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

Feb 16, 2024 | Swimming with Manta Rays

Manta ray viewing sites are specific locations in the ocean where these gentle giants are frequently observed as they congregate to feed. But why do these creatures consistently frequent the same spots despite having the vast ocean to roam? What role do we as humans play in their habits?

In this article, we take a closer look at

  • The different types of viewing sites
  • How the night viewing sites are created
  • Where these night viewing sites are located
  • Why it is so complex to create new ones
  • And the importance of keeping the existing sites safe and sustainable.

Different types of Viewing Sites

Manta ray viewing sites can be categorized into two types: daytime and nighttime sites.

During the day, manta rays visit cleaning stations – areas in the ocean where small fish and crustaceans clean the mantas by eating parasites and dead skin off their bodies.

Cleaning stations can be found worldwide; however, the chances of spotting manta rays at these sites are quite low.

The night viewing sites work differently. They are manmade, and, as of now, they are only found on the West side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Mantas are drawn to these sites to feed on plankton, which is attracted by artificial lights placed by humans. We will explain more about this process in the next section.

The chances of seeing mantas at night sites are much higher than at daytime cleaning stations.

How the Night Viewing Sites Are Created

The manta ray viewing sites in Hawaii are “made” through a combination of human actions and manta’s natural behavior.

The very first viewing site was created by accident (a happy accident). In the 1970s, a resort in Keauhou/Kona, Hawaii, began using bright floodlights to illuminate the surf zone at night so that guests could enjoy the beauty of the waves. Unintentionally, this attracted plankton to concentrate in the water near the shoreline (plankton are naturally attracted to light). Manta rays feed on plankton, so they began to frequent this well-lit area, drawn by the abundant food source.

The manta rays of Kona have learned that light attracts plankton. This process is called “classical conditioning” or “Pavlov effect.”

By strategically placing lights above or below shallow water, humans can create a hotspot for plankton. These illuminated areas could potentially become natural magnets for manta rays, drawing them to the site.

The Existing Night Viewing Sites in Kona, Hawaii

While you can swim with manta rays in many places around the world, Kona is the only location that has established night viewing sites, and that’s what makes this place on the West Coast of Hawaii so special.

You get to swim within arm’s length of the mysterious giant fish and have a 70-80% chance of successful sightings, a truly fantastic high probability!

Thanks to the Pavlov effect and three well-illuminated viewing sites, the Kona Coast has become a favored feeding ground for manta rays:

  • Kaukalaelae Point, or Manta Village, is located in front of the Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa in Keauhou, formerly known as the Kona Surf Hotel. This was the first viewing site to be established, and it is a popular spot for manta ray tour operators. This site is accessible only by boat due to the lava-rock shoreline.
  • The second location, Manta Heaven, is in Makako Bay, just offshore from the Kona International Airport. This site can only be reached by boat. During daylight hours, the dive site is called “Garden Eel Cove.”
  • Manta Point is the most recently established viewing site in Kauna’oa Bay on the Kohala Coast in front of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. The site is on private grounds and is not accessible to the public. Motorized vessels are prohibited from entering Kauna’oa Bay. We are privileged to conduct moonlight swim activities at this location, offering a sustainable and personal experience.

Check out this page to learn more about the fascinating history of these sites and how they were established.

The Challenges of Establishing a New Night Viewing Site

It takes many years to train the manta brain to adapt to a new feeding site, making the creation of new locations rather unlikely in the near future.

A telling example of this challenge occurred about ten years ago in Kona.

As Manta Village and Manta Heaven became too busy, a local dive store tried an experiment. They aimed to create a new site between the airport and Keauhou. The idea was simple: drop a lightbox every night to attract plankton and, hopefully, manta rays.

They repeated this process for six weeks, dropping the lightbox with an attached camera at a specific spot on the way to their night dive and retrieving it on their return journey.

The lights successfully attracted plankton, but not a single manta ray was spotted on the site the entire time.

This experience served as proof of the complexity of changing the manta rays’ behavior.

Keeping Manta Ray Tourism Safe and Sustainable

This experiment made us realize we’re incredibly fortunate to have three viewing sites in Kona, a rarity that places this location on the map for manta ray enthusiasts.

That’s why we ALL must protect the existing sites and ensure they remain safe and sustainable, not just for the people who come to witness these magnificent creatures but for the mantas themselves and the generations to come.

The best thing you can do to contribute to a safer and more eco-friendly manta ray industry is to book your own 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 in Kona – click here to check it out!

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE DIVING IN WITH THE MANTAS

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!

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