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Snorkeling At Night With Manta Rays In Hawaii

We got close, real close.

Manta ray Hawaii
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KONA, Hawaii- I am not an absolutist. While I generally despise tours or any form of externally organized travel, what I despise about them isn’t really the idea of them — they’re actually a good idea in many cases. But what I don’t like is simply the fact that when you enlist in one you offer up your self-determination, time management capabilities, and spatial desires to someone else … and you pay for this loss of freedom. There is just something about other people telling me where to go, what to look at, and for how long that rubs coarsely against what I view as the prime directive of travel. Everybody has their things and this is just mine.

But, again, I am not an absolutist. I actually don’t hold many qualms about being downright contradictory. The prime directive of travel is to live life your way, and if you’re not doing that because you’ve enslaved yourself with some kind of identity … well, you lost the plot.

But I also know that every once in a while there are things that are describable with words like fantastic, incredible, and even awesome that you simply cannot do on your own. A lack of know-how was never a very good reason to take a tour for me but a lack of gear, well, that was something that I’ve found to be an adequate reason to buy a ticket and join the duckling row.

It was my 42nd birthday, we were in Kona, and my wife wanted to plan something for me that I would remember. She came up with a tour where we would all go out on a boat at night and snorkel with manta rays. Sounded good to me. I thought we would all be in the water swimming around looking for rays. The reality was a little different.

We showed up at night at a hotel around a ten minute drive out of town. A group of clueless looking people were loosely gathered together in the parking lot and we knew we found our crew. We joined them, slapped some clueless looks on our faces, and waited for something to happen. Eventually, the rear doors flew open on a van and someone popped out with a clipboard who welcomed us to the tour. As she went down the list of names each party was sent over to the van so we could be sized for a wetsuit. Their only instructions being not to pee in them.

We yanked on our suits while a giant catamaran wobbled up to the dock and then waddled down the boardwalk and gingerly hopped into the boat.

It didn’t take very long before I heard my inner voice say … oh shit. It is an extreme and lifelong embarrassment but I get sea sick. “Wade the seasick sailor,” is what a friend from back home used to call me. I knew right away that the way in which that catamaran was undulating in those waves that I was in trouble. I looked over at my 13-year-old daughter Petra. Her inner voice seemed to be saying the same thing. We went to the front of the boat away from the other passengers and tried to pretend otherwise.

How this tour came about is kind of interesting. There’s this big hotel here that, as a point of style, shines big flood lights into the bay. At some point they began noticing these big shadowy sea creatures that would keep coming up to the surface. Nobody knew what they were until some dude decided to snorkel out to find out. “Manta rays,” he exclaimed when he returned. The lights attract plankton and the plankton attracts the rays. The rest is Capitalism 101.

The catamaran engine was revved and it bobbled out into the bay approximately the distance of a football field or two, anchoring right in front of the hotel, basking in its lights.

It was then that it became apparent that this wasn’t a normal snorkeling tour. We wouldn’t just backflip out of the boat and swim around. No, we would all grab onto these 20′ long floating long-rectangle shaped contraptions and have our feet suspended out with pool noodles so that we would be completely flat on the water’s surface facing down, collectively looking like spokes on a wheel. The center of the floating contraption was lined with lights which illuminated the depths below, attracting plankton which in turn attracted hungry manta rays.

We were told that the manta rays would come up close to us, but we weren’t told exactly how close. The first ray came in to feed with its massive mouth open and turned upside down as it approached the surface in a circular trajectory, coming within an inch — literally — of brushing the bellies of the us gawking tourists. Then more came in, feeding in the same circular motion, rising up and turning upside down like a loop-the-loop of a roller coaster while passing directly in front of our faces. Every now and again one would misjudged its path and bump into us … belly to belly.

It was an experience that I did not anticipate. I had snorkeled with rays before and just kind of floated over them a few feet away. Here, they were directly in my face. Close. How close? This close:


There’s really only four things that you can spend money on:

  1. Subsistence- This is unavoidable but how much you want to put into it is generally equivalent to what you get out of it.
  2. Experience- Investing time for time.
  3. Expertise- Taking courses and classes, learning shit, improving yourself.
  4. Things- Stuff you either need or don’t need. Stuff that you either want or think you want.

Of these three things it’s numbers one through three that I put my weight behind. Number two, it could be said, is what life is all about.

Work is an investment of time for money, and buying experiences with it is a way to turn that money back into time. Sure, there’s usually a certain amount of inequity in how time is either invested or spent — when I was in my 20s I’d travel working for three months and then spend the next night nine months traveling and doing nothing; these days, I’m not opposed to dropping half a month’s wages on a five day erotic foray adventure with my wife. As far as this tour went, my wife probably spent two days of wages for a half hour of hanging with manta rays … and I think she would say it was definitely worth it.

All you really have in life are memories.


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Filed under: Animals, Hawaii

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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