Diving with the Rays

Staff Writer Clara Scheidle

Over on the Kona coast, a popular activity for locals, residents, and tourists alike is snorkeling or diving with manta rays. Done at night, swimmers witness these huge creatures, weighing up to 3,600 pounds, swarm and dance around lights as they feed on plankton. Through UH Hilo’s Outdoor EdVenture program, UH Hilo students are granted the opportunity to experience this unique ocean spectacle.

After discussing it with several students, manta ray diving seems to be an educational experience, which is “exhilarating and awe-inspiring,” according to Jaide Wachtel. As a biology major, and a huge fan of marine animals, Wachtel traveled to Hawai`i as a part of the National Student Exchange program. This gave her the opportunity “to be hands-on with the environment” that she adores. This included doing the night dive with manta rays, which was “unlike anything [she has] ever seen” and “one of [her] all time favorite memories of Hawai`i.”

Owen Forest, a UHH marine science major, also participated in this dive. Much like Wachtel, Forest moved from the landlocked state of Arizona to Hawai`i, where he could further pursue this field of study. He agrees that “Hawai`i is a great place for marine science,” not only because of its location, but because “the UH Hilo Marine Science Program is excellent.” Forest has also participated in the experience with the manta rays, not only once, but twice. The first time it was snorkeling, but by the second time he had gotten his dive certification and was able to dive with them.

If you are not scuba certified, you have to use a snorkel at the surface of the water. Wachtel mentions that to be scuba certified is “super important” in cases like these, meaning that you are not allowed to take the dive without the necessary qualifications. This shows that the people in charge, which in this case is the Outdoor EdVenture program, are very serious about the job they are performing and won’t allow any kind of recklessness around these creatures.

The Outdoor EdVenture program offers a “two tank dive,” which means that there will be two separate dives in one day. Forest says that the first dive serves to “become acquainted with the area where you’ll be diving later with the mantas.”

This may seem to be too small of a task for such a lengthy dive, but Forest assures that there is more to it. Once the divers have become accustomed to the area, “you go off and have a fun dive and explore the reef.” After the divers are out of air, they surface and return to the boat. The Outdoor EdVenture program provides food, and there is time to relax after the first dive, because the second will not occur until after the sun sets. To properly attract mantas to the divers, the event has to take place at night.

The way the mantas are attracted is surprisingly simple. Along with the divers comes a big, weighted plastic tub containing several lights. The lights attract plankton, which in turn attract the mantas. For those who aren’t dive certified, snorkelers hang on to a surfboard at the surface which has lights attached to the bottom. “Because of this,” Forest points out, “the mantas have learned that there are lots of plankton around these lights, and that it’s a free dinner for them.”

This is a slightly concerning way to put it, because one might question the ethics of this kind of manipulation. Faced with this query, Forest responds: “In a sense, I could understand an argument that it wouldn’t be good for them, but it's almost like how raccoons forage around human places. It is change from their normal habits in the wild, but it's almost unavoidable at this point.”

“We have fishing vessels with lights on them,” Forest continues to explain. “We have research vessels with lights on them, we have [recreational] boats that have lights on them, and that’s going to attract plankton and thus attract mantas.” It is required by law for boats to have lights on them; therefore, purposefully using lights to attract mantas for a dive that is meant to educate is not adding much more of an inconvenience to the marine ecosystem.

Both Wachtel and Forest found the dive extremely educational. Tipperat Tiensuwan, a UH student majoring in animal science, knows the importance of this kind of situation. “It is always a good idea to go see animals in their natural habitat than in the zoo or an aquarium,” she concurs.

Forest states that they were all taught that mantas have a layer of mucus on their skin that “helps prevent them from infection and disease.” The divemasters and people responsible for the snorkelers warned against touching the manta rays because that would “take the mucus layer off,” making the manta rays more vulnerable to injuries.

With a large and growing population of visitors engaging with manta rays off of the Kona coastline, it’s increasingly important that people take care and caution when meeting marine life. “Anyone that is scuba certified should have a certain respect for the environment they are in,” says Wachtel. Keeping this respect in mind, observing the manta rays in their nocturnal habitat is definitely not something to miss out on. For more information about participating on the dive as a UH Hilo student, get in touch with the Outdoor EdVenture program, located in the Student Life Center.