The 3 Manta Ray Viewing Sites in Kona, Hawaii

Sep 30, 2020 | Snorkeling & Diving, Hawaii Travel, Manta Rays in Hawaii, Swimming with Manta Rays

Manta rays are truly remarkable and beautiful creatures, and Hawaii is one of the few places in the world where you can be an arm’s length away from manta rays. Travelers from around the globe visit Kona on the Big Island to swim and dive with manta rays. Did you know swimming this activity has been named one of the top-10 aquatic attractions in the world

What are Manta Ray Viewing Sites? 

Along the West Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, we’ve got three established viewing sites for manta rays. At these locations, you have a 70+ % chance to see at least one manta ray during the manta ray dive and snorkel adventure. Although the sites are within 100 yards from shore, due to the rocky volcanic coastline, they are only accessible by boat, which makes it safe for divers and snorkelers to come and experience the magic of manta rays first-hand. 

To keep manta ray ecotourism on the island safe and sustainable, commercial activity providers have agreed on tour operator standards.

I wrote a separate article about how behavioral conditioning was used to establish these three manta ray viewing sites – read more on this page!

How Behavioral Conditioning leads Manta Rays to Feed at Manta Viewing Sites

How did the first manta ray viewing site start? 

In the early ’70s, when the former Kona Surf Hotel opened, the resort illuminated the surf zone with bright floodlights. This way, guests could enjoy the beauty of the wave action at night from the rooms and public viewing decks. 

Unintentionally, this attracted plankton to concentrate in the water near the shoreline. Since a manta ray’s diet consists of plankton, it was an incredibly rich food source for the manta. 

Over time, the manta rays began associating light with their natural food source; this process is called “classical conditioning” or “Pavlov effect”. This is how the shoreline of the Kona Surf Hotel became a favorable feeding location.

In 1991, a man called Jim Robinson realized that the manta rays’ frequent visits to the resort could be turned into a touristic activity. His company Kona Coast Divers (KCD) became the first boat operator to schedule weekly scuba night dives. 

They custom-built underwater lights and placed them on the bottom of the sea; this drew the manta rays away from the shallows into deeper water (approx. 30 feet/10 meters), where it would be easier to position groups of divers.

The attraction was instantly successful with tourists, and other dive operators followed suit. Marine life interaction guidelines were established to ensure the manta rays were not harmed. 

Back then, manta ray advocate James Wing had the video concession at KCD – this meant he’d join the groups into the ocean and create beautiful footage of the manta ray dives for the guests to take home as souvenirs.

From Weekly Manta Ray Dives to Full-Fledged Viewpoint

In its early stages, the manta ray night dive was scheduled once a week, yet it was only a matter of time before boat operators would be doing this every night. Over the years, more manta rays were conditioned to feed at the Kona Surf Hotel at night ~ until the summer of 1999.

For several months only one or two manta rays were sighted, and then for a few weeks, none showed up. This might have been due to the cyclical nature of plankton. Nevertheless, it prompted James to find other viewing areas (more about this later).

Manta Ray Viewing Areas along the Kona Coast of Hawaii: Manta Point on the Kohala coast, Manta Heaven near the airport, and Manta Village in Keauhou - with a map of the Big Island of Hawaii

Manta Ray Viewing Areas along the Kona Coast of Hawaii

What are the 3 Manta Viewing Sites Along the Kona Coast? 

Manta Village

The zone in front of the Kona Surf Hotel in Keauhou on the West Coast of the Big Island was the first manta ray viewing site. The official name is Kaukalaelae Point, but most people call it “Manta Village”. 

In May 2000, the Kona Surf Hotel was closed, and the lights were turned off. As the plankton stopped accumulating, the manta rays stopped frequenting the area. 

In October 2004, the resort reopened as the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay. James teamed up with their management, to help install new flood lights re-creating a favorable manta ray venue. A short time later, manta rays returned, and many new mantas have been identified and named since. In 2021, the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa changed ownership and is now the Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa.

Manta Ray Viewing Site Manta Village on the Kona Coast of Hawaii

Manta Heaven

The dive site “Manta Heaven” is located in Makako Bay, just around the corner of Keahole Point, the most western tip of the Big Island. It’s offshore from the Kona International Airport. During daylight hours, the dive site is called “Garden Eel Cove”. 

In the summer of 1999, the manta rays essentially abandoned the Kona Surf Hotel as a feeding area. There were no sightings for many weeks. James knew that he could find the manta rays somewhere along the coastline after he had heard from local boat captains that mantas were being seen during the day at Garden Eel Cove. His friends Mike Ho and Mike & Nicki Milligan had done night dives in the bay, and a manta swam by.

At the time, our production company worked with Eco-Adventures. James took their small boat for reconnaissance dives, and he planned to dive as many dive sites along the Kona Coast for 20-30 minutes as many nights as necessary until the manta rays would be found. His first choice was Garden Eel Cove.

On a calm night in August 1999, James placed dive lights in the natural sand chute at about 30 feet/10 meters of depth. Immediately 6 manta rays showed up and enjoyed the meal gathering at the lights. They were the same manta rays we had seen for many years at Manta Village, including Lefty and Big Bertha.

Manta Heaven was created and named by scuba instructor Ranya Henson. James and Eco-Adventures were the first to regularly schedule manta ray night dives there. Soon after, other dive boat operators followed them to the newly established site. James also created the stone circle, known as the “campfire”, that has been used as a point of reference to settle the divers in the sand chute in the least disruptive way. It is still used to this day.

Thanks to James, we established Manta Heaven in 1999. We were fortunate to have the alternative site while the Kona Surf Hotel closed down in May 2000, and the floodlights were extinguished.

Manta Ray Viewing Site Manta Heaven on the Kona Coast of Hawaii

Manta Ray Viewing Site “Manta Heaven” on the Kona Coast of Hawaii

Manta Point

The legendary Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is located in Kauna’oa Bay on the Kohala Coast and was one of the first hotels on the island. It was built by Lawrence Rockefeller and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015. It has an incredible white sandy beach, which is rare on the Big Island as it is the youngest, geologically speaking. 

Just like Manta Village, the hotel has had one bright light illuminating the bay’s shallow waters for decades, but because it is on private grounds, it’s not accessible to the public. In addition, motorized vessels are prohibited from entering Kauna’oa Bay. 

Today, our team offers free public manta talks at sunset (Mondays and Wednesdays) at Manta Point, the shoreline viewing area overlooking the bay. Due to changing sunset times throughout the year, we recommend checking with the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel directly for accurate start times.

Since the summer of 2015, we have also conducted our moonlight swim activities at this viewing site. With consistent manta sightings (over 80%), Kauna’oa Bay is a wonderful sustainable opportunity to experience the gentle giants up close and personal.

So, are you ready to join the Experience of a Lifetime?

Manta Ray Viewing Site Manta Point on the Kohala Coast of Hawaii

Manta Point in Kauna’oa Bay on the Kohala Coast of Hawaii

Related reading

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE DIVING IN WITH THE MANTA RAYS

If you’re thinking about booking a manta ray activity, don’t miss our guide for swimming with manta rays in Hawaii. It’ll answer all your questions about equipment, prerequisites, safety, sustainability, and much more.

It’s a great FREE resource for anyone who’s getting ready to experience the manta rays firsthand.

Comments

22 Comments

  1. Nicole Mael

    We are planning a trip in June and want to book a Manta night snorkel with you. There are two time frames in the evening, 7:15 and 8:45. I was wondering if one is a better time to ensure seeing the Manta Ray”s? Are they more active later or does it matter?
    Thank you.
    Nicole

    Reply
    • Martina Wing

      Thank you for reaching out! The chances of seeing mantas are about the same for all three sessions! All of our groups start with a 30-minute briefing/manta education. Our 7 pm group only enters the water once the sun has fully set to ensure optimal conditions to see the mantas (since the mantas are coming to feed on plankton and the plankton is attracted to light). It is primarily a personal preference on which session to book.

      Reply
  2. Chris Thill

    Staying in Kona area in July. I swim with a flotation belt only and have been snorkeling for years. We have six adults this year. Is this a problem?
    Thank you,
    Christine
    grandmapixie@gmail.com

    Reply
      • William

        Hi! My name is William and I am from Brazil!

        My wife, son and I are landing in Big Island next week and we were very excited about the Manta Dive untill we see the following message on the website you recommend to check out: “For the moment, we do not feel comfortable to recommend any companies that operate at the Keauhou or Airport location. Too many bad incidents have occurred. We believe the sites are not safe anymore”.

        Would you know what is really happening? Should we consider not diving since this is the one of the most exciting activity in our plans? I know you guys do the snorkle at Mauna Kea what I will probably do, but my wife would like to dive. Would you recommend any company?

        Thanks,
        William

        Reply
        • Martina Wing

          Hi William, thanks for checking in with us. It is correct that we suspended the Greenlist and I want to encourage you to go back as we added more information on our reasoning for doing so (https://www.hawaiioceanwatch.org/manta-greenlist/).

          In regards to diving: go with a reputable long-standing dive company. They have the best trained captains and crew, but I encourage to ask questions about the instructor’s experience level and if mantas have been seen lately. Hopefully, we can meet during our activity as well. Make sure to introduce yourself 🙂

          Reply
  3. Jim Oberhaus

    Where can I see Manta Rays from the shore or viewing area. Do I need to eat at Outrigger Restaurant? We are stay north about 8 miles in August. My wife doesn’t snorkel so I am looking for a good vantage point. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Martina Wing

      Hi Jim, the lookout at the Outrigger Hotel is free but recommend to check with the hotel about parking fees. The same is for the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Kohala Coast but access is only when connected to a restaurant booking. Aloha 🏖️

      Reply
      • Jennifer Walker

        Hi there,
        I spoke with Outrigger Hotel and they will only allow viewing for their guests. Are there other spots available that are public near that area for land based viewing? Thank you.

        Reply
        • Martina Wing

          Hi Jennifer, thank you for bringing this new information to our attention. The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel handles it similarly. I wish I had better news. Aloha~

          Reply
      • Robert Ostrozinski

        So you need a rsvp at either of these hotels for dinner to view the rays?

        Reply
        • Martina Wing

          Yes, this is our current information.

          Reply
  4. Sandy Zumerling

    Hi Martina. My name is Sandy Zumerling. My husband Joe and I have booked a session to swim with the mantas on Sept 23rd. Thank you so much for all the very informative information that you have sent so far. I can’t tell you how excited we are to be able to participate in such a cathartic experience!

    Thank You,
    Sandy

    Reply
    • Manta Ray Advocates Admin

      Aloha Sandy,

      We are excited to see you on the 23rd and are glad you are enjoying the prep material!

      With Aloha,
      Savannah

      Reply
  5. Nanci and Mark Crowley

    We are very excited to be on your team on Oct 4th at MK. We had replied to one email with more about ourselves but we are not sure it was received. We loved the video about Notch, the rescued dolphin. Not a dry eye here. We are big Monterey Bay Aquarium supporters and plan to watch as much as we can prior to our departure next weekend about the manta rays. Specifically will be watching Racing Extinction very soon. Thank for your commitment to ocean life (all life!) and for all of the information you have sent to educate and prepare us as much as possible! We are passing along our love of the ocean and its creatures to our grandsons. We already have an avid 5 year old snorkeler! When in Hawaii we can hardly get him out of the ocean! Will we be able to purchase the hard cover book about Notch the rescued dolphin while we are there? Many thanks.

    Reply
    • Martina Wing

      Hi Nanci and Mark, thank you for your wonderful messages. We are looking forward to meeting you next week. I will be your in-water guide and hope you have a fantastic time. 😊🏖️🌊

      Reply
  6. Annette L Mercer

    Hello! We are planning a trip to the Big Island in April 2024 and want to snorkel with you off the beach. Do we need to stay at the Outrigger or Mauna Kea hotel? Do you know what site you would be using or do you do both? Thank you for all your work helping the mantas.

    Reply
    • Martina Wing

      Hi Annette, you do not have to stay at the hotels to participate. We (Manta Ray Advocates) only operate at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.

      Reply
  7. Karlee

    Hello! For your tour, do you swim out to a paddle board or other area and remain still or do you freely swim around? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Manta Ray Advocates Admin

      We do not hold onto anything for our snorkel. It is a free swim just off of shore. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to call our office at 808-987-5580.

      With Aloha,
      Savannah

      Reply
  8. Akash

    Hi,
    I had a couple of questions about the manta ray snorkeling experience.
    We have snorkeled a couple of times in the past, but both times with PFD’s.

    Is that okay or is it required to not have PFD’s/floatation belt?
    Also in terms of gear, do you allow for whole face covering masks or do you have constraints on using separate goggles and mouth piece?

    Reply

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Mantas in this post

Big Bertha

Big Bertha

WINGSPAN 12-14 feet

GENDER Female

SPECIES Mobula Alfredi (reef)

Lefty

Lefty

WINGSPAN 12-13 feet

GENDER Female

SPECIES Mobula Alfredi (reef)

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