The mysterious manta ray is one of the largest fishes in the ocean with wingspans of up to 20 feet or more and Hawaii Island offers your best opportunity to encounter these amazing creatures. As intimidating as these otherworldly mantas look, they are actually quite friendly. Unlike stingrays or eagle rays, mantas do not have stingers. They feed on microscopic plankton, which accounts for their large, gaping mouths.
The Kona Coast is the best place to spot manta rays in Hawaii. At night, spotlights are used to attract mantas that feed off the plankton illuminated by the light. You can see this show just offshore at resorts like the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, just south of Historic Kailua Village (Kailua-Kona).
But the very best way to experience manta rays is to go on a night boat tour. Tours take off around sunset from Honokohau Harbor just north of Kailua-Kona. As night falls, tour companies set up giant lights on the ocean floor in spots where mantas frequent, usually in Garden Eel Cove or right in front of the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. Attracted by the plankton in the water, certified scuba divers on the ocean floor and snorkelers on the surface are treated to an amazing show as giant mantas glide and somersault in mesmerizing patterns. The mantas often swim within inches of scuba divers and snorkelers, always managing to avoid contact at the last second. Getting this close to these ethereal mantas is truly an experience of a lifetime.
Note that manta ray diving tours are held year round, with no peak season. On any given day you can see anywhere from a couple of mantas to more than a dozen depending on plankton levels. Scuba divers need to present their certification cards to dive while snorkelers have no restrictions — so just about anyone can swim with mantas. Heed all instructions when diving and for the manta rays’ safety, try not to touch them or pet them, no matter how close they get to you — and they may get very close.