How we Aim for Sustainability at Manta Ray Advocates

Aug 2, 2022 | Hawaii Travel, Swimming with Manta Rays

“Sustainable” has become a buzzword in many industries all around the world. For us, sustainability is way more than that. We believe living, traveling and working sustainably is the only way to protect the world we live in today for future generations.

For us, sustainability happens at three levels: at home (Manta Ray Advocates Headquarters), at work (when taking guests out to meet the mantas), and taking a stand to make the ecotourism industry in Hawaii more sustainable.

Solar panels at Manta Ray Advocates HQ Hawaii

In my late teens and early 20s, it became very apparent that plastics were being used in abundance everywhere. I knew back then that the environment would suffer from it eventually, which fueled my desire to study environmental engineering at university. Clearly, things made from plastics weren’t sustainable, especially if we keep mass-producing them.

After graduating from university in 1997, I eventually ended up in Hawaii, married, and built an ocean recreation business with my husband. When I looked around Hawaii in the early 2000s, I was shocked to see no solar panels on any roofs. Of all the places for solar to be, it should be predominantly in sunny Hawaii!

Solar became available to us in 2012, and we didn’t hesitate to make the leap and put a solar photovoltaic system on our roof. In 2013, we added an electric car and a second EV in 2017. We love our Chevy Volts!

The solar panel installation made a huge dent in our (previously very expensive) electric bill each month. The system paid itself off within seven years.

I strongly believe humanity needs to make major leaps forward to make this planet sustainable, and I hope that in the near future, the way we use gas and oil in our cars, in our homes, offices, and factories changes drastically. Investing in renewable energies is a MUST.

So, of course, we are uber-excited that the “The Inflation Reduction Act 2022” passed the US Congress recently which will be a major breakthrough in the fight against climate change! (details in this PDF, direct download)

Making our Business Environmentally Sustainable

As a measure to ensure sustainability in our business, we took a look at how we were operating.

Like so many other manta ray tours, we used a boat in the past to access the manta dive sites. At a certain point, we realized this was not sustainable for the operators, the tourists, or the animals. More about that below!

We did some research, made connections, and established a new location. This is not an easy feat as it also means conditioning the manta rays to visit us and meet the guests (almost) every day at a different viewing site!

When we set up at our new location at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, it gave us a multitude of new opportunities.

  • We could cancel all gas use by entering the water directly from the sandy beach instead of taking a boat.
  • It allowed us to guide smaller groups on the experience (we did not have the overhead costs of a boat, gas, maintenance, and large crew)
  • and now limit each tour to six people.

This turned out to be not only better for the mantas as we would no longer overwhelm them and other marine animals with a crowd of people (think 1-20 boats / 100-300 people at Manta Heaven or Manta Village), but also enabled us to provide guests with a more intimate, personalized, and educational experience.

There’s a word for this in Hawaiian: “Pono”. Pono means “do it right”. Here from our little corner of the Big Island, I believe we’re doing it right.

Advocating for Change in Manta Ray Tourism

We are fortunate to do the manta swim differently, but that’s not the case for the other manta ray tour companies: they are limited to the two main viewing sites along the Kona coast, which are only accessible by boat.

Legislation is pretty loose regarding ecotourism in Hawaii, with the government expecting the industry to self-regulate. And although there are (voluntary) “industry standards” and guidelines for passive interaction in place to protect the manta rays, the reality is that no one is enforcing anything.

In 2015, we started Hawaii Ocean Watch to raise awareness about these issues. We set up a greenlist of activity providers who make the best efforts to adhere to industry standards.

Years have gone by, and an astonishing 50 companies are now offering a manta ray tour.

On most nights, this leads to oversaturation at the main viewing sites: too many humans, boats, and mantas sharing the same place at the same time.

Security and naturalist briefings are often reduced to a minimum, and not everyone who enters the water is fully aware of what to look out for and what to expect.

The situation is stressful for crew and captains and often leads to a diminished guest experience. On top of that, the oversaturation/chaos regularly leads to accidents – coming to an all-time low in April 2022, when (due to a negligent boat captain and operator) the experienced and much-loved manta ray guide Reesa Butts passed away.

Related reading

To learn more about how you can have a sustainable and safe manta ray experience in Hawaii, we created a PDF guide to help people choose a tour operator and prepare as best as possible for the experience of swimming with mantas.

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