This past summer, I received a call early one evening from former divemaster-student-turned-ohana, Michelle Nicotre. She informed me that there was a dive that has been on her bucket list for years, and that it was time to see it through. Michelle, a wild card, is the type of person that dives head first to achieve her dreams and I for one was not about to miss out on one of her classic shenanigan-laced adventures.
Her dream was the famed Manta Ray night dive on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
Manta rays in their current form have been around for 20-25 million years. Humans, on the other hand, have been in their current form for just 200,000 years. It seems that as far as mantas go, there is no need to fix what isn’t broken. They also happen to be one of the more mysterious ocean dwellers as further research is being conducted on these amazing rays.
Night dives are by far my favorite kind of dive, ominous, perplexing and a true test of one’s ability to keep calm, as I personally have found myself face to face with some of the ocean’s more “grumpy” characters in their prime hunting hours (admittedly my fault in, ahem, most of those cases). If you have never been on a night dive, do yourself a favor and make it happen. Done safely, it’s mind blowing – diving a spot that you have dove multiple times during the day suddenly seems new and unexplored at night. The only visible area is the conical illumination of your torch (dive light). You never really know how vulnerable you are in the ocean since you have no idea what may be swimming next to you (cue “Jaws” theme music).
The Big Island, one of the more unpredictable Islands of Hawai’i, has much to offer through its lands and ecosystems. With active volcanoes, flowing lava, black sand beaches and the sides of volcanoes that you can ski or board-! this island has something for everyone. But I want to take a second to say this: landing on the Big Island was a big wake up call for me to understanding what Hawaii truly feels like. It’s hard to explain, but it’s what’s the locals call “aloha” – go there, and you’ll know what I mean the second your slippers hit the ground.
The manta ray dive is on the Kona Coast of the Big Island, and there are plenty of well-established dive operations ready to accommodate you, so do some research before making the trip and decide what’s right for you. I went with Kona Honu Divers, for no reason in particular, other than it’s the only company that wasn’t completely booked. Let me tell you from the perspective of a Master Instructor, though, this operation was top notch. I was very impressed with the knowledgeable, friendly and professional staff. I am one to scrutinize an operation, especially one that I drop big bucks on (including the total cost of the trip).
The boat they used to ferry us to the dive site was immaculately clean and the captain ran a tight operation (and killer fast!). Small things that one might not notice (unless you have worked in the industry) like the organization and storage of the lead weights were a welcome observation and shows an attention to detail that many other operations would have otherwise allow to fall though the grates. For those with their own gear and advanced training as myself you may notice that some operations will be less then accommodating to your level of diving, as we tend to enjoy instruction at a distance (Advanced Divers and above in my experience are like vegans; they can wait to tell you). This was not the case here. I was left to my own devices as I travel with my own gear; the staff were aware of my status as an instructor, but were more than happy to answer any questions I had. All in all, I was very impressed with this dive operation. Don’t forget to tip the crew and captain, because it’s no easy job and no one’s getting rich any time soon. It’s truly a labor of love, this industry.
The dive preceding the mantas was underwhelming, but this is from the eyes of someone that dives clear Hawaiian waters on the regular, so this was a routine dive for Michelle and I. If you are traveling from a land-locked area, this dive is a relaxing opportunity to get back into gear with buoyancy and controlling your breathing rate. You have the option for a one tank dive that is focused on the manta dive, but if your bones have dried out, I recommend the 2 tank dive starting at in the evening and extending into the night, to reacquaint yourself with the ocean.
The dive itself starts as the sun disappears and the night sky takes over. The boat was full of anticipation as the staff gave their dive brief. As we geared up, you could see the bright blue LED’s they use to attract the plankton illuminating the water. The feeling of jumping into new, unknown waters at night is a sensation I have come to love. My heart fills with excitement, anticipation and a healthy dose of adrenalin – what a feeling. As I descended, my eyes were drawn to the bright LED’s that made everything they illuminated look like a blue dream; the bubbles take on a blue glow with every breath I took, my dive buddies looked like they’re glowing, Everything’s very Jacques Cousteau meets Electric Forest.
As we settled in, we were led to the LED’s, set up like an underwater campfire, with rocks surrounding the lights. We were directed to take a position around the area. As I settled in, I played with the illimunated bubbles from my regulator, watching the curious fish that swam over to see what all the hubbub was about.
The LED’s are used to attract the plankton that, in turn, attract the hungry mantas (sorry plankton, food chain and all). We waited in anticipation for what seemed like hours as my mind recanted that, while rare, sometimes the mantas don’t show up at all and we certainly did not want this anomaly to occur that night.
But after abut 15-20min the plankton formed a thick cloud around us as the first manta ray appeared from the abyss, like a shadow emerging from the darkness. The feeling is of seeing one of these amazing creatures for the first time is indescribable and truly must be experienced for oneself.
The first manta ray that appeared was enormous, about 12-13ft in “wingspan” and was incredibly graceful. The ray didn’t seem to mind us or our bubbles as it glided and dove overhead. As we kneeled there mesmerized by this sight, another one joined us for the night.
They say that at times, 10 to 13 can show up but that even two mantas is truly a treat. The way they glide together almost seems choreographed, impossibly complex yet graceful, something that only be appreciated with just two mantas.
I remember looking over to Michelle and wondering why she wasn’t moving, as she was frozen next to me for some time like a statue. I eventually got her attention and exchanged a smile and nod, letting me know she was just fine (a great feeling that two friends can share without words). I later found out that she had been crying tears of joy, and was frozen in amazement. So add crying to the list of things that are possible to do underwater along with sneezing and…..other things ; )
As the dive came to an end it was hard to accept that I was running out of air and couldn’t stay with my new manta buddies, but the ocean is not our world, and we are only allowed to visit.
As we left the dive site packing our gear, the boat was full of laughter and divers talking about how incredible the dive was, filled with the “afterglow” of a great dive. I took the opportunity to hang out at the bow of the ship looking out at the pitch-black ocean in front of me. As I gazed at the stars I recalled the words of Nietzsche, “If thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” When would I come back, and to what lengths would I go to achieve this level of dive again?
As for the rest of the trip I recommend the helicopter tour, ever seen lava, me neither until that day, shiz is crazy. The black sand beach is a treat and don’t miss the great scenery at the parks. Make the most of it, get out of the hotel and chain store shopping areas and go enjoy the real Hawaii. Hit up the small shops and local artists, you know, support the people that make Hawaii great.
Special thanks to my good friend and Divemaster Michelle for making this possible and to the team at Kona Honu Divers for their great dive operation. And why not U-Haul as well – there were no more cars to rent so my divemaster Michelle had the genius idea to rent a U-Haul van – a great move!
Now check out this link:
One more thing to look at-? Here’s a Letter from (not) the Editor – click on this link: