recommend them.
You get all the stuff you’d expect out of a tour (snorkeling gear, knowledgeable guides, and a nice boat to transport you to the snorkel site), but there was so much more that I loved about it:
- The price includes a wetsuit rental, which you’re absolutely going to want to use– the water is surprisingly chilly once the sun goes down! Note that not all tours provide wetsuits and some actually require that you pay an additional fee to rent one.
- As you’re cruising to Manta Ray Village, the guides will tell you all sorts of interesting information about the mantas, but more importantly, they instruct you how to behave around them. It was VERY obvious just how serious the guides took both your and the mantas’ safety, which I personally loved.
There’s also a knowledgeable guide with you the entire 45 minutes you’re in the water, rattling off manta ray facts (which is honestly sort of funny because the snorkelers’ ears are totally underwater) and there to answer any questions you may have.
- Once you’re out of the water, they have a variety of warm drinks, like tea and hot cocoa, to help get your body temperature back up (like I said, it’s REALLY chilly!), which is a really nice touch.
Most tour groups leave the harbor around 6:30, but if you want to see a TON of mantas, I’d recommend booking Sea Paradise’s night tour, which leaves at 9. There’s a lot of tour operators in Manta Ray Village’s waters during the 6:30 tour and I’ve read that the mantas swim from group to group, resulting in you having less time with them.
When we went on the 9 pm tour, though, there was only one other tour group out and we had something like 11 manta rays swimming with us the entire time!
Sea Paradise usually opens these later night tours after the 6:30 tour fills up, so I’d recommend checking availability about one and a half weeks or so before your trip. And if there are no late night tours available, the 6:30 tour is totally still worth it!
Other frequently asked questions about the Kona Manta Ray Snorkeling Tours
What’s the difference between a manta ray dive and manta ray snorkeling tour?
During a manta ray dive in Hawaii, the tour operator will shoot lights up from the ocean floor into the water above. Unlike a manta ray snorkeling tour, where you’re observing from above, scuba divers will sit on the ocean floor and observe as mantas swim and feed overhead. Additionally, where you only need basic swimming and snorkeling skills to go on the snorkeling tour, you’ll need to be a certified scuba diver for the dive.
What if I don’t see manta rays on the tour?
Sea Paradise guarantees that you’ll see manta rays on your tour, meaning that if you happen to fall in the 5% of tours that are sans mantas, you can rebook at a later date (how cool is that!). Accordingly, it’s a good idea to go on your tour at the beginning of your Big Island itinerary so you’ll have time to reschedule if the need arises.
Not all tour operators offer this perk so if you book with someone else, be sure to read the fine print!
Are manta ray snorkeling tours ethical?
Any tour that includes some sort of animal interaction should raise red flags with you- are the animals being held in captivity? Is more harm coming out of the activity than good? If so, you should absolutely not be supporting it, with either your time or your money.
Manta ray snorkeling tours (and really, any kind of activity that involves an animal in the wild) has positive and negative impacts on the animals. For example, conservation efforts have dramatically increased to protect these threatened creatures against poaching, due, in significant part, to the awareness that the manta ray tourism industry, valued at $140 million per year, has created.
On the other hand, the popularity of manta ray tours obviously expose these animals to more humans than they’d otherwise interact with, which can lead to injury for the mantas (especially with negligent tour operators) as well as unnatural feeding habits.
After researching manta rays’ feeding habits (i.e., they naturally frequently feed at night and can eat up to 20 hours per day) and a variety of tour operators, I felt comfortable booking a tour with Sea Paradise. However, I’d strongly encourage you to do research and come to your own conclusions.
Are there things I should bring on the manta ray snorkeling tour?
Yes, I’d recommend packing:
- Dramamine: the boat getting to and from the dive site can be a little on the rocky side! A few people in our group got sick, which I strongly suspect takes away from the magicalness of the tour.
- GoPro: to capture the manta rays’ sweet acrobatic moves
- Drybag: everything on the boat is a little chaotic- and frankly, wet- after the tour, with people peeling off their wetsuits and throwing their snorkels around. We kept our towel and clothes dry by placing them in a dry bag until we were ready to use them.
- Snorkeling gear: While Sea Paradise (and pretty much all snorkeling tours) will provide snorkel equipment, I personally prefer to bring my own, given that I know it only has my germs on it and the fact that I know that it works well.
Justin and I both have these snorkel sets, which we used all over the Big Island and on other tropical vacations. Just note that you’re not allowed to use full face snorkel masks due to safety concerns.
- Jacket: Y’all, it gets CHILLY in the water at night. I was absolutely freezing once we got out of the water. I’d recommend bringing along something super warm, like a zip-up fleece (I’m obsessed with mine from Patagonia) to throw on after you’re out of the water and heading back to shore.
Is there any other not-to-be-missed snorkeling on the Big Island?
Well, shucks, since you asked, yes! While you’re in Kona, be sure to snorkel at the Captain Cook Monument.
You can only reach the monument by hiking a strenuous trail or, alternatively, taking a tour. Because the bay hasn’t been overtouristed, the coral reef looks vibrant and untouched and the wildlife is incredibly abundant, offering some of the very best snorkeling on the Big Island.
Now go forth and enjoy one of the most unique experiences you can include on your Big Island itinerary! Do you have any questions about the manta ray snorkeling tour? If so, let me know in the comments below!
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