Friday, July 25, 2014

Manta ray nights

Kailua Kona on the west side of the Big Island has a lot going for it. Judging by the size of the airport compared to the one in Hilo, it's where most people choose to land when arriving to this particular island. Thanks to the pair of extinct volcanoes that make up the inner portion of the island, it's in a particularly miraculous rain shadow. Yes, it's still warm and tropical, but it gets a fraction of the rain Hilo does. And yet, it's not quite the desert-like terrain you get if you continue further north.

So it's warm, tropical but not perpetually soaked in rain. I can see why some people might prefer it to Hilo. Which, by the way, pisses people off in Hilo. I spoke to a lady at a market who said Hilo had its time, but now it's Kailua Kona's turn. And you can see it. There does appear to be more money in Kailua Kona, while Hilo appears a bit more....worn down, as it were.

I expected inter-island rivalries when we arrived in Hawaii. That Maui and the Big Island might square off against each other. I didn't expect the regional divide that exists on the Big Island. But it makes sense. It is, in comparison to the rest of the Hawaiian islands, quite large. There's a lot of diverse climates. There's cattle ranching in the north. The south, after you get past Volcano, feels more impoverished, possibly because it's off the beaten track for tourists.

However, we were in Kailua Kona for one reason. And it's wasn't the beaches or the sunnier climate, although after a week of rain that was lovely.  No, the reason why we were in Kailua Kona was to see manta rays.  Cathy read about how you could go night snorkeling and see them. As Cathy is part sea mammal anyway and is looking for any chance to bob in the ocean...

After doing her research she decided she liked a company called Sunlight on Water the best. One quick online booking and we were off. Turns out night diving for manta rays is really popular. When we eventually arrived at our spot I counted 16 boats of varying size clustered into a relatively small area.

Once again, taking into account the somewhat....relaxed view of vacation planning I'm having on this trip, I didn't do much research into what exactly this entails. So after about 30 minutes of trekking in the boat (only to end up in a spot about 100 yards off-shore behind the airport), I began to get the full gist of what was going to happen.

Basically, once it got dark the main boat would put a pair of barges over the side. They served two purposes. First, they gave the snorkelers something to hold onto, which worked well for me as I can't swim well. The 30 feet of ocean between me and the bottom might as well have been the Marinas Trench.

Secondly, the barges produce a powerful light. This light, in turn, draws all kind of plankton in so they can do their thing. And what is it that manta rays like to feed on? Plankton. And when you have 16 boats in a small area all doing the same thing, it must look like a Las Vegas strip buffet to a manta ray.

So I'm bobbing in the ocean, clutching a platform and waiting for manta rays. This is when I'm told mantra rays feed in a very particular way and that we should not touch them, no matter how close they swim.

See, I was figuring the rays would be swimming around the bottom of the ocean and we could see them gluide by, a couple of dozen feet beneath me.

No. Turns out, manta rays like to zoom upwards to get their snack, towards the light, and any fools hangling onto the side of the light, and then veer away at the last second.

Did I mention these rays were about 10-feet from tip-to-tip (medium-sized, according to the guides), have huge, other-wordly mouths and that you can see half-way down their gullet as they're zooming towards you? Did I mention I was being bracketed by a pair of teenage girls?

So yes, what with the cast-reject from Alien powering towards me, as I bobbed on top of an environment actively trying to kill me with teenage girls screaming in my ears, there was only one sane reaction...

I started laughing. I mean, laughing loud enough that I accidentally inhaled some salt water, but that was fine. Moments of spontaneously, unexpected joy are rare in life. Why let a little thing like trying to swallow the Pacific Ocean try to ruin it for you.

Really, it's a genuinely amazing experience. The rays literally break away at the last second as they swoop towards you. They're also completely harmless, despite appearances. They're astonishingly graceful and even after bobbing in the ocean, having been bombed by them dozens of times, I was not ready to come out after our 45 minutes with them was up.

Cathy, for her part, was equally giddy. I hadn't seen her since we hit the water. That's unusual as she likes to keep an eye on me when there's the passing possibility of me dying. But she was having too much fun to give me too much thought.

Hard to blame her, really.  So yes, add snorkeling with manta rays as one of the unexpected joys that I've now gotten to experience in life....

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

That was hilarious! Yeah, a bit educational too, but hilarious! Thanks for that.

Sam Vaknin said...

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Sam Vaknin said...

Ahh this is almost a practical visual for those who haven't visited yet. Informative and helpful for those who plans to visit Hawaii. The best adventure you may enjoy is manta ray snorkel kona.
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