Imagine sitting around a campfire in the dead of night with a few of your closet friends. All is quiet, save for the crackle of the flames, and the excited breath of your buddies. You would be telling ghost stories, but no one dares say a word. You are waiting for the real story to arrive. This won’t be a tale told with words, but an otherworldly experience, the story which you’ll tell for the rest of your life. Suddenly and quietly it arrives, a giant and majestic shadow, gliding gracefully over the flames. Everyone gapes in awe as a second shadow follows suit. The show has just begun…

…or so that’s the story I was hoping to write. But when does reality ever match up with expectations?

Fletch and I had flown into Kona the previous day specifically to go on the renowned manta ray night dive. Our previous night had been spent tethered to a line looking at bizarre creatures in the blackwater. The day had mostly been spent sleeping off the previous day's worth of travel and diving. Now we were back at the pier, waiting to board the dive boat. We would be doing two dives, one to acclimate to the diminishing light and to get familiar with the dive site, and the second to (hopefully) see the manta rays.

I watched the other divers as we waited, a professional habit. You can tell by the way people act a lot of times how much experience they have. There’s always that one guy with around 100 dives who is name dropping every place he’s ever been to, and one-upping every story you try to tell. He won't be impressed by anything you show him because he's already seen it all. There’s always at least one couple with one half looking smug and overly-confident, while the other half is glancing around nervously and looking a little green in the face. That second half is going to have ear problems and buoyancy trouble. Tonight there was a younger couple passing a tall, skinny can back and forth, the same shape of can that the spiked seltzers come in. That raised a red flag in my mind. But surely they weren’t that stupid. Surely it was just a brand of juice I wasn’t familiar with. Besides I was just a guest; it was none of my business.

The boat brought us around the island, to a spot just offshore from the airport. It felt good to be in the water again, and actually finning around, not just tied up to a line. The coral at the dive site was in pretty sorry shape, but I tried not to judge it too much. We weren’t here for the coral; we were here because the manta rays liked this spot. Familiar fish kept surprising me as they swam by, and I kept having to remind myself that oh yeah, we were still in the Pacific Ocean. Being in the western hemisphere again, a part of me had expected to see an entirely different ecosystem. We were back in the tropical Pacific though. Of course most of the fish were the same, from red tooth triggerfish and trumpetfish, to flounders and nudibranchs. There honestly weren’t a lot of fish, but it was twilight and fish tend to be early morning creatures.

Trumpetfish

Sea Urchin

Phyllidia varicosa

Yellowmargin Moray

Potter's Angelfish. This one was new to me, in fact I had to look it up online because it's not even in our extensive fish bible. 

Whitemouth Moray

Crab

Phyllidiella pustulosa

Whitemouth Moray


Towards the end of our first dive I looked out to the open blue and saw the first manta ray of the evening swooping in. It never ceases to astound me how beautiful and graceful they are. You see photos of them of course, and they are odd, ray-shaped creatures; basically large, square, pancakes. They aren't anything you would expect to be all that exciting. Nothing can prepare you for the elegance of 10-15 feet of wingspan gliding silently through the water. It’s as beautiful as watching a ballerina float weightlessly across a stage, coming from an animal as majestic as a thoroughbred.

We weren’t actually looking for mantas at that point, and the rest of the group was up ahead, zoned in on the reef. I was able to get Fletch’s attention though, and we paused to admire the beauty.

Back on board, our divemaster spent the surface interval telling us about manta rays, including the names of some of the regulars. There’s a manta database that keeps track of every manta ray in the ocean that has been identified. You can tell them apart from one another by their markings. Each manta ray’s markings are unique, just like a person’s fingerprints. If you are the first to photograph a new manta ray, you get to name it. Our friends Tanja and Stefan discovered and named a group of manta rays in the Maldives once. I always thought that would be the ultimate prize to be awarded as a scuba diver.

As we listened, the younger couple started passing another beverage in a tall, skinny can back and forth. This time I saw the label: White Claw. Fletch saw it too. We gave each other a horrified look. Fletch tried to whisper to her when the DM was out of earshot that she couldn’t be drinking that. “Oops, too late,” she replied in a cutesy voice that implied she was already tipsy. That put us in an awkward position. What to do? It’s incredibly important to never drink and dive, not only because it impairs your judgement, but physiologically, alcohol causes an increase in nitrogen absorption in the tissues leading to a greater risk of "the bends."

As professionals, Fletch and I still feel responsible for everyone’s safety even when we are just another set of paying customers. If this were any other dive, I probably would have said something, but this wasn’t any other dive. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many people, and something that most probably couldn’t afford to just shell out the cash for again on another night. How do you ruin that for someone by ratting them out? I consoled myself with the fact that Fletch had told them they were making a mistake. They were certified divers and had learned as much in their training. The bad decision was on them now, them and the dive crew for not noticing or caring.

I’ve been watching a lot of criminal law tv shows lately, and am envisioning that paragraph coming back to haunt me if anything bad ever happens under my watch. I have half a mind to delete it and just get back to the manta rays. Please don’t ever drink and dive, friends. You’re not just putting yourself in danger, but putting your dive crew, buddies, and any other professionals in a bad situation too. Crack as many beverages open as you want after a dive, just not before.

Twilight turned to dusk and the dive site filled up with more boats than I cared to count. More and more boats just kept pulling up, some at max capacity with divers, some with brightly colored floats for the abundance of snorkelers that would apparently be chilling at the surface for the show. It felt more like the floating version of a tailgate party than the moments leading up to a scuba dive. How were all these people going to share one dive site? It was busier than the busiest spots on Koh Tao, which was notorious for having a dozen boats lined up on any given site.

We descended with our group and took our places, kneeling in the sand around the campfire. Large lights had been set up and grouped together in the middle of a large clearing, and what had to be 100 divers were clumsily taking their places around it, ready for the show. Fletch stayed close to White Claw girl to keep an eye on her.

The setup was pretty cool. The lights lit the seafloor up like a campfire; the deep blue of the ocean in the dusky hours produced the same blue glow as the night sky. The plankton flitting around in the glow of the light against the blue gave the illusion of twinkling stars. You could almost forgive the crowd for being there. Almost.

We had been briefed to hold our torches pointing upwards towards the surface. I don’t know why we bothered with torches to begin with, the place was lit up like a Christmas tree. I glanced upwards to see hundreds of pairs of pale, flabby legs sticking out from floats in every color of the rainbow. The sight was comical. I also felt bad for pointing my torch up into so many pairs of eyes looking back down and so ditched the idea.

As dusk turned to dark, the first manta of the dive swooped through, casting her shadow on the crowd. She was the one with the broken cephalic lobe we had been shown pictures of on the boat, Koie. Out of the entire crowd, she swam straight towards Fletch and myself, mouth agape to scoop up plankton. The light from the campfire behind her shone through her gill slits, illuminating the entire opening of her mouth. She could have easily scooped our heads up along with the plankton, but luckily she preferred a much more minuscule treat. As she glided upwards to avoid colliding with us, I really thought that she might brush the tops of our heads. What a magical moment.

Another manta followed suit almost immediately, swimming directly towards me and Fletch, as if we were the lucky chosen ones out of the entire circle of what had to at least 100 divers. And then we waited a long time amongst the crowd for the third one to come, listening to the chorus of a hundred Darth Vadars.*

*Did you know that the sound for Darth Vadar's breathing was produced with a scuba regulator? 

I wasn't ready with the camera yet, and so she was already too close to fit in the frame. From her markings you can tell this is Akari.  

Manta ray swooping in on the night dive in Kona. 

Manta ray close up.


Manta ray gliding over the campfire. 


We only saw three mantas in total. A couple of them came around more than once, but sightings eventually became so few and far between that the divemaster motioned for us to get up and swim around. My heart sank a little bit. I was here for the mantas, and had already seen the lack of reef. I would rather have sat there, waiting for the slightest possibility of one more sighting.

My heart also sank because if we were getting up to swim around, the other hundred or two hundred divers would probably follow suit soon as well. Many of them were inexperienced, and many of them were on their first night dives. I had no desire to be in the middle of a swarm of newbie divers all kicking each other in the face.

The divemaster signaled that there was a little eel on the coral he was looking at. I happened to be the closest person to him, and so tried to sneak a peek before everyone else zoomed in. That was a mistake. It’s difficult to learn spacial awareness as a diver, and add to that not having any peripheral vision due to the mask. Add to that diving at night time where you can’t see anyway. A moment later I was trampled by half a dozen divers, all thinking they were the only ones who were going to go look at the eel. That was the last time I looked at anything the divemaster pointed out. Instead I just stayed towards the back and kept my eyes on the campfire, where another two mantas were silently gliding past, so magnificent and elegant that I forgot about the chaos for a moment.

I feel like a spoiled brat saying that I was disappointed with the dive. After hearing nothing but rave reviews from positively everyone, maybe I had just let my hopes rise too high. The first two mantas coming in back to back were moments of epic proportions that I will remember forever. Sometimes there are reports of seeing 30+ mantas on a dive, and I can see how that would be unreal. Being with so many people and only seeing three wasn’t all that astounding though. We might as well have been in an aquarium. I dive to spend time alone in nature, without people around. I share that experience with Fletch, and sometimes with a couple of students or guests. Sitting around with 100 divers and another 200 snorkelers just cheapened the experience. It was the same disappointment I felt when watching the latest Everest movie and discovering how commercialized climbing one of the most remote spots on Earth has become. Or the disappointment I felt when going back to Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto and seeing what a tourist trap it had become. There’s just too many darn people on this planet. Nothing is sacred anymore. I’ll stop now before this turns into a rant and you start calling me Thanos.

Back on board the boat we started to break down our dive gear, only for the dive staff to offer to bring it back to the shop and clean it for us. We hesitated, informing them that we were flying the following day and needed it to be dry. They promised it would be. It was a nice offer, so we took them up on it.

The following morning we packed our bags, and lugged them over to the dive shop to pack up our gear. Unfortunately, it was all very much still damp. Not only that, but our new wetsuits had been dragged through the dirt. As professionals, we usually insist on handling our own gear. This served as a reminder as to why.

We asked the girl at the desk if she could recommend a good place for brunch. She sent us down to the “strip,” implying that that was the place we would want to be. We arrived to discover that it was cruise ship day, and therefor the street was a busy shopping area buzzing with tourists in Hawaiian shirts and sun hats. Maybe some people enjoy that vibe. Maybe the girl at the desk had thought we were those people.

Fletch declared over brunch that he didn’t like the Big Island. It was too developed, and no one seemed happy. Everything felt forced and like a facade put on for tourists. I was actually glad to hear that, because I had felt the same way visiting Hilo, seven years ago. We took a beautiful piece of nature and turned it into just another big city, full of rules and regulations and too many people. I was so happy that Maui wasn’t like that, and that we were returning to spend the rest of our vacation on the laid-back island full of beach bums.

After our conversation, it was ironic on our drive back to the airport to hear the Uber driver tell us that she liked Kona better than her home on Oahu, because it was less congested. Yikes. We flew through Honolulu on the way back to Maui, and saw from the air through a break in the clouds that yes, Oahu was just a massive concrete jungle floating on the ocean. The view looked like something out of a dystopian future novel. I couldn’t wait to get back to Maui with all of her natural beauty, and our friends there who were waiting to hear about our trip.

Oahu as seen from the air. 

So is the dive worth it? If you have never seen mantas before, then Kona's night dive is pretty unique in that you are almost guaranteed to see them on any given night during the year. If mantas are on your bucket list, and Hawaii is as far as you are willing or able to travel, then the Kona dive is worth it. Otherwise, if you are like me and Fletch and prefer to have some peace and serenity in the water, try Palau, Indonesia, or the Maldives. People usually hear those places and think $$$. I can't speak for the Maldives, but if you can afford Hawaii, then you can easily afford Palau or Indonesia. Airfare may cost more, but you'll make up for the price tag on diving, food, and lodging.