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Big Island coastline

The fourth morning, we had a meeting scheduled with the Vacations club staff in the first half of the day. The children wished to eat a bigger breakfast that morning, so we went back to the Big Island buffet. It had been temporarily moved to a different ballroom, so the seating was a bit cramped and haphazard. But the staff service was very good. The menu was no different from the first day but the lines were longer, especially for hot foods like the omelette station.

Following breakfast, we parted ways with the kids who decided to spend some time by the pool before returning to the room. We went on to the meeting and spent the better half of the morning learning more about the company and its plans, etc. We were finished and back at the resort nearing 1 pm.

By lunch, we were all famished and didn’t wish to walk all the way back to the main lobby. Nor did we feel like waiting for the tram. As we were crossing the Boat Landing Cantina, we decided to give it a chance and settled for tableside guacamole and avocado tacos. The guacamole was alright but the avocado tacos were fried and not quite appealing to the taste buds.

Following lunch, we rested a while before packing. It was time for the Manta Ray experience and we were all in various states of excitement or anxiety. We were to be picked up by the driver at 4 pm from the lower floor of the hotel lobby and so we hurried along the covered walkway to get there on time.

Shortly after 4 pm, the driver pulled up in a large van and we piled in along with two other families. There were all age groups from elementary schoolers to teenagers to young adults to parents. Supposedly, this experience is so simple that even young children can participate in it. That’s truly what convinced me to try it. If young children could stay afloat for the duration of the snorkel, then I could certainly do the same. The driver was a young man with plenty of experience doing this trip. Crew members are assigned different jobs like running the trip or picking up visitors, etc. He showed us photographs of the Manta Ray feedings from other trips. And assured us that most nights, visitors were granted the privilege of viewing these beautiful rays.

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Iruka Kona Manta Ray snorkel tour

Manta Rays are flattened fish that grow to giant sizes. I have read their span can be up to 27 feet. Despite their size, they are gentle giants and do not harm the people they come close to. In fact, their 300 small teeth are used for courtship and mating rituals, not for feeding!

Manta Ray feed mostly at night. Their primary food consists of plankton, small fish and shrimp. Manta rays rise to the surface to feed on them. They swim in small tight circles trapping their prey in the center of the circle. Rays have a wide, centrally located mouth that allows a lot of plankton filled water to pass through in one fell swoop. Water passes through the gills while plankton get trapped and are sent onwards to the stomach. A single Manta can consume up to 50 pounds of food per day, on average, or more!!

Once visitors reach the designated Manta Ray viewing spot, they jump overboard and hold onto a board with lights attached on the bottom. The rays from the lights are directed downwards attracting plankton, which in turn attracts the Manta Rays.

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Lighted boards to attract plankton and Manta Rays

The Hawaiian experiences website states that there are two spots where Manta rays are commonly viewed on the Kona coast. And 92% of the time, the Manta Rays show up! We certainly hoped to be among the winning 92%.

Because of the local traffic on the solo highway leading to the Harbor, it was nearing an hour before we got to the destination. Once there, most everyone chose to use the restrooms before heading off on the adventure. There are restrooms located on the Harbor premises, a short walk away from the meeting point.

Soon we were back at the shop, getting fitted with wet suits, snorkeling gear and life jackets. We were given safety instructions and a description of what to expect over the next hour or so. Then it was time to walk to the boat. We had carried change of clothes, towels, sunscreen and left them in the locked van of one of the crew members. Some change for tipping the crew and sunglasses, we carried with us.

It was actually very exciting to get on the boat with the captain and three other crew members. As we took off towards the Manta Ray feeding spot, some 30 mins away from shore along the Kona coastline, the sun was starting to dip down. The boat was flying across the water, the kids sitting astride the outer rim of the craft. Most of the adults sat on the inner bench built around the middle of the boat. The rushing wind was very cleansing and exhilarating. Watching the sun setting was equally thrilling. We were offered ginger ale and water. Once we reached the feeding spot, the crew members got into the water and lowered the boards with the lights underneath and several grips along the outer edge for us to hold on to.

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The Kona Nai’a took us on the trip

The more experienced swimmers jumped in first. That included nearly all the guests along for the tour, along with my family. There was one couple that needed help like me and once they were in the water as well, there was nothing else to do but get over my fear and join them. I jumped into the water on the side of the boat, begging the crew member nearby to hold onto me, all the while knowing I wasn’t going to drown with my life jacket on. Oh, how well does fear cloud reasoning!

The crew member led me to the board and ensured I had a good grip on the rungs. What he did not know was that I had a deathly tight grasp on them, with no intention of letting go. It worried me that the rest of the family was attached to a different board than mine. And that only served to increase my sense of anxiety. But I was determined to do as good of a job myself as I demanded from the kids when they struggled at something.

The crew asked us to hold onto the boards and keep our feet extended straight behind and not let them dangle in the water. The Manta Rays can shy away if they have contact and we very much wanted them to stay. The water appeared murky and bluish in the artificial light. We saw several small fish pass by many times.

One of the crew members came by and attached a soft noodle to our feet to help us stay afloat. I had several moments where I became panicked and felt I couldn’t breathe. Eventually, I remembered the instructions from a previous snorkeling tour and realised I wasnt letting the snorkel sit easily in my mouth. I was biting down the middle of the piece, cutting off my own breath. No wonder I felt suffocated.

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View from the Kona Nai’a as we left the harbor

Once I figured out the right technique, I could relax and enjoy the surroundings. Minutes ticked away and we waited. And waited. And waited. For Manta rays that never came.

One of the crew members dove down to the bottom and swam back up. I couldn’t hear what he had to say. A few guests left the board, asking to be helped back or swimming back on their own to the boat. Eventually, after about 45 mins, I heard Missy JJ say she wanted to get back to the boat. A little later, Sonny JJ piped up asking for the same, so Mr. JJ left with him. I stayed on for a little while longer in hopes of seeing something. But it was not to be. I think the Mantas decided to be “bottom feeders” for the night!

Soon, the crew came to lead us all back to the boat. As I reached the safety of the craft, I was overcome by a severe wave of vertigo and nausea, like I have never experienced before. Apparently, being rocked around by ocean waves with my head facing horizontally down for nearly an hour is not very soothing to my equilibrium.

I couldn’t help but vomit immediately, but luckily, into the ocean waters and felt a bit better. It was the most embarrassing thing to ever happen to me. Wiping my mouth clean, I climbed onto the boat and moved to take my place on the bench. The next thing I knew, there I was throwing up again, all over the side of the craft. Vomiting away to glory.

I did not dare to look at anyone behind me as I gulped in fresh breaths of air. I was certain the ocean water would remove all traces of the deed by the time we got back to the shore. The crew was very kind and brought me ginger ale and helped me sit in a corner of the boat, away from the others. I found out later on that while Missy JJ had felt nauseous, she had not thrown up. But Sonny JJ shared a similar fate to mine, After about five minutes, as the boat roared to life and sped on its way back to the harbor, the cold wind soothed my symptoms. The night sky was so beautiful, the constellations sparkling upon the world below. it was truly an awesome sight to behold!

The crew members told us it was one of the few times they had not had a sighting. They thought the heavy rains earlier in the week had muddied the waters, making it hard for the rays to see the surface clearly. They asked us to email the parent company and ask to be booked on a different tour later in the week. But we had only one day left in Hawai’i. So we did not pursue this option.

Back on land, we used the restrooms to change out of our wet clothes and boarded the bus back to the hotel. The journey back was quiet, our thoughts variedly on the missed sighting, the bad taste in the mouth and the need to get cleaned up.

I was proud of myself for going on the trip.  And although the experience didn’t work for us, I understand that we take our chances any time we work with nature. Manta rays have no need to show up on time, they are not bound by human laws, timetables and schedules. And that is as it should be. The fantastic views of the sunset and the night sky offset some of the pain of the lost opportunity. Although not an inexpensive trip,  I would try to do this again as I would like to see a Manta ray at close quarters, but not after a few rainy days on the island. And, I would ensure I took something to help with my equilibrium, ahead of time, to make it a less nauseating swim.

Visit Iruka Hawaii and Hawaiian Experiences for more information on the Manta Ray snorkeling tour.