Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Underneath a Manta’s Wing; Diving in the Big Island

By Prisana Nuechterlein

Kailua-Kona, Hawaii — I am diving only a short distance from Kona's volcanic coast. In less than ten minutes, I have glimpsed two manta rays and now my husband is pointing out a third one! I stare into the blue expanse, searching in vain for the swirling motions of a manta ray, unable to see anything. Then suddenly, the distinct shape of a winged elegant creature emerges from the ocean void.

We are in the Big Island, having traveled from Thailand to Colorado and back west again to Hawaii in the past few weeks. We are here to make my dream come true – to night dive with Kona’s beloved manta rays in the world’s best known diving destination besides the Maldives to see these marvelous soaring giants.

Although my husband Eric had encountered several mantas while working as a dive instructor in Phuket, Thailand back in the 1990s, I had only seen the mysterious fish once and it ranked as memorable as my two occasions diving with whale sharks. 

When I called my sister, who lives in Hawaii to tell her of my plans she remarked: 

“Mantas…they’re like squirrels out here.” 

Squirrels? I had heard of mantas referred to as “pandas of the ocean”, but never as “squirrels of the ocean”.

Local divers on the Big Island are definitely spoiled. Not only are manta sightings common, but also frequently seen are sea turtles, dolphins and tiger sharks (the manta’s only known natural predator). On the previous day, there was a bit of commotion on our dive boat when a massive tiger shark was spotted snaking its way into Honokohaun Harbor. The tiger shark apparently was not “Lavern”, another smaller tiger shark known to inhabit the area. Also lumbering along the marina’s rocky ledges were “Fred and Wilma”, two big sea turtles busily eating kelp and possibly the larger shark’s future lunch. 

Lavern, a 14 foot long tiger shark who is a well known fixture in the waters around the entrance to Kona's Harbor.
According to impressive statistics, there is a 95 percent chance of seeing a manta ray at night. During the day, however, manta sightings are far less common which is why I had small expectations of seeing any on this mid-afternoon dive at Garden Eel Cove, located near Kona Airport.

Not long after sunset, we gear up in thick wetsuits and gather at the back of the boat. Unexpectedly, a small German lady from another dive boat appears out of the darkness and climbs aboard our dive boat. She introduces herself as Martina Wing, a long established Big Island manta ray videographer and tells us about her Dolphin Rescue video that went viral. Intrigued we listen to her vivid description of the incredible rescue and what we could expect on tonight’s shallow dive of 30 feet. We will be diving Garden Eel Cove again, known at night as “Manta Heaven”, with Martina as our professional videographer. 

We descend into a world glowing with lights. The oceanic light show is immediate and so are the mantas. Everywhere I look, the underwater angels are swirling about illuminated by dozens of light beams. Off in the distance, I see a parade of rays dancing around a group of divers sitting in a semi-circle of large lava rocks called the Campfire. I tell myself to keep calm, but my heart is racing a mile a minute.  I fin closer and closer to the brilliantly lit scene and slip into a surreal manta feasting ground. There are now nearly twenty mantas, gliding, flipping and taking turns caressing the divers near us. 

Though branded long ago with the fearsome name of devilfish, manta rays are harmless, lacking the poisonous barbed tail of their cousins - the stingray. The misnomer was given because fishermen thought the shape of their cephalic fins were similar to devil’s horns.

Eric and I find a spot to plant ourselves amongst the large group of divers converging from a half dozen dive companies. I hold my powerful dive light close to my chest and a manta swoops upwards only inches away from me. We were told that the lights attract plankton, thus attracting the mantas, therefore the brighter the light beam, the stronger the attraction. To increase my light column, Eric hands me his flashlight. I am shining the twin beams upward, when I feel a soft rub on the top of my head as a manta passes over me. 

This is incredible! Amazing! Beyond anything I have experienced in twenty years of diving. Imagine a thousand pound fish, sweeping over and gently patting you. Black and white diamond shaped wings appear from every angle, swooshing and flapping gracefully all around us. 

Suddenly, an enormous manta appears with its huge mouth wide open, sweeping up the plankton densely populating the water in front of my mask. This must be Big Bertha, the grand old lady our dive master Flipper had mentioned in his dive briefing. At an estimated 70 years of age and with a wingspan of nearly 16 feet, Big Bertha is one of the oldest and largest rays commonly seen at Manta Heaven. According to Flipper, the distinctive and identifying blotches on the manta’s underside, are as individual as human fingerprints.

Among the largest rays known to inhabit Manta Heaven are Boo Boo Ray, Big Bertha and Lefty. All are females with wingspans of 13 to 16 feet across. The slightly smaller males have wingspans of 8 to 11 feet and include; Cousteau, Curly Ray and Sugar Ray. There is even a charismatic ray named Lobes, (the same nickname as our boat captain due to his large pierced earlobes) on the list of over 200 identified rays.

I search the waters for Lefty, the easiest ray to spot due to her broken left cephalic fin and see her passing through the amplified lights of Martina’s video camera. We had been told that Lefty’s injury made her “feeding challenged” since her paddle-like lobe hangs limply at her mouth disrupting the normal flow of plankton entering her mouth. She also was previously the most petted and popular ray in the waters surrounding Kona, staying around longer and tolerating diver’s affectionate strokes in an effort to gain more access to plankton. 

Touching mantas may be tempting, but resist the urge. A layer of protective mucus coats their thick skin, and patting them may make them more prone to infection. However, there is still some debate in scientific circles on whether this is true since mantas are extremely social and rub up against each other or the sand often and mucus is always regenerated.  Whatever the case, due to the sheer numbers of divers visiting the Big Island, a strict rule is adhered to by the entire diving community: mantas can touch you, but you cannot touch them.

Manta Heaven is not only for divers. Snorkelers can also enjoy getting up and close with Lefty and the rest of the wonderful Big Island group of mantas. Thank you Big Island Divers for a truly spectacular trip!

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