In 2021 I made it to the big island of Hawaii, home of the manta swim. I was en route to French Polynesia and just had a couple of nights on the island with my friend Chantae and her grandparents. We kept mostly to ourselves, snorkeling and exploring in the area near their house. I was happy spending my time with locals but the one that I had to do while I visited was to see the manta rays in Kona, Hawaii. It did not disappoint.
About the Kona Manta Rays in Hawaii
The Kona mantas in Hawaii are famous worldwide but they became that way by accident. In the 1970s, when what is now the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa was being built on the coast, the workers fell behind on the deadline. To speed up the building process they started working around the clock. This meant lots of big, bright lights so the workers could see in the dark of the night.
The light right at the shoreline attracted the plankton in the ocean. One night, the workers noticed a lone manta swimming off the shoreline in the pools of light. Plankton is the only source of food for manta rays, so this manta was happy to take advantage of the meal.
The manta continued to return night after night and, over time, brought other mantas too. Today, there are more than 100 mantas in the area that come to feed on the plankton every night. It’s the only place in the world where they do this and visitors, such as myself, have multiple options when it comes to viewing this incredible experience.
How to See the Kona Manta Rays in Hawaii
There are two main ways to swim with the mantas in Kona, Hawaii; a manta snorkel or a manta dive. With the snorkel, you are on top of the water. With the dive, you sit on the bottom. I am an avid scuba diver but we decided to do the manta swim through Get Your Guide who I frequently use to book local tours during my travels.
The excursion was safe and easy and definitely more of a ‘float’ than a swim. Essentially, you take a boat to the bay in front of the Outrigger Kona hotel and then spend 30 minutes in the water holding into a big floating board with the lights on it. You want to lay as flat and still as possible on the surface so the mantas come close.
And they definitely come close! While you are not allowed to touch the mantas they may touch you. They certainly brushed against our arms as they flipped and spun and danced under the lights beneath us. We saw easily over 20 mantas of all different ages and sizes during our time in the water and while I’ve seen lots of mantas in the time since Komodo National Park, this was definitely the closest I have been to them.
As for your chances of seeing them, well tour operators actually guarantee a viewing. Our guide told us that there are maybe 3 days per year where they don’t show up, but the vast majority of the time they put on an amazing show.
Stay at the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa
Swimming with mantas was amazing but we kept the magic going by staying at the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa which is also known as ‘the manta hotel’.
It’s the lights from this hotel that originally attracted the mantas so they keep them on in the night so guests can view them as well. There is a large bar area overlooking the bay where you can watch the mantas with a cocktail in hand. Or, if you really want a cool experience, you can book a room with a balcony overlooking where the mantas swim. We had one of these manta viewing rooms and it was incredible being able to come back after the manta swim, have a warm shower, then sit on our balcony with a glass of wine and watch the mantas dance in the water below. I stayed out until nearly 11pm watching them! (We stayed in room 1234 for anyone wondering!)
The Outrigger Kona Resort also has a spa, two pools, and offers some fun cultural activities such as hula lessons and lei making.
*Note: I was hosted by the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa for my stay but, as always, opinions are my own.
But, Is The Kona Manta Swim Ethical?
This is always something I consider when it comes to animal tourism and while I am not a marine biologist or manta expert I felt pretty good about this tour. The guides did a good job of making sure that everyone on the tour knew the rules (aka no touching, frantic kicking etc.). If the rules were broken, we were told we would be taken out of the water. Nobody broke the rules.
One could argue that the feeding is unnatural because of the hotel lights. However, this did not start as a tourist activity. It happened by accident and even though the night factor is unique, the fact is that plankton is the only thing that mantas eat and mantas need to eat a lot. The largest manta of the group, we were told, needed to feed about 20 hours a day to sustain herself.
Finally, remember this is taking place in Hawaii. Hawaii is HUGE on ecotourism and protecting its nature and wildlife. The fact that these tours are allowed to run indicated to me that they are, in fact, a good tour as far as animal tourism goes.
Final Tips for Seeing Mantas Rays in Hawaii
One of the biggest questions people ask about the mantas in Hawaii is “can’t I do it on my own?”.
Technically, yes you can. I know people who have. But it’s not quite the same experience as the above options.
If you do choose to try to do it yourself make sure you are well prepared and a good swimmer. You will need to swim out in the pitch black from shore to make it to the front of the hotel where the mantas converge. If you get close to the tour groups, they will get angry and make you leave.
You also won’t be floating the same way as you would with the tour, which means the mantas aren’t going to get nearly as close to you. Finally, don’t forget about gear! Not only do you need a mask and a snorkel but you also need an underwater flashlight; a big one. And they aren’t cheap! You can expect to pay a few hundred dollars for one.
Personally, I love to save money as much as everyone else but if you love mantas as much as I do it is worth the money to join a tour for the manta swim or dive and treat yourself to a stay at the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa. Ask for a room with a view over where the mantas are or, if none are available, head down to the bar area to watch from there. It’s an incredible experience!