Swimming with manta rays: what you need to know before diving in

May 22, 2023 | Swimming with Manta Rays

Embarking on a Moonlight Manta Swim is an extraordinary adventure that allows you to intimately connect with the gentle giants of the Kona coast. Manta rays, known for their majestic presence, provide visitors with an unforgettable night-time encounter.

But entering the ocean after dark to swim with large fish is not as straightforward as some may think. From booking a manta ray tour that meets your expectations to preparing for a safe and potentially life-changing experience, this article covers everything you need to know before swimming with manta rays in their natural environment.

Meet the Manta Rays of Kona

Manta rays have been Kona’s most unique attraction for travelers since the early 90s. The coastal waters of the West coast of the Big Island of Hawaii are home to one of the most robust and accessible populations of manta rays in the world, thanks to the viewing sites where mantas come to feed at night.

The viewing sites feature powerful lights that attract plankton (the mantas’ main food source). The manta rays, in turn, are attracted by the abundance of plankton.

There are two types of manta rays: pelagic (giant) mantas are larger and roam the open ocean, while reef manta rays are smaller and frequently seen in shallower coastal habitats. When going on a manta ray swim along the coast of Kona, you’re most likely to see reef mantas.

Snorkeling vs Scuba Diving with Manta Rays

Initially, the manta rays were enjoyed only by scuba divers, but in the last decade or so activity providers started offering both scuba diving and snorkeling tours. This makes it accessible for more people of all ages; today, more people snorkel than scuba dive with mantas.

If you go on a snorkeling tour, you will stay on the water’s surface. Most tour operators provide you with a flotation device to hold on to; this device has lights that attract plankton, and thus the manta rays. Learn how to feel comfortable in your snorkel equipment in this article!

If you go scuba diving with manta rays, you will be sitting on the ocean floor with lights and be able to observe the feeding manta rays by looking up. In order to join a diving tour, you must be a certified scuba diver. If you prefer scuba diving but haven’t been diving for a while, we recommend you sign up for a 5-hour tour with 2 dives (2-tank charter) that dive operators offer; that way, you can refresh your skills in full daylight before embarking on the night dive.

Free diving (= holding your breath and diving to a certain depth into the water column where the mantas feed) is not permitted, as it disturbs the manta rays’ flow and could scare them or even cause collisions.

Manta Tour Boat Trip vs Entering from Shore

There are 2 ways to safely swim with manta rays safely along the West Coast of the Big Island:

  1. The main viewing areas are accessible via boat only due to the lava-rock shoreline
  2. We at Manta Ray Advocates are the only activity provider offering a manta ray swim with access from a private sandy beach (no boat required). However, we only offer snorkeling tours.

We cannot stress enough trying to go swimming alone, especially from a rocky shore, is an extremely bad idea. You risk injury from sea urchins, sharp lava rock, unpredictable surf, boat traffic, and coral. All of these risks are intensified at night, in the dark. An injury could do more than just ruin your vacation, and is just not worth the risk.

While I have written extensively about the downsides of unregulated manta ray tourism and the dangers from hull lights (coming from some of the boats), Hawaii Ocean Watch keeps a “greenlist” of manta ray tour operators who go to great lengths to make their tour more sustainable; you can find the greenlist here and/or scroll down to read more about tour operator standards.

Daytime vs Night-Time Manta Swims

As mentioned before, the lights attract plankton – that’s the reason why commercial operators can only offer manta ray tours at night.

The probability to see at least one manta ray during a night-time swim is usually over 70%; it’s also a good idea to check with the activity providers if mantas have been sighted prior to your booking. Read more about the sighting probability below!

Daytime occurrences are possible but rare. If you go scuba diving or snorkeling in the daytime, you might accidentally see a manta ray from afar; however, mantas are not likely to swim close to humans during the day.

Booking with a Green-Listed Tour Operator

Unfortunately, manta ray tourism is not regulated by legislation, as is the case with e.g. whale and dolphin tourism.

In 2013, the Coast Guard and the State of Hawaii mandated the tour operators to create “Industry Standards” to serve as guidelines for all involved. While these are not technically enforced (the State expects the industry to regulate itself), Hawaii Ocean Watch created a Green List of activity providers that do follow these standards.

To be on the green list, an activity provider must

  1. Do no harm to manta rays. This means not presenting a hazardous environment for the gentle giants; e.g. not using hull lights, avoiding ropes hanging into the water column, not allowing divers in midwater,…
  2. Prioritize safety for participants by having medical first responders on site as well as an emergency plan and equipment to manage a medical emergency independently.
  3. Do no harm to the aquatic environment, including coral reefs
  4. Follow the established Tour Operator Standards. These outline a reasonable and prudent way to conduct tourism activities with humans and manta rays.
  5. Educate visitors on passive interaction with the mantas while in the water

As a consumer, use your power and help us protect the rays (and increase the safety of all involved) by booking ONLY with green-listed companies. You can also help the cause by telling others about the list, e.g. on travel review sites.

The Life-Changing Experience of Swimming with Mantas

Shortly after sunset when it is dark enough for the plankton to form, manta rays are drawn to the lit-up viewing sites where the plankton is. They feed by slowly and majesticly gliding through the water, and filtering the plankton from the ocean water using a complex filter-feeding system.

If you booked a scuba diving manta ray tour, you will embark on a boat that will take you to the viewing site. Upon entering the water, divemasters will guide you to a central spot and where you take position on the bottom. You stay at approximately 30-35 feet below the surface; sometimes deeper or shallower, depending on conditions and where the plankton concentrates. All divers shine their lights upwards (toward the surface) to attract the plankton, so you can see the manta rays swimming above you.

If you booked a snorkeling tour with one of the boat operators, the experience will be similar – except that you will likely have a flotation device to hold on to; this device (like a surfboard) has lights that attract plankton.

A moonlight manta swim experience with us is slightly different, as we don’t take a boat but instead enter the water on foot from a private sandy beach. We walk about 100 yards to the ocean, which is an opportunity for participants to take in the beauty of their surroundings while preparing themselves for an unforgettable underwater adventure.

We swim to the viewing area, and the guide holds a powerful hand-held underwater light for the duration of the encounter. This light shines downwards, so you can see the manta rays from above.

The in-water activity lasts about 30-60 minutes, depending on the operator. The illuminated underwater arena created in the dark ocean combined with bubbles is reminiscent of movies like The Abyss or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and you see real creatures from the Jurassic era glide in with fluid angel-like movements. It’s mesmerizing.

Often you can be within inches of a manta ray and you can feel the massive rush of ocean water come across your body. We’ve seen it over and over: it humbles you, it changes you. I’ve even written a post about the physical and emotional healing experience of swimming with manta rays. The phenomenon touches the heart of most participants, and leave you invigorated and inspired.

How safe is it to swim with manta rays?

If you book with a green-listed activity provider, you have a high level of supervision during the experience as well as an extensive safety briefing before you enter the water.

General safety briefing

Your safety – as well as that of the manta rays – is their top priority. These safety tips tackle the main considerations you need to acknowledge when swimming with mantas.

To ensure everyone has an enjoyable experience without causing harm or stress to these magnificent animals, greenlisted tour operators conduct an extensive safety briefing before you enter the water, including

  • Basic information about manta rays
  • The equipment you’re using
  • Guidelines for passive interaction with the mantas
  • And other safety recommendations

However, please do not rely too heavily on the crew during your swim; make sure you are comfortable snorkeling or scuba diving in the ocean. Even if you’re a certified diver, practicing with your gear can make all the difference. Practice in the hotel pool or go diving or snorkeling during the day to refresh your basic skills; this will make you more comfortable in the water, and more aware of your surroundings.

Of course, you will be swimming in the ocean – depending on the conditions at that time, you might encounter strong currents and waves. Make sure you’re comfortable swimming in open waters. Visibility during the activity is low outside the lighted area, which makes it hard to orient yourself. Follow the instructions of the crew at all times!

We recommend arriving ahead of time for the manta ray tour you booked. This allows you a couple of minutes to take in the sights and immerse yourself in the experience before the adventure begins.

Are manta rays dangerous?

Manta rays have no teeth, no stinger, and no barbs. They are truly gentle animals, even though they’re impressively large. As long as you stay near the bottom (as a scuba diver) or on the surface (as a snorkeler), there are no exceptional risks to this activity.

Other marine animals you may encounter

An abundance of jellyfish might be an issue at certain times of the month; however, we can anticipate their passage and take precautions. Find out more about the phenomenon and get our jellyfish calendar on this page.

Guest often ask us about sharks; we have not seen predatory sharks during our collective 50+ years of diving with Kona mantas. If sharks were attracted to the dive sites, we would have seen them by now.

You can read more about other marine life you may encounter during the swim on this page.

How to keep the experience safe and sustainable: guidelines for participants

Basic rules for swimming with manta rays were developed to promote passive interaction. This not only ensures the safety of all participants, but also keeps the manta rays safe from harm and avoids scaring them away.

  1. Observe only, do not ever touch a manta ray
  2. Stay on the bottom (scuba divers) or the surface (snorkelers). No free diving.
  3. Keep your lights in the correct position
  4. Do not blow bubbles up at the mantas when they pass
  5. Be considerate of people and mantas if you’re taking pictures or filming underwater
  6. Make sure your fins stay below the waterline (to not scare away the mantas)

To learn more about these guidelines (and why not following these may compromise your safety), read more on this page.

The use of safe and comfortable snorkeling or diving equipment

You’re entering the open ocean at night and leaving the human comfort zone, the place of constant air supply. This is a new setting that requires multitasking.

Besides knowing how to swim, the single most important thing to master is to be comfortable with your scuba diving or snorkeling equipment. If you spend (too much) time fiddling or having trouble with your equipment, not only does it affect your enjoyment of the activity – it could make the activity dangerous for yourself and other participants.

To go snorkeling with manta rays, you need

For scuba diving with the mantas, you need the same equipment – plus a buoyancy compensator device (BCD) and regulator.

Although the water temperature is between 75-81°F (24-28°C), you are not moving much during the activity and it can get chilly after 30- 40 minutes in the water; that is why we recommend a neoprene suit.

Most operators include rental equipment in the price of a tour, but some boat operators charge extra for it. Always check directly with the operator you booked with. Operators will allow you to use your own gear if you prefer.

Always use fins: these will help you get to and from the viewing area. Fins make the activity much easier and much safer. Read my recommendations if you’re not sure what type of fins you need.

Always defog your snorkeling mask right before going into the water, and clean your mask after. Check out this post for my mask maintenance tips – including the recipe for our popular homemade defogging solution.

How good of a swimmer do you need to be?

You need to know how to swim in order to join a manta ray experience. The activity requires a certain level of physical fitness: make sure you’re in good shape and ready to handle the challenges that may arise during a swim in the ocean.

You also need to know how to snorkel (if you join a snorkeling tour) or be a certified scuba diver (if you go on a manta ray dive).

If you have never been snorkeling before, practice in the hotel pool and in the ocean during the day. Always practice in the ocean as well, as snorkeling in the ocean with currents and waves is different from using your snorkeling equipment in a tranquil pool.

Snorkeling is straightforward but best practiced. Don’t stress yourself by snorkeling for the first time at night in a dark ocean, with large manta rays swimming by.

How old do you need to be to swim with mantas?

The minimum age varies by activity provider, but we recommend against bringing children under 10 years old into the ocean at night. At Manta Ray Advocates, we don’t take children under 12 on our moonlight manta swim (and here’s why).

For our team, it’s important that everyone has positive memories of their experience and for a young child, entering a dark ocean to swim with giant fish can be very scary. It is also our experience that children may not able to stay focused during the safety briefing, which brings the whole group at risk.

If you want to take your children on an adventure swimming with manta rays, you’ll need to properly prepare them for the activity. The crew will not be able to babysit individual children, as they carry the responsibility over the whole group. All children should have constant adult supervision both on the boat or the shore and in the water.

Frequently Asked Questions about Swimming with Manta Rays in Hawaii

When’s the best time to see manta rays in Hawaii?

We are extremely fortunate that the resident population of manta rays roams the Kona Coast all year long and tours are offered throughout the year.

However, while sunny Hawaii is a paradise all year round, the late spring, summer, and early fall are the best times to experience the manta rays. This is mostly because the ocean conditions are the most favorable during these times.

Tour operators have the greatest number of canceled charters during the winter months (December to mid-March). The most common reasons for the cancellation of activity are strong winds, large waves, and rough ocean conditions due to swells.

When should you make your reservation?

Make reservations early, as demand is high!

Choosing from over 70 different activity providers can feel overwhelming. Compare providers because not all activity providers offer the same level of service and safety. Check the Hawaii Ocean Watch Greenlist to see who follows the Tour Operator Standards and ask these five questions to the activity providers.

Visitors who wait until the last minute to schedule this activity may find the green-listed activity providers are fully booked and they either can’t go swimming with manta rays, or they are forced to go with an operator who doesn’t meet their standards or expectations.

When booking a manta ray tour, you usually get what you pay for. A competent provider offering a safe and sustainable experience is well worth the money! Don’t budget on this one, and help us support sustainable manta ray tourism.

We recommend booking early in your vacation or even before you travel to Hawaii, so that you have a chance to reschedule in the event of a cancellation.

What other marine animals could you encounter on a manta ray swim?

When swimming with manta rays at night, other marine animals you may encounter could include

To learn more about marine animals along the West Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, read more on this page!

And if you want to get to know the mantas of Kona ahead of time, check out our Manta Ray Library featuring the manta rays that have been identified and sighted along the Kona coast in the past 20+ years.

Is there a chance that you won’t get to see manta rays on your swim?

While there is a 70% chance of seeing at least one manta ray at night, it also means there’s a 30% chance of not seeing them.

Some tour operators anticipate this: they learned to recognize patterns and if manta rays haven’t been sighted, they will give their guests the opportunity to cancel or reschedule. Many people will still want to go on a swim – for a chance of spotting a manta, but also because of all the other marine life that can still be witnessed at the viewing areas.

The ocean at night is a fantastic adventure (with or without manta rays)!

Check out your tour operator’s booking and cancellation terms to find out more about what happens when you don’t see manta rays.

Tips for taking underwater pictures of your adventure

While many tour operators offer professional pictures or footage of your experience, some guests like the idea of taking their own underwater imagery. As an experienced underwater camera person whose footage went viral on social media more than once, I completely understand the thrill!

However, I urge new underwater photographers and videographers to properly prepare, and this for the following reasons:

  1. Many newbies don’t use the appropriate equipment and end up damaging or losing the equipment, or (best case scenario) end up with useless footage. Find my recommendations for underwater camera gear on this page!
  2. Underwater photography is very different than “regular” photography, and success lies in the preparation. Know how to analyze the surf and current, how to find the right angle, and make sure you don’t miss your moment!
  3. Underwater photography equipment is more than just a camera; I’ve seen even experienced “dry land photographers” spend their limited time underwater fiddling with equipment… instead of enjoying their experience.

If you’re looking to learn how to enjoy your time under water while making beautiful memories AND staying safe, check out my underwater photography/videography class on this page. It teaches all the basics so you know exactly what to focus on before you dive in!

How much should you tip the crew?

Most boat crews are trained professionals – many have CPR, AED, lifeguard, and scuba training. They work very hard to make your experience the best it can be.

People often say, “That is the most incredible experience I have ever had!” and then they completely bypass the crew’s tip jar.

Wages are typically low for these types of jobs while living expenses in Hawaii are very high. $5 or $10 per person in your party for the crew is a tangible way to say Mahalo (Hawaiian for “thank you”) and your tip is very much appreciated by the crew.

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