Experience in Hawaii highlights a need for balance of animal safety and tourism.

We were the last guests of the evening at a campfire like no other. It was pitch black when we emerged to flashlights waving us back to our vessel, and as the final few boats brought their nightly activities to a close, we reluctantly came out of the water.

A moment before, I had been surrounded by a dense school of Āholehole (Hawaiian flagtail), their mass producing a strobe-like effect that created the feeling of being on a crowded dance floor. Just below me, two mantas were doing barrel rolls just feet from my body, and another dozen circled the vicinity. What if they came a few feet closer and lifted me out of the water? 

We were the last guests of the evening at a campfire like no other. It was pitch black when we emerged to flashlights waving us back to our vessel, and as the final few boats brought their nightly activities to a close, we reluctantly came out of the wate

This was no ordinary campfire. Off the coast of Kona and 40 feet below the surface, a few highly-charged lumen LED lights surrounded by boulders are gathered together to illuminate an underwater ballet performance that is sure to light up your soul: a gathering of the most majestic ocean animals generously sharing their beauty with us, and sharing their trust. In this situation, it is not clear who plays the most vulnerable role. Me, or the 1600-pound manta.

I knew it was going to be a good night as we submerged at sunset to a tableau of soft blue. The dive master had reminded us that mantas are wild animals; they have a mind of their own. So, no expectations, only surprises.

A gathering of the most majestic ocean animals generously sharing their beauty with us, and sharing their trust.

Perhaps it was because we were celebrating our anniversary, but I was feeling lucky. And as luck would have it, we dropped into the water and immediately, the mantas welcomed us with their massive wingspans. Our dive master looked a bit flabbergasted. It is not often that the mantas arrive early for their nighttime show. My heart danced as a group of mantas engaged - huge arched pathways perfectly in sync, like the notes of a symphony that grab you and bring you along for the ride. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Kristin Hettermann

Garden Eel Cove, where the campfire is set up every night, is not far from where jet planes disperse tourists daily on the Kona coastline. The celebrities of the neighborhood are not the people getting out of the private jets lining the runways. Here, the mantas are the stars, showing up for 90 per cent of their booked shows yearly from 2012 - 2015. Not a bad appearance rate for wild animals not on payroll.

Many of those arriving tourists are drawn to the Big Island for the “manta ray experience,” quickly becoming recognized as one of the greatest opportunities to interact with large ocean animals in the world. Known as a “must do” activity for anyone who travels to Hawaii, the Kona manta ray experience was rated “One of the TOP 10 Things to Do in Your Lifetime” by the Travel Channel. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Kristin Hettermann

Build it, and they will come. Recent numbers point to around 90,000 visitors on average coming to the Big Island yearly to snorkel from above or dive down to sit around the “campfire,” observing up-close and personal the gentle, yet strong “otherworldly” manta rays as they feed on clouds of tiny planktonic marine life.

The increased popularity of the manta experience over recent years has led to problems concerning the balance of tourism demand and the safety of these marine creatures.

The secret is out, at least in the international dive community. How is it possible that a group of wild mantas show up relatively consistently for a nightly gathering that is now entertaining upwards of 200 people a night?

Sounds too good to be true, and it might be. Numbers of mantas in the area in 2016 dropped to 66 per cent, which logically mirrored a decrease in the site’s plankton. Operators don’t know whether to attribute that to the international global warming crisis of 2015, or to the increased human traffic and confusion at the manta ray campfire site… or both. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Kristin Hettermann

The increased popularity of the manta experience over recent years has led to problems concerning the balance of tourism demand and the safety of these marine creatures. Accidents have increased as numbers of tourists and boats have gone up, with manta rays running into rudders, receiving gashes from propellers, wrapping in lines coming from snorkel boards, running into things, and having anchors dropped on them.

The Manta Ray Advocates have advice for tourists looking to have this experience. “This is an extremely special experience and we want to keep it that way... and also keep it inspirational and accessible,“ says Captain and Co-Founder E. Ryan Leinbach. “We want people to have access to this life-changing experience, so we encourage you to research and look through green-listed activity providers: boat operators who are proven to be ecologically-minded and adhere to the operator standards.” 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Kristin Hettermann

How do you describe the ineffable? By definition, you can’t. I left our “campfire” and the manta rays that night knowing I had witnessed something powerful and majestic, not to be dismissed as merely “an adventure.” It was a privilege and an honor.

What happens in Kona could be a model for the world, as we realise the value of animals, alive rather than dead, and aspire to create peaceful, inspiring, yet respectful interactions with them.


For more information on manta rays visit: HawaiiOceanWatch.org, MantaRayGreenList.com, MantaAdvocatesHawaii.com

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