Images by Nainoa Ciotti and John Hook

Magical.
An underwater ballet.
Gentle giants.

These are oft-repeated praises used to describe manta rays and the experience of snorkeling and diving with the large, docile creatures off the Kailua-Kona Coast. There are only a handful of locations around the globe where humans can get up close with manta rays. On Hawaiʻi Island, the action takes place at night, as divers and snorkelers shine lights in the water to attract the mantas’ food source, zooplankton. Diving with manta rays is one of the top-five rated activities on TripAdvisor and Yelp for Hawaiʻi Island.

I arrive at Honokōhau Harbor at 7 p.m. It is dim and nearly empty. I sign a liability waiver with Hawai‘i Oceanic, a small ocean activity company started in 2013, and then slip on a wetsuit before climbing aboard Pueo Kai. The neon-lit 12-passenger boat is captained by Dusty, who also works as a beach lifeguard. Fifteen minutes later, we’re at the manta feeding site at Makako Bay, near the Kona airport. We’re the only boat out, having avoided the crowds who took the earlier twilight tour. Facemasks on, we slip into the sea. Something feels unnatural about being in the water at night. But within a minute, I forget this thought when a manta glides gracefully only inches from us, somersaulting as its cavernous mouth filters plankton-saturated water. It’s easy to see why people pay more than $100 dollars for this experience. It’s also easy to see why there are so many operators in the waterlogged market.

Known in Hawaiian as hāhālua, the manta alfredi are the type of manta ray species we see in Hawai‘i. They have a wingspan that can reach up to 20 feet and they often weigh around 1,600 pounds. While manta rays have always existed in the Hawaiian Islands, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that they became a tourist attraction. This is when the Kona Surf Hotel—now the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort—beamed spotlights into the water at night to draw plankton as a lure for manta rays, and in turn, spectators.

People watching from shore were mesmerized by the mantas cavorting as they dined on the plankton. Divers soon realized the experience was infinitely more magical when viewed from the water right alongside the animals. They also quickly realized this new hobby of theirs could be monetized. Thus a new commercial industry was born.

In the last 30 years, manta ray tours have become an annual multimillion-dollar industry in Hawai‘i. But unlike the surf-lesson industry and the kayak-rental business in Hawai‘i, unlike even shark diving tours and dolphin cruises along the coast of O‘ahu, Kona’s manta ray industry is only now in the process of being regulated. Most companies who offer the manta ray tours abide by do-no-harm guidelines tour operators created for themselves in the early 1990s, but these rules are self-imposed. The state’s main involvement has been the issuing of 240 commercial boat permits to tour operators for ocean activities, which includes manta tours. (The Hawai‘i State Department of Land and Natural Resources placed a cap on permits in 1994. There is currently a waitlist to receive permits in both harbors.) The state doesn’t have statistics on the number of human injuries resulting from manta ray tours, but as of yet, no one has died as a result of one. Mantas, however, have been hurt. In 2018, two manta rays were injured in the span of two months, both likely hit by boat propellers. (The boat owners responsible weren’t found out, and there was no motivation for anyone to come forward.)

Starting around 4:30 p.m., boats ranging in capacity from six to 40 passengers ferry eager visitors out of Honokōhau and Keauhou harbors. There are two prime spots for these nighttime tours: Makako Bay, also known as “Manta Heaven,” near the Kona airport, and Keauhou Bay, dubbed “Manta Village,” adjacent to the Sheraton. During the summer and winter holidays, it’s common to see captains drop off people from sunset tours and then immediately load up new passengers for twilight tours.

“I first did the manta ray night dive in 1991 down at what’s now the Sheraton,” says Keller Laros. “It kind of completely changed my life. I was blown away by the manta rays.” Laros is the founder of Manta Pacific Research Foundation and an owner of Jack’s Diving Locker, one of the oldest and biggest manta-ray tour operators. He says those initial dives made him ditch law school and become a certified professional scuba instructor. According to Laros, in the early ’90s, fewer than 10 commercial dive companies existed in Kona. But around 2007, the fledgling manta ray tour industry rapidly expanded when snorkel operators began adding manta tours to their itineraries.

Manu Powers, who owns Sea Quest Hawaiʻi with her husband, Liam, says the manta ray snorkeling tours are their most popular tours. In fact, their business has doubled since they purchased the company from another couple in 2015. “A great portion of that is due to the manta tours,” she says. Sea Quest Hawaiʻi has six boats and operates out of Keauhou Boat Harbor. Powers says there are about 10 other companies that make use of the bay.

Eleven miles away, at Honokohau Harbor fronting Makako, Jason Thurber opens the upstairs office of Hawaiʻi Oceanic. Born and raised on Hawai‘i Island, Thurber started his company in 2013 with a 12-passenger boat, the Pueo Kai. He says the manta ray snorkeling tours are Hawaiʻi Oceanic’s top bookings, beating out swimming with dolphins or watching humpback whales. Overall, manta ray tours generate about 70 percent of its annual income. “The manta tours have been good for the community and for different Kona businesses,” Thurber says. “A lot of companies are small companies and there’s a lot of growth potential. But because of that, there’s competition and overcrowedness.” According to Thurber, there are more than 40 companies doing tours out of Honokohau Harbor.

Owners like Powers and Thurber are part of a small community of commercial operators, many of whom are industry veterans, who know each other well and keep tabs on each other’s business practices. Over time, operators have finetuned their manta ray tour standards. They provide swimmers with wetsuits to keep them warm and prevent human and manta contact, anchor on a mooring to protect the reef, and group their boats together in a single spot for safer manta viewing.

Everyone also knows that following the rules defined by the operators is optional, with virtually no consequences for breaking them. Some operators take advantage of that. Everyone I interviewed had anecdotes of tours gone wrong, but they declined to name names. Stories included guides seen fishing while their guests were snorkeling 15 feet away, captains leaving people unsupervised in the water, and underwater photographers confusing mantas with their lights. “Those are the people that are giving us a bad name,” Powers says. “Those are the people that are bringing these regulations down on this industry.”

State officials admit that policing an unregulated industry is challenging. DLNR first considered regulating manta tours in 2012, in large part because operators started complaining about each other. “People weren’t getting along,” Thurber says. “Some companies felt like maybe they’d have something to gain from [state regulation] because they had been doing things right. I would say that a lot of the companies that were complaining to the state years ago, you know, would take it all back now if they could.”

After two years of inaction, in 2014, Hawai‘i state legislature nudged the department to again look into regulation with a measure urging DNLR to adopt rules to manage the dive sites. “We knew it was becoming a booming activity,” says Edward Underwood, an administrator with DLNR’s Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation. “It was starting to get to the point where there were so many people in the water that it was becoming a safety issue.”

Over the past four years, the state has met with tour operators to get their input on how to standardize manta tours. While tour owners want their fellow operators to be safe in the water, they also recognize that the state’s involvement will change how their business has been done for the past three decades. Most contentious for the operators are the installation of propeller guards, which are costly, the first-come-first-use of 12 commercial moorings at each site and the permitting process. The current draft of the manta tour rules specify that 30 permits will be issued for each manta site. That means that 50 operators won’t receive a permit. To be eligible for a permit, operators must prove they were in business on or before June 1, 2015.

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“We’re never gonna make everybody happy,” says Meghan Statts, the state Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation Oʻahu district manager, who also works on Hawaiʻi Island. “We’re resigned to that.”

In all this, curiously little is mentioned about the mantas themselves. The majority of the 36-page proposed rules are about managing the humans, not preserving the underwater animals they take boatloads of visitors out to see each night. Many of my conversations were about the industry above the surface.

“I think mantas are much more comfortable with people now than they were back in the day,” Laros says. “If there’s plankton attracted to the diver’s lights and the resort lights, the mantas will be there. If there’s no plankton, the mantas don’t hang out there. So have we impacted the mantas? No more so than the resorts shining lights into the water.”

Our impact to the manta rays, though, for better or worse, is what is finally prompting regulation. As of January 2019, the rules were sitting at the office of the Hawai‘i Department of the Attorney General. According to Underwood, it will be at least a year before any rules for the industry are approved, but it will likely take longer. In the meantime, hundreds of visitors jump into the inky water each night to witness the gentle giants.