Manta Ray Night Snorkeling Guide: What to Expect (a thrill)

by | Feb 21, 2020 | Activities, Big Island (Hawaii), Planning, Things to Do

Manta ray night snorkeling made it into my top 5 best life experiences list. It beat out bungee jumping in Switzerland, windsurfing in Maui, and snowboarding in the Sahara. I like adventure but anyone can snorkel with manta rays.

And they should. Here is the manta ray night snorkeling guide you need to overcome your fears (if you have them) and what to expect once you plunge into the dark waters off of Kona, Hawaii.

Manta ray night snorkels average 85% to 90% sightings rate on the Kona Coast. Manta rays are not dangerous. In fact, they are harmless creatures. Night snorkeling is an ideal way to swim with manta rays as they feed off phytoplankton. The phytoplankton is attracted to the light from your group’s shared swimming flotation device.

A trip to the Big Island isn’t complete without experiencing a manta ray night snorkel. With up to an 18-foot wingspan, these gentle giants of the sea will be a memory for you and your family members forever. Yes, kids can go. 

Before you book your trip, read on for what to expect when you night snorkel with manta rays in Kona, Hawaii or wherever you go. 

 

manta ray snorkel Hawaii

Manta Rays: Cousins to Sharks 

Manta rays are fish and in the same order as sharks, the chondrichthyan order. Meaning they don’t have bones but cartilage. The similarities with sharks end there. 

They don’t have a bone, tooth, or barb in their body. Manta rays are gentle, graceful creatures. 

Their gaping mouths filter large quantities of plankton, their main source of food, as they swim. An adult can consume 40 to 66 pounds of food per day. As opportunistic feeders, they dine when they can find it. Making the feeding areas around Hawaii ideal for snorkeling with manta rays.

The manta rays around Hawaii do not migrate like other manta rays in tropical waters around the world. They call Hawaii their home year-round and for their 50-year lives. Each manta ray can be identified by their black and white Rorsschack patterns, making it possible for scientists to identify and name the 291 (as of January 22, 2020) manta rays in Kona.  

Manta rays are migratory fish. They go where the food is so snorkeling with them is seasonal in most locations around the world. They do frequent manta ray cleaning stations located in reefs. These cleaning stations are where sharks, manta rays, and fish come to be cleaned of parasites by cleaner fish. They are even known to wait in line to have their skin, gills, and mouth cleaned. 

During your night snorkel with manta rays, you will see rays with 15-foot wingspans, on average. The Hawaii manta ray is the second largest species of manta ray in the world, belonging to the giant oceanic manta ray species, Mobula birostris. They can grow up to 18-feet long and weigh over 6,000 pounds. 

What makes snorkeling with them so thrilling is these giants swim within inches of your face. 

Where Can You Snorkel with Manta Rays

Manta rays snorkeling isn’t only in Kona. As manta ray habitats span the globe in warm, tropical waters, there are locations all over the world, perhaps closer to you than Hawaii, to swim with the manta rays. 

Kona provides the best experience to go night snorkeling for two reasons. First, there is no manta ray season in Kona. They are around all year. Making it so you don’t have to plan your vacation and flights around the manta ray season.

Second, the Kona coast’s two of three manta ray feeding locations are accessible during your night of snorkeling to choose from. This increases your odds of seeing manta rays as the captain can choose which site to go visit based on sightings from earlier that day. This is how Kona tour operators can guarantee sightings. 

Snorkeling with Mantas in Hawaii

You can see manta rays on Maui, Oahu, Kauai, and Hawaii. Only Maui and Hawaii offer guided tours.

Kailua-Kona, Hawaii (the big island) is world-famous for manta ray sightings because of the large, consistent population along the coast and their special feeding behavior. 

Plankton feeds off sunlight by photosynthesis to create oxygen. During the daylight, they drift to the ocean’s surface to feed off the sunlight. 

In the late 1970s, the Kona Hawaiian hotel used floodlights to illuminate the surf zone of their sea-side restaurant. Every night those lights would shine on the ocean surface attracting plankton who were trying to photosynthesize.

A manta ray stumbled upon the buffet of plankton by the late 70s. His or her friends soon followed creating a new eco-tourism industry in Hawaii. Since then, manta rays have learned the ideal locations to find food at night, where food doesn’t usually exist.

Manta Ray 3 night snorkeling locations on the Big Island

Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

The Kona Coast, you know it is my favorite spot already. The two locations on the Kona Coast are not cleaning stations but feeding stations. Dinner is the best time to see manta rays in their element as they perform barrel-rolls to maximize feeding. 

There are 2 feeding stations along the Kona Coast.

Keahou Bay (Manta Village)

The highest success rate of manta ray sightings is here. With a staggering 96% of manta ray tours reporting to see manta rays in 2013, the last time they did a survey. (source: Manta Ray Advocates)

Keahou Bay is in the community of Keahou, located 8-miles south of Kailua-Kona. The bay is framed on the southside by the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keahou Bay. 

Keahou Bay is 20 to 30 feet deep making close encounters with manta rays prevalent during night snorkeling.

Manta Village, as the bay is affectionately named, was the first and most popular place for manta ray night snorkeling on Kona. Many tour operators depart from the bay.

This is where my tour went to witness manta rays after they had poor results at Manta Haven earlier that day, the second-best location to snorkel with manta rays in Kona. 

Manta Village Map in Kona Hawaii

Garden Eel Cove (Manta Haven)

North of Kona, by 8 miles is the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. There is a cove located offshore from the airport called Garden Eel Cove. 

The cove is popular for daylight scuba dives for manta ray but is also the second-best place on the island for night snorkeling. Nicknamed Manta Haven, the cove boasts a 90% success rate for manta ray sightings in 2013 (source: Manta Ray Advocates)

Garden Eel Cove is 36 to 40 feet deep for manta ray night snorkeling.

Seeing manta rays is a bit of luck and the skill of your captain. You don’t have to choose what cove to visit for your night snorkeling. As I’ll discuss below, you can choose an operator that departs from a harbor that is located between the two coves. 

Manta Haven Map in Kona Hawaii

My tour’s caption estimated an 85% success rate in 2019 for manta ray sightings per his experience in Garden Eel Cove and Keahou Bay. This is not a scientific survey but another, more recent opinion from a local expert.

Waikoloa on the Kohala Coast, Hawaii

Near the northern tip of the Big Island, on the Kohala Coast, is the village of Waikoloa. Tours depart from Kawaihae Harbor for nightly snorkel dives. Kawaihae Harbor is 35-miles or 40 minutes north of Kailua-Kona.

The success rate of sightings out of Waikoloa is 85-90% per Sunlight on Water tours. 

A plus of snorkeling with manta rays here is you may be the only boat in the water. The locations near Kailua-Kona may have over 75 people in the water with you in the small coves.

A con is this location has a lower success rate of manta ray sightings compared to the Manta Advocates survey. Tour companies guarantee sightings here though.

This is an ideal location to go night snorkeling if you are staying in one of the main resorts along the Kohala Coast. Many hotels will recommend and book your night snorkel for you. 

Maui’s Molokini Crater

The Molokini crater in Maui is a hotspot for snorkeling with daily cruises. Go early morning to have a chance encounter with manta rays. There are fewer tourists and boats in the early morning so manta rays are more willing to come closer to the surface.

Maui’s Olowalu Reef

Olowalu is a town situated 7-miles south of Lahaina in West Maui. It is home to one of the most pristine reefs in all of Hawaii. The reef contains a blacktip reef shark nursery and manta ray cleaning stations. One needs a kayak to snorkel out but luckily there is Kayak Olowalu who we have used but we did not see manta rays on our 1.5-hour snorkel. 

Watch our Olowalu kayak snorkeling video to get a taste of what you will see if you don’t come across a manta ray.  Sightings are not guaranteed and the tour operators do not take you to the cleaning stations. 

Kauai and Oahu

Kauai and Oahu offer chance encounters via views from above the water on boat trips or if you get lucky snorkeling during the winter months. Guide manta ray snorkeling tours are not available due to the infrequent sightings on Oahu and Kauai. 

Where in the World Can You Snorkel with Manta Rays

The three best locations in the world, outside of Hawaii, are Maldives, Mexico, and Indonesia. 

Maldives

Swarms of manta rays come to lagoons in the Maldives during monsoon season. It is one of the few places in the world where snorkelers can see groups of manta rays. Manta ray season is May through October. 


Mexico

The Revillagigedo Archipelago 240 miles south of the California Baja has four islands that are now a World Heritage site. They provide the best viewing of sharks, whales, and swooping manta rays. Manta ray season is November through May.

Indonesia

The reefs around Raja Ampat, the island of Komodo, and Nusa Penida off Bali will give you the best chance to see manta rays. The low costs and multiple locations make Indonesia a great place to see manta rays. Manta ray season is year-round in Komodo and Nusa Penida and December through April in Raja Ampat.

There are more locations around the world to see manta rays. The Florida Keys provide chance encounters with manta rays. Check out Ninja Shark for all the locations to see manta rays in the world.

When Can You See Manta Rays in Kona

The season is 365 days a year. No need to book your trip around the time you need to visit manta rays. 

Manta ray night snorkeling tours depart at 6:00 pm for sunset tours and around 7:00 pm for late-night snorkeling. Some operators offer both times while others will only offer one time per day. 

Related articles:

Manta Ray Night Snorkel Adventure

 

9 Tips for Manta Ray Night Snorkeling

My manta ray experience left me with these 9 takeaways. Then read my full experience below and watch the video to gain more context on the tips.

  1. Request a noodle
  2. Bring a GoPro or underwater camera
  3. Take seasickness medicine 2-hours before departure
  4. Book an operator out of the Honokohau Small Boat Harbor so your captain can choose the best of two snorkeling locations to visit
  5. Book your night snorkeling trip before you arrive on the Big Island and book early in your trip so you can take advantage of the sighting guarantee
  6. Go on a smaller boat for a more intimate experience
  7. Arrive 30-minutes early as the boat can be hard to find in the large harbor and also to sign the waiver
  8. Ask your onboard Marine Naturalist a million questions, manta rays are fascinating fish
  9. Bring a sweatshirt and large beach towel to stay warm on the ride back
keep your feet up manta ray snorkeling

Keep those feet up, a manta ray wants to come in for dinner.

 

Manta Ray Night Snorkel Tours: What to Expect (Video)

When I first heard of manta ray night snorkeling 10-years ago, I thought it was for the rich or would soon be made illegal. It looked and sounded too good to be true. Are the tour operators seeking them out or are they congregating naturally?

Why are manta rays attracted to a hoard of humans in the water?

I’ve been in a shark cage. The operators say the sharks are attracted to the boat’s engine as they throw bloody fish in the water. The sharks come but it isn’t right as it is unnatural, excessive feeding.

In Kona, the operators use lights on a paddleboard.  Manta rays are attracted to plankton for food. The plankton is attracted to light. 

When you get in the water, your group of 8 to 10 fellow snorkelers hold onto a stand-up paddleboard fitted with LED lights on its undercarriage. The phytoplankton drifts and swarms toward the lights creating a soup for the manta rays to gulp down. 

While not entirely natural, the manta rays are not hurt and are in the cove enjoying the plankton who are there due to the lights from the shoreline, like the Sheraton Hotel.

I recommend choosing a company that is Green Listed Activity Provider by the Manta Ray Advocates and gets good reviews. 

Manta Ray Night Snorkel Experience

Erica, Henry, Hattie, and I visited the Big Island for New Year’s. Manta ray night snorkeling was on my to-do list. While toddlers are allowed on most tour boats, they can’t go in the water unless they are confident snorkelers. I doubt any toddlers are snorkelers. 

After arriving in Kailua-Kona, I booked my trip with Hawaii Oceanic out of Honokohau Small Boat Harbor (3.5-miles north of Kailua-Kona). I chose them based on availability and they were Green Listed

Christmas and New Year’s is a busy time in the Hawaiian Islands. Most tours were booked up 72-hours in advance. Hence, I recommend booking your trip before you arrive. As I recommend with Maui whale watching, book “sightings” tours early in your trip. If you don’t see what you came for, tour companies will re-book free of charge. This is their guaranteed sightings policy.

The drive was quick from our Airbnb but I got lost in the harbor. Hawaii Oceanic provided pinpoint directions but I didn’t follow them. I talked to other couples who were lost also but with different manta ray snorkeling companies. Head out early and follow the directions as the harbor is large and not well marked. 

Upon arrival, the first thing they do is have you check-in and sign a waiver. A 10-minute process to get all the passengers to sign. 

The operator then suits you up. The tour operator will provide you the following items.

🍍 Snorkel and mask

🍍 Fins

🍍 Wetsuit

While the ocean temperature in Hawaii is a pleasant 74°F, with a high of 80°F during the summer months, it still gets cold at night so they provide a wet suit. They will take your size at booking. 

I recommend you bring the following items for your manta ray snorkeling adventure.

🍍 GoPro or underwater camera

🍍 Large, soft, cuddly towel for the boat ride back

🍍 Jacket or sweatshirt for the boat ride back

🍍 Backpack or bag for your clothes and personal items to be stored on the boat

When looking at potential tour companies, I recommend booking a smaller powerboat that holds 8 to 12 people. For me, the smaller boat and group provided a more intimate and safe experience. 

Larger boats looked like cattle cars which would make me nervous about being left behind in the dark waters. I doubt that has ever happened as simple count fixes that and the shoreline is less than 50 yards away. But our whole boat could fit around a paddleboard with our Marine Naturalist talking to us while he was in the water with us. It was a comforting experience.

Duration of Manta Ray Night Snorkeling

The advertised length of the tour was one hour but we were out for about 2.5-hours from departure to landing. 

The time in the water was about 30-minutes. Tours advertise 30 to 45-minutes snorkeling but this depends on how many other tours are in the area and if you see manta rays. 

Our boat left out of northern Kailua-Kona so the closer manta ray feeding cove was by the airport, Manta Haven. The captain reported that they had no manta ray sightings that day from their earlier tours but Manta Village had sightings. Therefore, the captain took us south to Manta Village. That was a 40-minute boat ride. 

Location of Departure for Night Snorkeling

A major plus is choosing a manta ray encounter tour operator who departs between the two Kona manta ray encounter coves. We saw over 5 manta rays that night thanks to the captain having the ability and experience to take us south to Manta Village. 

Oceanic Hawaii departed out of Honokohau Small Boat Harbor. Other tour operators depart from there also. 

Note, I see on their website that Oceanic Hawaii has changed their departure location to Keauhou Bay (Manta Village) in early 2020. 

My second recommendation for a departure location is at Manta Village in Keauhou Bay. Manta Village has the highest success rate of the two Kona coves. Many tours leave out of the bay making for more time in the water than on a boat. Also, less time to be cold once you are out of the water and out of your wetsuit.

If you get seasick, take medication before you go. Based on your departure location, you may have a long boat ride. Prepare yourself by taking medication the day before the trip and 2-hours prior to departure so the medicine is in your system. This will optimize your enjoyment.

The Ride to Manta Village

The boat ride to Manta Village, 40-minutes south of our departure location, was a treat in itself. First off, being out at sea in a speedboat was a new experience for me. It was pitch black, the stars were out in full force, and the salty air was warm. 

As we sped along, the onboard Marine Naturalist gave us a presentation. I, along with an 8-year-old boy, got nerdy asking questions about manta rays. 

The Marine Naturalist bombarded us with facts, how the night snorkel would go, and how to behave around manta rays. There are hard rules on this that I list below. 

He set the tone for the snorkel and made everyone feel comfortable. During my time in Hawaii going on these adventures, I have always found the tour operators to be genuinely excited to find the animals and make sure everyone has fun.

This was the case when we arrived in Manta Village.

Manta Village Night Snorkel

Our boat arrived at the small cove. Music from a wedding at the Sheraton was thumping. There were already 5 to 6 other tour boats in the cove and more were coming. The tour boats were spread out. 

We could see other groups already in the water holding their glowing paddleboards. They must have departed from the cove.

The Marine Naturalist and captain were on the radio talking to the other boats. They also yelled at boats nearby. All to get a feel of who was having luck spotting manta rays. The air was let out of the room (boat) when word got back that there were no sightings. We trolled farther into the cove.

It is surprising how well one can hear someone squeal in delight through a snorkel. Manta rays were sighted.

A boat was having some luck so we joined them in the water. The guides were all jovial with each other and welcoming. 

It moved fast. We got up, put anti-fog in our masks, slapped on the mask and snorkel, and then lined up to go down the ladder and into the water. There is little time to double guess your decision to swim with 15-foot long manta rays in black water.

We all collected around the lit-up paddleboard and our Marine Naturalist pushed us out as we hold firm to the sides. The other tour operator obliged us to link paddleboards to be close to the manta ray who was feeding under their board. 

Manta rays glide through the water so gracefully with their sonar. They can sense the microscopic plankton and the many humans in the water. They don’t want to be touched so the trick with manta ray encounters is to keep your feet up. 

The whole group must keep their bodies and feet floating on the surface. The wet suit helps but one must stick their arms straight out from the paddleboard. 

You don’t want to be the person who has their feet dangling in the water as the manta ray won’t get as close to your board or may avoid it altogether. 

I had a hard time keeping my feet up. They kept wanting to sink. The other tour operator (once again, everyone is so nice) put a floatation device under my legs (i.e., a noodle). I should have taken one from our boat. 

Take a noodle if your tour operator has them available. It will make your trip so much more comfortable by freely floating with the paddleboard in your hands and a noodle under your legs.

The LED lights cast a beautiful blue glow into the Hawaiian waters. One can see the swarm of plankton start to come to the lights. The manta rays were right behind them. 

They swept in from below. Came in from the surface. And some would do barrel-roll after barrel-roll to gulp up the plankton soup. For 30-minutes manta rays were inches from our face. 

No joke, it was exhilarating to have such a massive fish ballet around us. Check out this barrel-roll captured on my GoPro.

The depth of the cove for manta ray snorkeling as 25-feet. We could see the bottom as the water was clear. That helped make the snorkeling more relaxing compared to floating in a dark abyss. We also had a full line of sight on approaching manta rays.

Our Marine Naturalist kept giving guidance to the group and individuals to maximize our encounter with the manta rays while we were in the water. He also controlled the paddleboard to keep us away from other groups or move us closer to the rays.

What Happens If Don’t See Any Manta Rays?

Bad luck happens. Some nights the manta rays may not show up or not show up near your paddleboard. 

If you do not see manta rays, you can most likely re-book your tour.

Manta ray tour operators cannot guarantee manta ray sightings. An advertised “guarantee” means you can rebook free of charge or provide you a large discount to go again. Check the fine print of your operator before you book.

It is wise to book your manta ray night snorkel during the beginning of your trip. In the unfortunate event of no sightings or a poor encounter, you will have more time and flexibility to rebook.

Heading Back to the Harbor

After about 30-minutes, our Marine Naturalist towed us back to our boat. It was time to let others into our prime spot. 

We climbed the ladder back into the cabin. Everyone dried off, laughed about how amazing the experience was, took off their wet suits, and put on their warm clothes.

The captain had us underway in 5-minutes. They passed out sodas, waters, and bags of chips as we all chatted on the way home and enjoyed the night sky. 

At the dock, they had a shower for us to wash the salt water off before we all headed home. I was still giddy as I drove back to Kona Coffee Country where our Airbnb was.

Stay Safe When Snorkeling with Manta Rays

Your safety and the manta rays safety are paramount. We all want manta ray eco-tourism to continue so we can enjoy seeing these majestic fish in the wild. Manta rays continue to be an endangered species across the globe.

Here are the safety and snorkeling guidelines as stated by the Ocean Recreation Council of Hawaii and PADI’s Project AWARE that must be followed by Kona manta ray night snorkeling companies. These guidelines are specific to snorkeling.

🍍 Observe only: Resist the urge to touch the manta rays. This will rub off their protective mucus coating. Do not chase, grab, or try to take a ride on the mantas.

🍍 Position: Snorkelers to stay on the surface. Do not dive down into the water column where the mantas are feeding.

🍍 Use of lights: Snorkelers shine lights down.

🍍 Taking photos or videos: Be considerate of people and mantas when taking underwater photos or video. Minimize your equipment in the water column and let the mantas come to you.

Manta rays are not stingrays, they are not related. 

A stingray became notorious after the Australian daredevil conservationist Steve Irwin was killed in a freak encounter with a stingray. Stingrays have venom in their tail spine to kill small creatures and cause intense pain to humans, but it is rare for them to kill a human. 

Manta rays do not have teeth or a tail spine that can elicit pain on a human. 

How to Not Hurt the Manta Rays

There is no “free” snorkeling when you go snorkeling with the manta rays. This means you stay holding onto the paddleboard at all times in the water. You will not be allowed to swim away from the group or free dive to get closer to the manta rays. 

This is required to avoid touching or harassing the animals. 

Touching them is a big no-no. Touching them rubs off their thing, mucus coating. The coating fends off infection and parasites. 

Since the manta rays can approach within inches of you, you must resist the temptation to put a hand-out to them. 

Use a noodle to hold your legs up so your fins don’t kick them on accident.

Manta Ray Night Snorkel vs  Manta Ray Night Dive

Manta ray night scuba dives are also a popular way to have a manta ray encounter in Kona. 

Your vertical location in the water is the biggest difference between a night snorkeling and a night dive manta ray encounter. On a diving tour, you are on the ocean floor looking up at the manta rays feeding above you. On a snorkel tour, you are on the water’s surface looking down on the manta rays. 

If you are scuba certified, a night dive may be more to your liking. 

Cost of a Manta Ray Snorkel Tour in Kona

Manta ray night snorkeling in Kona prices ranges from $105 to $120 per adult. Discounts for youths are offered, typically $100 per youth. 

Fees and taxes typically add on another $15 dollars to your ticket. 

For a higher cost manta ray snorkeling tour, expect more perks like the following:

🍍 Sailboat or luxury catamaran

🍍 Hot drinks for the ride back to the harbor

🍍 Photos from your trip

🍍 Warm shower

Cancellation policies vary from 24-hours to 72-hours of advanced notice. Check their policy during check-out. 

Guaranteed Manta Ray Sighting Policies

Manta ray sighting is never guaranteed but tour operators are flexible. Check the policy of your tour operator before booking. Sunlight on the Water has a well-stated policy, you should expect the same from your tour operator.

“No Manta Policy: We do NOT guarantee Mantas. While we see Mantas 85-90% of the time, they are wild animals and their appearance is beyond our control. However, should there be no Mantas on your night, you can go again on another night on a space available, standby basis. Keep in mind that these spaces may be very limited, especially during the busiest times of the year. If we cannot get you out during your current stay, we will extend the return offer to your next visit. There is no expiration date. The offer is non-transferable and has no cash value. No Refunds will be given for No Mantas … no exceptions.”  policy of Sunlight on the Water.

 

Where to Book Your Manta Ray Night Snorkeling Adventure

I recommend booking directly with the tour operator to receive the best cost.

There are many companies on the Kona Coast that offer night manta ray snorkeling. Walk around Kailua-Kona town or the main strip on Ali’i drive in Kona to find special offers. You can also use a price comparison website like Hawaii Activities

Some tours offer discounts for booking more than 5-days in advance, like Sunlight on the Water on the Kohala Coast. 

Closing Notes on Manta Ray Night Snorkeling (Kona Coast)

Night snorkeling with manta rays was a thrilling experience for me. I hope to take Erica and my son Henry back to Kona someday so they can enjoy it also.

Kona and the Big Island are full of amazing activities like manta ray encounters. Check out our Hawaii Recommendations page for more of our favorite and trusted activities.

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Jordan Fromholz

Jordan Fromholz

Author

I'm the co-founder, with my wife Erica, of The Hawaii Vacation Guide. We live on Maui with our toddler Henry and our sweet but quirky dog Hattie. I have a thing for photographing pineapples and learning to surf.

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