Our Most Excellent Manta Ray Adventure

I will never forget this experience as long as I live.

When I told my friends that the thing I was looking forward to the most on my Hawaiian vacation was snorkeling with manta rays at night, the stock response was stunned silence, and then, the inevitable question: “Isn’t that how Steve Irwin died?”

Actually, no. Steve Irwin, the larger-than-life Australian conservationist and wildlife expert, was killed by a short-tailed stingray in an accident so freakish that only 17 deaths by stingray have occurred worldwide in all of recorded history.

On that fateful day in 2006, Irwin was snorkeling in shallow water, getting some footage of the local aquatic life, when he came upon a stingray. These creatures are usually harmless, and curious about humans. They only attack if they feel they’re in danger. Typically, if someone has been stung by a stingray it’s because they accidentally stepped on one who had buried itself in the sand, much like a flounder does. Their stings aren’t fatal to humans, but the excruciating pain they inflict means you’ll be very far from living your best life, and you’ll most likely be rushed to the nearest emergency room.

But in Irwin’s case, he never made it to a hospital. He had been swimming behind the stingray in hopes of interacting with it, and the ray must have seen his shadow and assumed he was a tiger shark or a sea lion or something. In the blink of an eye the ray reared up and started stabbing him. Irwin’s cameraman said that he saw the stingray land hundreds of strikes in seconds. At least one of those strikes pierced Irwin’s heart, a fatal wound. He was only 44 years old.

So, yeah, don’t freak out a stingray.

Having said that, though, I must admit that I have been swimming with stingrays, as part of an excursion on a cruise to the Bahamas. They were very curious about us, and they allowed us to touch and feed them. The tour guide told us that the tails of the Southern Stingray have no barbs or poison, so we weren’t in any danger, but it turns out that that’s a heaping load of bs, unless those defense mechanisms have been removed surgically. But these excursion companies wouldn’t make much money if the word got out.

Whenever you interact with a wild animal, you should keep in mind that you’re interacting with a wild animal. They weren’t put on this earth to entertain you. They eat, they defend themselves. Anything with a mouth can bite. And in fact, a stingray accidentally mistook my finger for the food I was offering him, and while the bite didn’t break the skin, it felt for a second as though I had slammed my finger in a car door. I don’t know which one of us was more shocked. He instantly let go and swam away.

Still, if you don’t startle a ray, or act stupid when holding food for them like I did, they are very gentle. I did enjoy that swim all those years ago, but now I have a few ethical reservations. First of all, interacting with humans inevitably changes an animal’s behavior. Stingrays are usually solitary and wide ranging and hunt at night. The stingrays at these encounters are getting used to the handouts and they’re sticking close by in schools and eating during the day. It’s as if they’ve been condemned to their equivalent of the graveyard shift. They were also giving birth year-round rather than sticking to their regular mating season. (“Since we’re awake and together, we may as well…”)

Another concern is that the food we were feeding these rays is not part of their regular diet. And these rays have become more aggressive with one another, as they’re competing for that food. It’s not known how all these behavior changes are impacting the ecosystem, but of course they must be.

Many of these tour guides lift the rays out of the water so people can get selfies with their cute, smiling underside. That can’t be comfortable for the stingray. It certainly isn’t natural. In fact, the whole experience is manufactured. Usually, if you encounter a stingray in the wild it will run away from you. Not these guys. They were all about the food.

Additionally, I have been swimming with manatee and dolphins. The manatee were amazing, weren’t being fed by me, and were not captives. They actually enjoyed having the algae scratched off their hides, and would offer themselves up for such treatment. I’ll never swim with dolphins  again, though. They were captive in a space much too small for them, and one even had a broken jaw because he had a head on collision with a wall, a structure that he didn’t even know existed before his capture. Turning dolphins into mere attractions is unconscionable. I also have legitimate ethical issues with zoos.

The bright side, though, if you’re looking for one, is that the public is being educated about animals, and perhaps if they learn enough they will care enough to prevent their extinction and save the environment in which these animals usually live. That’s mission critical if we want this planet to continue to be habitable. So there’s that.

So why was I looking forward to swimming with manta rays so much?

First, they were not captive in any way. They still reside in the open ocean. We were instructed not to touch or feed them. They also have the largest brains per body mass when compared to 32,000 other species of fish. They can pass the mirror test, so they are self-aware. They can live up to 40 years, and they often patiently wait in line at cleaning stations so that other fish can remove their parasites. All that intrigues me.

Manta rays are the distant cousins of sharks. They also have to maintain a constant forward motion to get oxygen into their gills, and food into their bodies. Their tails do not have stingers, and they mainly eat plankton and the like, so we are definitely not on the menu. While their gaping maws may look intimidating, they can’t even swallow most fish. If one accidentally gets in the mantas mouth, they’ll usually cough and spit them right back out. (Ptooey.)

Their main defense mechanism is to run away. They can swim up to 7.5mph and can dive up to 3280 feet. Sharks, their main predators, usually cruise at around 5mph, but can do some 12mph bursts for short distances. Mantas are more maneuverable than sharks, though. They can do loops and spirals and have even been known to breach the surface. My bet is on the manta in this knock down.

Manta rays are referred to as the gentle giants of the sea, so I was feeling pretty sure they would not harm me. But a manta can weigh anything from 2980 to 6600 pounds, so I planned to treat them with the utmost respect. If one were to accidentally crash into me, no doubt broken bones would be involved.

So, let me tell you about my personal experience snorkeling with manta rays. Dear Husband and I drove to a dock in Kona, Hawaii to take our tour. There were many different tour groups operating from that location, so we were in good company.

We got on the vessel along with about 26 other tourists, and we set out. Our charismatic guide talked to us about manta rays during the half hour trip. He emphasized that we were not to touch any manta rays under any circumstances. If you breach their mucous membrane, you leave them vulnerable to infections. If they touch you, though, there’s not much you can do about it, he said, and they often have no respect for personal space. Wink wink.

Although this guy was really friendly, that was when I kind of went off him. I started to daydream. I was looking out at the darkness and thinking that I had never been out in the open ocean in the pitch black before. I’m not going to lie. That concept gave me a frisson. I wasn’t worried about the mantas. I started thinking about Jaws or his other sharky relatives.

Then the guy proudly described how the mantas we would be seeing would not be behaving like typical mantas, due to all this tourism. They’re usually solitary, and hopefully we’d see a group. He also said that these were the only mantas in the world that did barrel rolls.

I have to call bs on that. While mantas are extremely acrobatic, they always have  to move forward in order to breathe and eat. Barrel rolls are sideways. We did see them do many loops, but that’s forward motion. They might flip over while moving forward, I suppose, or do a forward moving spiral of sorts, but that’s hardly a barrel roll. But in fairness, this guy did have to keep us entertained if he was to get his share of the 73 million dollars that manta tourism generates each year.

He told us that these manta tours came about because the area beachfront hotels used to shine spotlights into the water to entertain their diners with the steady parade of marine life. Those lights attract plankton, and that’s what manta rays eat. (If you light it, they will come.) Somewhere along the way, someone said, hmmmmm… maybe we could profit from this. (As one does.)

Now the cove is full of vessels every night, each one with its own floating, lighted raft. The zen experience I was expecting to have with these gentle giants was left in our wake. I thought it would be quiet and mysterious and beautiful. I thought it would be transformative.

Yeah. Not so much. Our group was too large, and people were screaming and laughing and thrashing about in the water. We each had to cling onto the raft with both hands, and hook our feet over pool noodles to keep out of the way of the mantas. But it was a tight squeeze, and to say that the sea was choppy is putting it mildly.

Oh, but the manta rays… the manta rays! They were mesmerizing. Such grace for something so large. I gazed at them steadily, and wondered what they were thinking, and what level of awareness they had of us, the unwelcome guests in their world. I also spent a lot of time staring at the sea floor, so I didn’t really notice the choppy water except for the fact that my arms were practically being pulled out of the sockets in an effort to hold on to the raft.

But I didn’t care. I was in the moment. And the next thing I knew, a half hour had passed. I had been caught up in the glorious manta dance, and I would have sworn it had only been about 5 minutes. And for what it’s worth, the only thing I touched besides the raft was the thigh of the woman next to me. That made me feel uncomfortable, but there was no getting around it in this crowd. We were packed in like sardines.

Here’s a “best of” clip from the go pro that dear husband was holding during this adventure. Ethical reservations aside, I will never forget this experience as long as I live.

And then it was over. I let go of the raft, and popped my head out of the water to start swimming toward the boat. There were no lights on the horizon anywhere, only darkness beyond our lighted boat. It made me realize just how isolated Hawaii is. The water was so choppy that I was instantly disoriented. And for the first time in my life, I was wretchedly and thoroughly seasick.

When I got back on the bobbing, bouncing, swaying boat, I went straight up to the bow and proceeded to provide the fishes a large serving of my dinner. And I wasn’t alone up there, by any means. I felt really sorry for one woman. I expected to see her shoes coming out of her mouth, such was the intensity of her eruption. That, in turn, had a domino effect on the rest of us.

I finally understand what people mean when they say they feel like death warmed over. This was probably one of the lowest points in my life. Dear husband was looking rather green himself, and we still had a half hour boat ride back to the dock. We barely spoke that whole time. When we were able to see a horizon thanks to lights on the island shore, we kept our eyes fixed on that point and gave ourselves mental pep talks so as to maintain our composure. Sipping on Sprite helped. I wish they had provided crackers, too. Their offer of chips and cookies couldn’t have been less welcome at that moment. (Mind you, I had never turned down a chip in my life up to that point.)

When we finally got back to blessed, blessed solid ground, we couldn’t just hop into our car and head back to the hotel. We had to pace slowly back and forth in the parking lot for about an hour, in order to convince our bodies that there would be no more bobbing, bouncing or swaying. Only then were we confident enough that we could make it a block down the street to a convenience store without ruining the interior of our rental car. Upon arriving, we bought Ritz crackers and ginger ale.

It was a long ride back to the hotel. And when we got there, I think that for the first time, I fell asleep before DH did. I dreamed of manta rays, and it was good.

My final verdict? Despite feeling like I was going to die toward the end, there, swimming with the manta rays was still amazing. I’m so glad we did it. I only wish we had read the “what to bring” list on their website, because it specifically recommends motion sickness medicine. That would have made the ride home much more palatable.

So, do I recommend this particular adventure? Definitely, if your ethics allow it. But here are a few things that I had to learn the hard way. I hope you benefit from these lessons.

First of all, I wish we had seen this video before booking the tour. Entitled, “5 mistakes to Avoid When Snorkeling with Manta Rays in Hawaii,” it gives a great deal of excellent advice. I urge you to watch it.

One of the best bits of that video is the mention of the Manta Green List. This is a list of tour providers that is maintained and frequently updated by Hawaii Ocean Watch. The companies on this list maintain high standards. They vow to prioritize the safety of both the tourists and the manta rays. They go so far as to avoid operating vessels that have exposed propellers, as mantas have been injured by them. They also devote some of their profits toward research and conservation. They do not anchor on coral. (In fact, there were a lot of safely positioned buoys to anchor to, which I appreciated.) I don’t mention the company we went with by name because they are not on the green list, unfortunately.

So, if you follow in our footsteps, I hope you’ll choose an operator from the green list. I’d also recommend that you book your tour way in advance of your trip, as they tend to sell out quickly. And look for tours with more intimate groups. The smaller size will cut down on the chatter that only infringes on what should be a peaceful encounter.

Most of all, take those motion sickness pills, and have a lot of responsible fun. It’s an adventure that requires a bit of sacrifice. If you can live with that, you’ll enjoy it.

On a serious note, unfortunately, mantas are vulnerable to extinction, and it doesn’t help that their gill rakers are currently sought after in Chinese medicine. (The Chinese sometimes have to switch their focus from one animal’s body part to another as they cause the extinction of their previous medicinal obsession. Apparently now it’s the manta ray’s turn.) And mantas only give birth to one or two live pups per three year period, so it’s hard to keep up with human predation. Since they cannot swim backward, they are also prone to getting tangled in fishing nets. Manta rays need our respect and our support. Consider donating to Hawaii Ocean Watch, please.

But rather than end on a sour note, check out this amazing video of a young boy who encounters a stingray giving birth to 12 pups. It’s fascinating.

But wait. There’s more! Because it makes me happy to know that such unique creatures exist, here’s a picture of a pink manta ray that has occasionally been spotted in Australia. It’s name is Inspector Clouseau, from the Pink Panther. Isn’t nature awesome?


The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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