The snorkeling and scuba diving in Hawaii are justifiably famous, and certainly one of the more spectacular and surreal experiences that one can have here is diving among the manta rays. The Kona coast of the Big Island is home to a large colony (or pod, or flock, or school, or whatever the collective noun is) of 230 mantas. How do they know that it is precisely 230? Because mantas, like many animals, have unique patterns of spots that are as distinct as fingerprints and which thus allow them to be individually identified and counted.
Mantas are big. Even a small adult will be 8′ (2.5m) across, wingtip to wingtip, and the largest in the Kona colony is twice that. She (and I am presuming that the people who named her could somehow identify the sex) is aptly named Big Bertha. Pelagic (deep ocean) ones run even larger, up to 22′ (7m) in size.
Despite their rather intimidating appearance, mantas are gentle and feed primarily on plankton, scooping it into their prodigious maw — the size of an open window — as they glide balletically along. That makes it easy to find the creatures: just shine a light to attract the plankton, and the mantas will follow. The various dive operators are well aware of this, of course, and have strategically placed some spotlights on the ocean floor at a depth of 45′ (14m) in an area whose conditions are particularly rich in plankton. The result is an easy dive where, equipped with underwater flashlights, we merely have to descend straight down and sit on the ocean floor in the vicinity of the spotlights, rather like assembling around an underwater campfire. And the result is this:
That’s me in the lower left of each image. It is a remarkably alien experience to having these things gliding around you, particular when they are coming head on: you can see the full length of their body interior, their rib cage framing what seems to be a huge but somehow hollow organism. (You can see the effect in the middle image.) They swoop, they glide, they perform underwater loop-the-loops, they even brush against us. We even saw Big Bertha herself, so large that when she flapped her wings in our vicinity we could feel the pressure wave knocking us off balance from our perches adjacent to a rock outcropping.
We stayed on the bottom for 50 minutes, close to the maximum allowable time at that depth without requiring decompression. But we could have watched them for hours.
Back on land a day later, we engaged in more pedestrian and terrestrial activities, as our son and daughter-in-law left us to return home (and we were sad to see them go) and our next round of visitors, our good friends Laura and David, arrived. One of our first stops with them was the Kona farmer’s market, a wonderful venue not only for learning about (and buying, and eating) the local produce — lilikoi, kumquats, apple bananas, rambutans, mangos — but also seeing the the wonderful ethnic mix of this place, e.g.:
We’ve been away from home for two weeks today and are already fretting that we have to go back in less than a month. I do not expect any sympathy.