Despite their size, manta rays are usually graceful and
tend to be tolerant with divers.
Rays San Benedicto Island, Mexico
Trinidad and Tobago
Kona Coast, Hawaii
rays were once called devil fish by sailors who saw large "horns" extending
forward from their heads. These horns turned out to be ingenuous scoopers
which, when unfurled, guide plankton into the manta’s mouth. Manta wingspans
can reach up to 20 feet, and they glide though the water like birds. Both
gentle and graceful, they have become a favorite attraction for divers.
Their range is circumtropical, with sightings in the Atlantic from as far
north as New England and south to Brazil. Mantas prefer plankton-rich waters
and are regular visitors to a few select locations. In the winter, mantas
visit San Benedicto Island, south of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Here, they
glide past a pinnacle called The Boiler hoping to take advantage of the
resident cleaner fish. Mantas also hang out in Yap, Micronesia at Manta
Ridge, another cleaning station. From March through July, mantas visit
the island of Tobago, feeding in the rich waters fed by the Orinoco estuary
in South America. On Hawaii’s Kona Coast, mantas are drawn each evening
to the lights of a large hotel. Night divers watch as the mantas feed on
the plankton that is attracted by the lights.
The fabled Manta ray (Manta hamiltoni), common in tropical
waters from California to Peru, is also found in the Galápagos,
especially around Floreana or Isabela. Though its span is usually between
12 and 14 feet, individuals of twice that size have been reported! Mantas
eat plankton and small schooling fish found near the surface, and they
have been seen leaping free of the water like breaching whales, possibly
in pursuit of their food source.
Few underwater sights are as compelling and mysterious as the silent sweep
of a squadron of rays surveying their undersea domain. Their large pectoral
fins enable them to "fly" through the waters with elegance, and while some
rays have sharp tail spines and even poisonous stings, most are harmless.
Amazing - they fly under water!
In the Galapagos, snorkelers most often see the spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus
narinari), which feeds on the mollusks of the sea floor as well as
small octopuses, prawns, and worms. Eagle rays grow to over 7 feet in wingspan
with a long slender tail giving it an almost equal length. Though they
frequently are seen alone near the shore, groups of between 30 and 40 have
been reported off Santa Fé island.
Another frequently seen ray is the golden or mustard ray (Rhinoptera
steindachneri), also known as the cow-nosed ray. The Galápagos
species is the smallest in the world, only about two feet across, and most
frequently encountered near shore or in lagoons, usually in small groups
where they feed on mollusks. They also congregate in great schools of several
hundred individuals, traveling with synchronous movements like the flight
Sting rays (Urotrygon species) bury themselves in the
sands of shallow waters, searching for and eating small mollusks and crustaceans.
They are found in both Pacific and Atlantic waters on either side of North
America. Though they are up to 3 feet in size, their coloration makes them
difficult to see -- while their venomous sting makes the unwary wader remember
to look twice in the future!
MANTA RAY: "HAHALUA" (Manta Alfredi) a.k.a. Prince Alfred's Manta
Ray. This Ray is a large species and quite closely resembles the other
Manta Rays, with widened pectoral fins and the two horn-like cephalic fins
projecting forward from the head on each side of the mouth and whip-like
tail (no spine on tail). Its color is slate gray or black on the top side,
and the lower surface has irregular black-gray markings and spots. These
groups of markings make it easy to identify each individual. As in the
photo above, the cephalic fins unfurl in the feeding mode. This Ray will
often reach a width of at least twelve feet. In the photo below, the horn-like
cephalic fins are projecting forward and furl up like a cork screw for
high speed flight. They are named for Prince Alfred Ernest (1844-1900),
the forth child of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. The name "Hahalua"
is Hawaiian for Manta Ray.
taken by Jim Robinson with a Nikon RS with 20 to 35 mm lens, using Fuji
200 Provia film and Nikon SB-104 strobe. Camera settings: f8 at 125/TTL)
Where Mantas Roam
MANTA RAY MADNESS (South of Kailua Pier at 8 miles, 25
For many years, there was a very special place, just at
the entrance of Keauhou Bay: a very special rock to the Manta Rays, which
served as a cleaning station. When the surface water traffic is light,
these gentle giants pause over this rock and hang, barely moving. Suddenly,
a few small fish rush from the rock and head for the Manta. I watched as
these small fish started picking loose skin, algae and parasites off the
Then it happened on late afternoon. One of the Mantas
found his way in front of the newly built Kona Surf Hotel on the southern
point of Keauhou Bay. As the passed in front of the shadows of the lava
cliffs, there was an abrupt enthusiastic glow directly in front of him.
He came into contact with millions, tens of millions, of swarming plankton
(thumbnail-sized larval fish, octopus, lobsters, and microscopic mysids,
shrimp-like animals) in front of him. It was so incredible. All that food
in one area. Why? It was not there prior to the last visit to that special
rock. This glow, what was it? As he made one of his loops into that shaft
of light collecting plankton, he noticed that strange glow was coming from
above the surface of his water world. Loop after loop, he gathered his
meal of plankton. This was too easy; he was full in about an hour. It would
have taken a full day to collect that plankton by swimming the whole Kona
Coast. "Got to tell my friends about this," I thought, and that's how the
word got out.
I learned that the strange glow was emanating from the
new set of flood lights which were constructed above the hotel's new shoreline
salt water swimming pool for their guests. It also lit up the shoreline
waters around the pool. All of this happened in the early 1970's.
Today, after much watching from the shoreline cliffs of the Kona Surf Hotel
and diving with these gentle giants, we at Kona Coast Divers felt that
there was a problem diving in the shadows of the cliffs and in shallow
waters with depths of 5 to 10 feet. There was not enough room for the divers
to observe the Mantas, especially when the surf is up. We were quite concerned
for the divers' safety and the well-being of the Manta Rays trying to stay
clear of the divers. They often collide with rocks causing injuries to
We must get the Mantas into deeper water, where there
is more room for divers and Mantas. After much thinking, we came up with
cordless, highly powered lights with over 500 watts, which were very costly.
These light units are placed in a depth of 30-40 feet, which give the Manta
Rays lots of room to feed. Our customers gather around the lights in a
wide circle, as a swarm of plankton clouds around the lights. Then, out
of nowhere, within the outer darkness, the slow-moving Mantas materialize.
Your heart almost stops as you see this gentle giant come within inches
of you, making endless slow loops in the shaft of light coming from our
"Manta catchers" (the name we gave our underwater lights).
When you have had enough of the "Manta Ray Madness" there
is a lot more to see, due to the profusion of food that these lights attract.
Lots of other species of night feeding fish are found in the area. And
if you have a camera with you, lots of great photos can be captured on
Since the Manta Ray Dive is rated one of the world's best
dives, we would like to point out helpful information to keep this dive
one of the world's best:
Please do not ride the Manta or touch them while they are
feeding or at any other time, even if some of the other dive operators
tell you that it is okay. By touching the Mantas, it takes off a protective
coating around their bodies and leaves them open to a chain reaction infection
that could ultimately lead to death. Also it will frighten the Mantas off,
taking the enjoyment away from the other divers who came to Hawaii for
this special encounter with the gentle giants of the Kona Coast.
There are some divers and snorkelers who are going offshore
(shore diving) to have an encounter with the Mantas. Problems they may
encounter: (a) Climbing down lava cliffs can be very hazardous- slippery
rocks, surf, undertow, and poor lighting. (b) Swimming from the Kona Surf
wedding chapel is a long swim, and especially on a very clear night, lights
from the hotel bring out many venomous small animal life to the surface
of the water (jelly-fish, fireworms, etc). They are just like the Mantas
feeding on plankton. These small creatures can cause injury and a great
deal of discomfort. A few divers and snorkelers have been bitten by eels
that live at the shoreline, especially when they are trying to hold onto
lava rock in the serge while getting into or out of the water. The best
and safest encounter with the Mantas is from a boat.
One last thing before you plan this dive. If you are going
to shore dive, check the area out during the daytime and at night from
the Kona Surf salt water pool viewing area. If you are going to go with
a dive operator, ask the following questions for your own safety and enjoyment:
What is the size of their boat?
How long have they been in operation?
Do they provide hand lights and fix a bottom flood lights
to attract plankton?
Do they have and leave a U.S.C.G. certified/licensed operator
Do they have any underwater communication system to alert
all divers from the boat?
Do they rent the finest scuba equipment?
Do they have the most important equipment aboard their dive
boat: a cell phone, marine radio (USCG), and a mobile two-way communication
system from boat to shop?
Our resident videographer is James L. Wing. His work has
been featured on The Discovery Channel and on the television program "Extra."
You may also have seen his images on CD ROM. We here at KCD take pride
in the fact that we have a nationally known videographer affiliated with
our dive operation.
IN SEARCH OF GIANTS BAJA & BEYOND
Although Cabo Pulmo is known to have the only living coral reef on the
Pacific coast of North America, it is better defined by its marine life
than its coral. Once a remote destination, dive operators in Cabo San Lucas
now offer day trips to the reef, including the two-hour taxi ride. Schooling
fish, eels, turtles and rays were enough to keep us busy in Cabo Pulmo.
On one dive we discovered a virtual field of garden eels. Quickly, I learned
the frustration many photographers have experienced when trying to photograph
garden eels as the eels disappeared into the sand when I came close, only
to pop back up once I swam away.
A little closer to Cabo San Lucas, most dive sites around Bahia San Lucas
are only a short boat ride away. Jumping into the water at Land’s End,
Alan motioned for me to follow. He had spotted a manta ray. The relatively
small, but curious, manta swam over and under us, posing for the flashing
cameras. While we off-gassed between dives, it patiently awaited our return
to the water. Exhausted after two dives, we headed to Carlos n’ Charlies
for margaritas and manta stories.
The following day, rested and ready, we boarded another day boat and took
off for Gordo Banks and the best opportunity to see the really BIG stuff.
Reserved for advanced divers, Gordo Banks is a deep dive often crowded
with large marine animals. Although we weren’t lucky on our dive, whale
sharks are reportedly spotted at Gordo Banks during certain times of year.
Always on the lookout for giants in Cabo, many divers fail to appreciate
the smaller marine life such as the abundance of soft corals, nudibranchs
and tropical fish. Big things are not guaranteed, only a lot more likely
in the water around Cabo San Lucas.
Taking a day out of the water, I decided to explore the nearby town of
Todos Santos. Once a hidden surfers’ getaway, Todos Santos is beginning
to suffer from tourism. However, the town’s quaint Mexican charm and lush
Pacific coast setting make it a fun side trip. I ate lunch in a garden-style
Italian restaurant and shopped the art galleries and boutiques before catching
the last bus back to Cabo.
Beyond Land’s End
After 10 days of driving and diving, we were dusty but happy, especially
considering that the best diving was yet to come. On the eleventh day,
we boarded the luxurious Solmar V for a week of the Mexican Pacific’s ultimate
diving, liveaboard diving at the Revillagigedos Islands some 220 miles
south of Cabo San Lucas. Close to sunset, the boat pulled up to the dive
site at San Benedicto Island. The crossing had taken almost 24 hours and
the divers were restless. Almost immediately, a giant Pacific manta ray
splashed out of the water, not 30 feet from the boat. Assuming the manta
was beckoning us to get in, we quickly suited up for the first of many
As is often the case with unique places, getting to Mexico’s Revillagigedos
Islands takes some extra effort. The group of four islands are remote and
desolate. Because of the islands’ offshore location and the stormy Pacific
waters, they can be visited only from November through May. San Benedicto
Island was the first stop on our agenda. Stark and intimidating, the island
suffered a volcanic eruption as recently as 1952. The moonscape lends itself
to the lonely aura of the island. Underwater, however, is an entirely different
San Benedicto is home to the Boiler, an odd-looking underwater pinnacle
and one of the few places in the world where giant Pacific manta rays choose
to congregate. We spotted as many as five or six at a time. Not skittish
of divers, there, the mantas were easily approached. With wingspans of
up to 20 feet, they intimidated us with their size and impressed us by
their gracefulness. Although the crew did not approve, few divers could
resist a quick ride, especially when the mantas positioned themselves as
if to invite us on board. They danced for us, their watery weightlessness
belying their enormous size. The mantas moved as elegantly through the
water as an eagle moves through the air. While they stalled above, our
bubbles caressed their undersides. Their muscles quivered at our touch,
like a cat’s purr. A small flip of one enormous wing could move them quickly
in any direction. My fins, attached to a mostly land-dwelling body, were
no match for the mantas’ movements. They didn’t seem to mind my awkwardness,
though, and stayed with us from mid-morning through the afternoon. Was
this a spiritual encounter with wild marine animals? Probably not so dramatic.
The common consensus is that this particular spot near San Benedicto Island
is a cleaning station. We were, in the mantas’ eyes, nothing more than
kooky-looking cleaner fish. When low air forced us to shallower depths,
the mantas followed, not understanding why our time was so short.
After the manta encounters, we traveled south to Socorro Island. The largest
of the group, Socorro is the home to a small Mexican navy base. Compared
to San Benedicto, Socorro Island looked green and lush. Although not as
dramatic (we were quite spoiled after the mantas), the diving was still
impressive —Galapagos sharks, blacktip sharks, hammerheads, and lobsters
the size of my thigh. Swimming back to the boat after one dive, I spotted
a tiger shark, blissfully unaware of my presence. I set off, camera in
tow. Suddenly I was paralyzed by something I had recently read: “Tigers
are considered truly dangerous . . . will eat almost anything . . .” I
returned to the boat. By dinner, the tiger had grown to 20 feet of gnashing
Visions of sharks dancing in my head, we returned to San Benedicto for
another day with the mantas before the return ride home. Good food and
comfortable accommodations aboard the Solmar V made me feel as if I was
on a cruise. However, trips to these islands are not for the timid - strong
currents, rough water and encounters with intimidating animals make the
diving thrilling and sometimes challenging. During the long ride home,
we spotted huge schools of dolphins, jumping tuna, and whales — a magical
end to a truly magical adventure. That is, if you don’t count the 1000-mile
ride back home.
Betsy “Decaf” Archer is a STM marketing representative and former
manager of Beach Cities Scuba in Dana Point, California.