Way back in the summer of 2018, in the “before time”, we could travel, and hang out in large groups. Remember those days? Ah, innocence. Little did we know…
Day 3 on the Big Island started with that most fleeting of opportunities – sleeping in. We had an evening appointment requiring several hours in the water after dark, and so we had the luxury of time to kill, tinged with a hard deadline to be in a particular place… sometime later.
In the interest of killing time, my immediate family (just the four of us) headed to the north shore and did some more sightseeing. First, we hit an old port and rail terminal at Mahukona Beach State Park. Now that the facility’s industrial days are behind it, Mahukona is now consists of a concrete berth and a few rusting derricks, but it sits in a sheltered cove with crystal clear waters and an abundance of fish – notably schools of yellow tangs – swimming in an area once devoted to human enterprise. Our boys had a grand time jumping off the concrete dock into the water and chasing fish with the camera.
We found lunch at a sandwich shop in Kapa’au, directly across the street from the first statue of King Kamehameha, which was initially lost in a shipwreck in the late 19th century. After a replacement statue was placed in Honolulu, the original was recovered and placed here, in Kamehameha’s home district of Kohala. Seems fitting. Unfortunately, during our visit, Kamehameha was undergoing some restoration and was covered with scaffolding, preventing any up-close inspection.
After lunch, we met up with the rest of the family at Pulolu Valley Lookout. At another time, with another group (and without a looming date with mantas), I would have hiked down into that valley, but we had to be satisfied with a grand, sweeping vista of the Pacific waves crashing against the cliffs of the steep-walled valley.
Following the valley, we split again. My group made a quick stop at Keokea Beach Park where the boys watched surfers and played chicken with the waves crashing into the stone breakwater. Then, we headed back to Kona via the high road through Waimea cattle country where high elevation meadows overlooked the Pacific and distant lava fields.
Finally, it was time for the main event! We all converged at Hang Loose Kona where we donned wetsuits and boarded a boat to head out and south along the shore toward Kailua just before sunset. I don’t know quite what I expected, but we wound up setting anchor about a hundred yards offshore, in full view of the shoreline hotels. Here the water was about twenty-five feet deep, and we were free to swim and explore the local area before sunset.
Then, as the sun sank low, the Hang Loose crew prepped some large floating platforms and slid them into the water. These platforms were basically 4×8 foot, two-inch thick sheets of insulation foam, around which a metal frame was welded, ostensibly to put handles around the board’s perimeter. On the bottom of this contraption, facing down, were several blue LEDs, all connected to a marine battery sealed in a watertight box that sat on top of the frame. The net result was a floating raft, surrounded by handles, shining small blue spotlights down into the water below. All told, there were about five of these small barges in the water.
After sunset, small zooplankton in the water would move toward the lights and collect in clouds below the beams of the LED. This, in turn, would attract the mantas, who had learned that a feast lingered near the lights. Mantas are filter-feeders, like whale sharks or baleen whales, that feed by swimming, mouths agape, collecting plankton as they go. We were told to lay on our stomachs in the water and grip the handles on the raft, and to stay as motionless as possible while the mantas fed.
Apparently there were about ten rays in the vicinity, ranging up to about 15 feet across, and they were individually recognizable by the spot patterns on their white bellies. Someone asked, “But how will we be able to see those patterns from the surface?” The answer came with a big smile, “You’ll see…”. I regret that with the passage of time, I can’t remember any of the names given to the individual mantas in the area, but most were semi-permanent residents. On any given night a transient ray would join the fun, and the crew would attempt to record its presence, both for future familiarity and to add to a database that was shared among divers and marine scientists on the island. One long-term customer was a large, older female that suffered from a paralyzed cephalic lobe, the fin-like structure in front of a manta’s mouth that helps funnel in food. We were told to keep an eye out for her, and sure enough (at the risk of getting ahead of myself) she plays a lead role in the attached video.
After sunset, but before it was too dark to clearly see the bottom, a collective “Oh, oh!” started to ripple through the crowd, each call muffled through snorkels. Words were completely indecipherable, but the intent was clear. A smaller manta, about six feet across, was cruising along the bottom, checking the area for food and safety, and apparently making a judgment as to whether the availability of food was worth drawing near to all the people. For a while, this lone manta, we’ll call him “Scout”, made repeated passes through the lights, each time a little higher, and a little closer to us.
As Scout drew nearer, the water grew dark. The LED lights shining down illuminated clouds of floating plankton, like a searchlight shining through a light fog. Outside these beams, nothing was visible. I’m not claustrophobic, but I can imagine that the experience would be disorienting for those so afflicted. The world shrunk to a few conical overlapping beams surrounded by inky black. When the occasional school of fish swam by, they would appear suddenly, swim across the visible field, and then vanish just as suddenly. For some of the more skittish in the group, it did not take much imagination to think of more sinister things appearing out of the gloom.
But the next thing we saw was not sinister at all. As Scout glided by, slowly flapping about five feet below the surface, another manta appeared from the opposite direction. This one was about twelve feet across with a limp cephalic lobe that tended to drift into the creature’s mouth as it swam. Her reputation preceded her, and somehow knowing that we were seeing a particular, known manta made her arrival exciting. Like seeing a celebrity. Soon, a third appeared, then a fourth. And then, they started looping.
One of the mantas entered the light about six feet down, and then swam straight up, at the lights and at us, giving us the impression that we were gazing straight down into its mouth, past its gills, and almost all the way through its body. Nearing the platform, the manta pitched over on its back and swam upside down inches from us, occasionally brushing us with its wings, and then pitched back to swim straight down and then level off again. At first, it was just one loop, but then a manta would claim the space and loop over, and over, and over again, completely at ease with all the humans that stared and tried to remain silent while at the same time were bursting with excitement at the beauty and novelty of the experience.
They were magnificent. Graceful, elegant, and beautiful. And they just kept coming. We couldn’t see every light column under every raft, but at one point we saw six mantas at the same time in our own set of beams. It wasn’t hard to imagine that they were establishing a course between all the rafts, leapfrogging from one set of lights to another, and occasionally pausing to loop where the bounty was especially good.
In retrospect, I have no idea how long we were in the water, but eventually we got back on board the boat and motored home, giddy with an experience that exceeded all expectations.
In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder about habituating these animals to human-managed feeding events. I think about the one night we enjoyed, and then I think about the other boats, and all the fair weather nights when events like this play out. Like any creature, the mantas will certainly take advantage of easy hunting, so it’s not surprising that they would congregate like they do. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison, but I think of the negative impact similar activities have had with, for example, bears. Not to be a spoil-sport about this, but there is, I think, an easy set of excuses that help us dismiss the potential for negative impact: we live in different worlds (water and not-water), there are no foreign foods being introduced here, and the observations also contribute to science and public awareness and support. There are positive things to say about these factors, but I can’t think of other situations where essentially hand-feeding wildlife has ended well for the individual animals or the ecosystem.
But all that is conjecture and nagging doubt. I don’t really know… what I do know as that for ME, personally, I learned a lot and gained an increased appreciation for these magnificent animals. It was an incredible experience!
Get Out There!