The sun was setting over the Pacific Ocean and the wind was getting cooler. Captain Mikey and Captain Emily had just raced with a school of dolphins en route to the manta ray cove.
Emily, the on-board marine biologist, told us the story about the manta rays in Kona, Hawaii. Manta rays are found in pockets around the world. But this group of manta rays is unique, she says. They are the only ones who perform barrel rolls in close proximity to humans when they feed at night.
I was ready in my wet suit and snorkel gear. The sun had set; the stars were out. The dark blue water was suddenly illuminated by a series of large, bright lamps. One by one we dove into the water and held on to a surfboard modified with handrails. Hundreds of fish gathered beneath it to feed on the plankton. Now it was time to wait.
A humbling experience
I’ll admit I had no idea what to expect. But as the first manta ray barrel rolled right underneath me, I was immediately struck by how graceful and gentle it seemed.
Female manta rays can be up to 12 feet wide; their mouths alone are giant. As it glided past me, the manta ray was not bothered by my presence.
It’s estimated that manta rays live up to 100 years, although no one knows for sure. These giant animals have no bones, only cartilage. Their tails do not serve them any purpose — sting rays are the poisonous ones.
Lefty the trendsetter
The manta rays in Kona are the only manta rays in the world that engage in night-time feeding. And all of this started with one special manta ray, a female called Lefty. Back in 1979, Lefty was seen feeding on the phytoplankton that gathered in the floodlight from a nearby Sheraton hotel. Because she has a paralysed left cephalic fin, she had difficulty swimming straight; the concentration of plankton in the floodlit water was easier for her to feed on because she could just barrel roll to feed on them.
Slowly, other manta rays began to mimic Lefty’s barrel rolls.
I hoped to spot Lefty that night, but I didn’t get so lucky.
Still, I learned a lot about other mantas that evening.
I learned that, for one thing, they don’t sleep, since they have to be in constant motion to breathe. This means they require a lot of energy. That was evident as the manta rays were not shy to come back for seconds. And it was tempting to touch the mysterious creatures every time one swam inches away from my body. However, our guides instructed us not to; their skin has a protective, slimy coating that can be worn away with human touch. Interestingly, I didn’t see any manta rays trying to reach out and touch one of us; I suddenly wondered why I thought it would be ok for me to do it to them.
Even though these manta rays are not in danger of extinction, they are vulnerable to harmful fishing practices. There are unofficial guidelines in place to protect and prevent harm to manta rays. However, it was disappointing to learn that, while these guidelines are very simple to follow, of the tour boats there that night only a handful followed measures to protect the Manta rays.
When I checked into my Airbnb on the Big Island, my host had described the manta-ray dive as a must-do activity as memorable as your wedding day or holding your baby in your arms for the first time. I have yet to get married or give birth, but I can definitely say that swimming with manta rays at night was a defining moment for me.
NOW WATCH: At birth a baby kangaroo is 100,000 times smaller than an adult — here’s how other animals compare
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.