Manta ray in Kona waters off Hawaii's Big Island // © 2011 James L. Wing/Fair Wind
Matt Lambert of Seattle, Wash., was so moved by the free manta ray talk he attended at Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort and Spa that he immediately signed up for a manta dive the next night with Fair Wind Big Island Ocean Guides.
“Never in a million years could I have imagined what it might be like to witness something so large, so interesting, so unique,” Lambert said. “The manta experience was without a doubt the highlight of my Big Island visit."
For nearly two years, Fair Wind has been enlightening hundreds of people each week during its talks at the Sheraton's manta viewing area. Created in order to help the species thrive through education, the program begins just after sunset on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Another ocean activity company hosts the program on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights.
"The first question we get asked is whether this is the same type of animal that killed Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter)," said Fair Wind's Christopher Blunt. "Once they learn that we have manta rays, not sting rays and, once they learn the important differences between the two, then we can move on to sharing what we know about these amazing creatures."
Mantas along the Kona coast of Hawaii's Big Island were only studied in earnest beginning about ten years ago. During the manta talks, clients learn about the rays' habitat and range, the territories they prefer, their intelligence and why they feed where they do. They learn that Hawaii is the only state with a law protecting manta rays within state marine waters and that Hawaii is the top manta ray destination in the world because of limited natural predators.
The Kona Coast is considered one of the best places to get close to and observe manta rays. Their huge 12-foot wingspans and agile movements are mesmerizing. With no teeth, they are quite harmless.
After attending the one of the manta talks, clients — such as Lambert — can sign up for an evening snorkel or dive in order to see the mantas below the surface rather than just from above.
Fair Wind takes clients out on the Hula Kai, a 55-foot catamaran whose bright lighting attracts plankton that the mantas feed on. Rates are $99 per person for snorkelers and $130 for certified scuba divers. Everyone gets warm soup and bread rolls, snack mix, hot drinks, snorkel gear, wetsuits and instruction. For many visitors, it’s the experience of a lifetime.