Regulations for manta ray tourism have been in the making since 2014. But what are the new proposed rules? And how could new regulations impact the safety of manta rays and people, and the sustainability of ocean recreation activities along the Kona coast?
Proposed Rule #1: Adopting the “Campfire” Method at Manta Ray Viewing Sites
Concentrating manta ray tourism operations around a limited number of locations (the viewing sites) is a proven concept. If tour operators each tried to attract manta rays to their own area along the coast, fewer groups would actually see manta rays.
Once we established manta ray viewing sites, the likelihood of manta ray sightings at those sites went up. And when we established something called a “Campfire Operation” at each site, the sites became more organized, safer for humans, and safer for the mantas. Win-win-win!
This system works (it worked for many years) because it allows optimal control over the situation – and avoids people, mantas, and boats from colliding with each other. As a bonus, it becomes much easier for people to see mantas without other people (or boats) getting in the way.
The system stopped working when manta tourism became more popular and the situation got out of hand at the viewing sites. It is no longer practically possible to group hundreds of participants around one light source when things get busy!
Proposed Rule #2: No rafting of boats allowed
The anchors some of the boats throw down (called “rafting”) cause irreparable damage to coral reefs. Instead, the manta viewing sites also feature subsurface buoys that are tied to the bottom.
Captains can tie their boats to that boey and turn off their engine, so the boat safely stays in one place while the occupants swim towards the campfire to see the manta rays.
When multiple boats get tied to the same buoy, however, it can cause incidents when the surf picks up or something about lights getting underwater and hurting manta rays.
Proposed Rule #3: No subsurface lighting (hull lights)
While tour boats are parked away from the central “campfire”, there is no reason for them to use hull lights.
No hull lights means mantas will no longer be attracted to the boats (and get hurt), but instead stay near the central “campfire” lights.
Proposed Rule #4: No “live boating”: boats need to park near the site and turn off engines
While tour boats are parked away from the central campfire, there is no reason for them to keep their engine running. Which is not only better for the environment but also lowers the risks of people or animals getting hurt by propellers.
Proposed Rule #5: Reducing the number of permit holders
To make sure there are enough mooring buoys for all the boats AND to avoid oversaturation of the viewing sites, we need to reduce the number of tour boats that can be at one site at any given time – and assign a specific location to each operator.
Obtaining a permit could also be subject to proper training, monitoring, and support for manta ray tourism professionals.
Proposed Rule #6: Limiting dwell time at the site
To allow for a maximum number of tour operators to obtain (or retain) a permit, it would be smart to limit the amount of time each group can spend on-site, so multiple groups can come and watch the mantas over the duration of an evening.
Allowing boats to stay for a maximum duration of two hours so they can make place for the next shift means everyone will have ample chance to see mantas before making space for the next group!
- In February 2023, Martina explained in a video why each of these elements is so important. Watch it here!
- Find the draft rules (written in legalese) on this page on the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources – Boating and Ocean Recreation Division (DLNR – DOBOR Division).
- Check this page on Hawaii Ocean Watch for a timeline of manta ray tourism in Hawaii since 1999