The Dark Side of Manta Ray Tourism: the Impact of Ecotourism on People, Mantas, and the Environment

Nov 2, 2023 | How to Protect Manta Rays, Manta Rays in Hawaii, Snorkeling & Diving

Swimming with manta rays in their natural habitat on the Big Island of Hawaii is a life-changing adventure. Here at Manta Ray Advocates, we have been involved and facilitated this experience for over 30 years. We think it’s great to see so many people wanting to come and meet the mantas!

This form of ecotourism is becoming increasingly popular, and over recent years, the manta ray viewing sites have started exceeding capacities and are over-saturated. Since manta ray tourism is completely unregulated (2023), this has nasty consequences.

The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of Hawaii dive sites being over capacity and how this affects not just the marine wildlife and their habitat, but also the people involved.

The Manta Ray Viewing Sites

The ocean is a very big and mostly unexplored space, but swimming with manta rays along the Kona coast is concentrated at the manta ray viewing sites.

These viewing sites “work” for many reasons:

  • Over time, the mantas have gotten to know these 3 locations. Through classical conditioning, the sites are on their internal “radar” and they show up at night for a guaranteed plankton buffet.
  • This increases the chances for participants to actually see mantas: instead of individual tour operators trying to attract manta rays to dozens of different locations, sticking to three locations means higher manta sighting rates.
  • The existence of these viewing sites limits the damage to the environment – tour boats congregating around these 3 sites means fewer boats disturbing underwater wildlife elsewhere.

However, due to manta ray tourism becoming increasingly popular, the main viewing areas are overcrowded – too many boats, too many people. And unfortunately, several attempts to create more viewing sites (and lessen the load on the two main sites) have failed.

The Growing Popularity of Manta Ray Tourism

When manta tourism became a thing, we would occasionally have one or two boats going out at night to see the mantas.

This has grown exponentially and there are currently 3 manta viewing sites: Manta Heaven and Manta Village are only accessible by boat due to the rocky volcanic shoreline, and Manta Point, which can only be accessed from a private beach (= this is the viewing site we have the privilege of using).

You can find the full history of the manta ray viewing sites on this page!

The 3 Manta Ray Viewing Sites in Kona, Hawaii

However, the growing popularity of marine tourism also means more people want to swim with mantas… and while some still call it “eco-tourism”, there is nothing ecological about it.

The two main manta ray viewing sites (Manta Village in Keauhou and Manta Heaven at the Kona Airport) attract up to 30 manta ray tour boats (each) on busy nights. This means that over 400-500 people frequent each viewing site on those nights simultaneously!

For comparison: organizing 300-500 people on land in the dark (at night) would be a huge challenge. Now imagine trying to do the same in the ocean, with boats and running propellers, and most often participants who don’t have much (if any) experience with snorkeling or scuba diving.

This is not just madness… it creates unsafe situations with severe consequences.

The Damage Manta Ray Tourism Does to Mantas, People, and the Environment

You may know us as Manta Ray Advocates now, but long before that, we used to dive and film at Manta Village and Manta Heaven. James did this for 24 years, and myself for 17 years.

Almost every night, we would record the incredible beauty of manta rays, and send happy participants home with treasured video memories.

When it became unsafe and too crazy for us, we retired from filming and diving, but many of our friends continued working for and with boat operators. For some companies (not all of them, thankfully!) things only got worse: they would hire untrained crew to accompany the tours, keep safety briefings or ground rules to a minimum, and disregard complaints, leading to ​disastrous consequences for mantas, people, and the environment.

The oversaturation of the industry impacts both wildlife and people – we ranked them from mere inconveniences to fatal incidents below.

1. Diminished experience for tourists

An increase in boats also equals an increase in passengers on board. At one point, we counted 23 boats and 2 kayaks at the Keauhou (Manta Village) dive site, each with 2-25 people on board. This added up to at least 330+ people in the water.

This means tourists who came to Hawaii to swim with manta rays, will not experience what they expected. They might have seen wonderful pictures and read great reviews, but they end up in the water with hundreds of other snorkelers and divers attempting to view as little as 2-3 mantas simultaneously.

By not tackling the issue of capacity, we’re leaving boatfuls of visitors disappointed. And even for those who don’t mind the overcrowding as long as they can see manta rays for a lower budget, we believe we can do better.

2. Lack of training and support for staff members

Working on a manta ray tour boat has always been physically hard, but it isn’t what it used to be; where manta ray professionals used to take pride in what they did and enjoy sharing the magic of manta rays with people, overcrowding is making the job increasingly stressful and difficult.

Jobs in the ocean recreation industry are usually not well paid. Additionally, Hawaii is a place with a high cost of living which leads to a transitory workforce. Workers come and go, so there aren’t enough experienced professionals to man the boats. This means some of the staff are fairly inexperienced, lack training, and are not always able to judge people and situations accurately.

3. Diminished Safety for Divers and Snorkelers

While we want as many people as possible to enjoy nature and all the beauty of the ocean, it takes a basic skill set to stay safe.

Participants are often surprised when a manta tour has prerequisites like “knowing how to swim in deep water”, or “having ocean snorkel experience”. A lot of unskilled guests expect to rely on lifeguards or divemasters to keep them safe, but having beginners in the group struggle to stay afloat or getting into difficulties with their snorkeling equipment takes a lot of time and attention away from what should be the crew’s primary task – ensuring the safety and an optimal experience for ALL guests.

On top of this, bigger and more groups mean there is not much opportunity for safety briefing and information before going into the water – while at the same time, the risks and dangers are increasing.

4. Damage to the coral reef by tour boats

With the manta ray viewing sites becoming over-saturated with boats, there are not enough dedicated mooring spots for parking. This results in more and more boats dropping anchor on the reef.

There is never any justification for killing live coral – it takes decades to grow, and the ripple effect of damage to coral can be felt all through the ecosystem.

Underwater photo of a boat anchor resting on different coloured coral demonstrating marine wildlife threats

5. Lack of briefing for tourists = damage to manta rays

While there are clear guidelines for safe and passive interaction with manta rays, not all participants to a manta ray dive are aware of them before entering the water.

Touching a manta ray damages the protective layer on their skin (find out how that works on this page). Not only do many participants not get briefed sufficiently – because of overcrowding, staff can’t always keep an eye on them and prevent this from happening.

Free diving is another way to harm mantas cluelessly;

  • When free divers are swimming through the manta ray feeding area, it disrupts the mantas’ feeding “flow”
  • Seeing humans in their way can frighten the mantas and scare them off – and it might take a long time for them to return to the viewing area
  • In some cases, being in the mantas’ way also means inadvertently bumping into a manta – again, inflicting damage to the protective layer on their skin.

The more people are present at the viewing area, the more rogue humans will interfere with the mantas – and the harder it is for staff to keep an eye on everyone.

6. Accidents with mantas due to hull lights (on tour boats)

After the sun sets, if you take large lights into the ocean, nearby plankton will start congregating – that’s how the manta ray viewing areas along the Kona coast were created.

Some tour operators installed hull lights on their boats. This allows them to attract manta rays for their own private show, away from the central viewing area.

These large lights are often placed too close to the boat’s propellers or hardware (ladders, propellers, etc), and more than one manta has been seriously injured by this activity.

7. Accidents with human fatalities

Every year, more people get injured (or worse) during manta tours.

Part of the injuries are due to a good percentage of the participants to a manta snorkeling tour being unskilled: while people who can hardly swim or have never snorkeled before are not very frequent, lack of experience wearing snorkeling gear and breathing through a mask contributes to the risk.

A part of the injuries is caused by participants not being aware of their surroundings – bumping into each other or even surfacing near live boats can lead to all sorts of injuries.

The live boats at the viewing sites are the biggest danger for humans though – this was shown last year when an experienced dive master died after being hit by a propeller.

Read more about this here

Why Manta Ray Tourism is Actually Great

Manta ray tourism is a great way for people to experience the transformational power of manta rays. When we take guests to swim with mantas here in Hawaii, they often leave the water completely transformed. It’s a profoundly spiritual experience that most people cannot put into words.

Besides, a manta ray is worth more alive than dead. While big Asian fisheries might make good money from hunting mantas (which is devastating for a species that reproduces this slowly), many real-life examples have shown that manta ray tourism can benefit the local population directly.

We believe manta ray tourism can be a powerful catalyst for people taking more responsibility and action for the planet. The famous quote by Jacques-Yves Cousteau unfolds a simple truth: “We only protect what we love, we only love what we understand, and we only understand what we are taught”.

Proposed Regulations for Manta Ray Tourism

New regulations for the manta ray tourism industry are in the works. They include

  • A safe layout for manta ray viewing sites, using the Campfire method
  • Boats will no longer be allowed to throw down their anchors in the coral reef
  • A ban on subsurface lighting (hull lights)
  • Prohibition of “live boating”: boats will need to park near the site and turn off their engines while their group is in the water
  • Reducing the number of permit holders and the dwell time at the site for each boat

Find more details about the proposed new regulations on this page.

But… How will this affect the Manta Ray Tourism Industry?

One thing the opponents of better regulations often bring up is the impact these regulations will have on the industry. Undoubtedly, imposing limits (a limited number of permit holders, a limited amount of people at each site) means some tour operators will need to make changes and/or miss out on profits.

Some tour operators are very much opposed to better regulations for manta ray tourism as it would highly impact their bottom line, but most of these companies purchased a manta ray tour business in the past few years, knowing that strict regulations were on their way (they have been looming since 2013).

While we do feel for the companies that will be impacted by the legislation, we believe this is an opportunity for the operators who want to offer their guests a safe, educational, and environmentally friendly manta tour, led by passionate and highly skilled crew members.

Smart entrepreneurs are already adapting their businesses to an ever-changing marketplace, and I believe the future of manta ray tourism lies in quality rather than quantity.

What You Can Do to Help Enact Better Regulations

Either way, regulations for manta ray tourism are coming; it has just been very slow going over the last decade. New hurdles keep popping up!

The best thing you can do to help support a safer and more sustainable manta ray industry is to book your own manta ray experience with an operator who makes every effort in that direction… And, of course, to spread the word and convince friends and family members to do the same!

Hawaii Ocean Watch keeps a Greenlist of preferred manta ray tour operators – click here to check it out!

Or check out our manta ray moonlight swim: we conduct this at a third viewing site, which is not accessible for boats.

If you’d like to book a swim with manta rays and are not sure what to look out for, download our guide below!

Comments

2 Comments

  1. Patricia

    Thank you for getting the word out. I have participated in a swim (nowhere near so many people) it was gentle and wonderful, but I would never want these awesome creatures or their habitat to suffer. I am for regulations and those who oppose it are harming their own business.

    Reply
    • Martina Wing

      Thank you for caring and speaking up. We and the mantas appreciate it. 🥰

      Reply

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