Swimming around the Campfire
An undersea encounter with manta rays off Hawaii’s Big Island balances tourism with the need to protect animals
Kona, Hawaii — We were the last guests of the evening at a campfire like no other. It was pitch black when we emerged to flashlights waving us back to our vessel, and as the final few boats brought their nightly activities to a close, we reluctantly came out of the water. A moment before, I had been surrounded by a dense school of Āholehole (Hawaiian flagtail), their mass producing a strobe-like effect that created the feeling of being on a crowded dance floor. Just below me, two mantas were doing barrel rolls just feet from my body, and another dozen circled the vicinity. What if they came a few feet closer and lifted me out of the water?
This was no ordinary campfire. Off the coast of Kona and 40 feet below the surface, a few highly-charged lumen LED lights surrounded by boulders are gathered together to illuminate an underwater ballet performance that is sure to light up your soul: a gathering of the most majestic ocean animals generously sharing their beauty with us, and sharing their trust. In this situation, it is not clear who plays the most vulnerable role. Me, or the 1600-pound manta.
I knew it was going to be a good night as we submerged at sunset to a tableau of soft blue. The dive master had reminded us that mantas are wild animals; they have a mind of their own. So, no expectations, only surprises. Perhaps it was because we were celebrating our anniversary, but I was feeling lucky. And as luck would have it, we dropped into the water and immediately, the mantas welcomed us with their massive wingspans. Our dive master looked a bit flabbergasted. It is not often that the mantas arrive early for their nighttime show. My heart danced as a group of mantas engaged - huge arched pathways perfectly in sync, like the notes of a symphony that grab you and bring you along for the ride.
It wasn’t my first time in the water with the manta rays. After hours upon hours in the open ocean trying to interact with ocean animals, I’ve realized the key is to let them come to you. If you watch, feel, and time your entry in such a way, they will allow you to join their flow. Gliding alongside for a period of time, your eyes connect. Feeling the “mana,” the ocean never feels quite the same again.
Mana means power in Hawaii, and with mystery, power, and grace, the mantas seem to win the hearts of everyone who encounters them. In native Hawaiian tradition, mantas are included in a list of revered Aumakuas, guardian spirits. These mysterious mantas have wingspans of up to fifteen feet, but despite their intimidating presence, they are actually friendly. With the largest brain of the ray family (including sharks and skates), they do not have stingers and feed only on plankton, which accounts for their large filter-feedings mouths. Normally, larger brains signify more intelligence, and a recent study showed that mantas are self-aware, a characteristic trait of higher intelligence. In the study, mantas passing by mirrors began to recognize themselves, as indicated by changes in their behavior.
Here in Kona, divers see that intelligence displayed nightly, as these solitary animals are conditioned to understand that light equals food. Is that a behavior that is passed down or learned? Several years ago, in just three weeks, a newborn manta went from “zero to hero” by quickly adapting and jumping into the spotlight in the nighttime feeding show. One of the most famous stories from around the “campfire” is about a manta named Koie Ray, a major player at the campfires within the last twenty years, and one of the top five consistently-appearing mantas during that time. In 2004, she was caught in fishing line that wrapped around her cephalic fin and was eating through her flesh. Observing that her injured fin had turned gangrenous, Manta Ray Advocates co-founder James Wing succeeded in amputating her cephalic fin, an unfortunate but life-saving operation. After her successful underwater surgery, she disappeared and returned a month later, healed and healthy. Six months later, Koie Ray came back with heavy tech fishing line again wrapped around her wing many times. This time, when divers began to cut the line off of her, she stalled out, which means she stopped breathing. When a manta stops, it can’t breathe (no water over gills), sinks, and suffocates. In this case, Koie Ray would stall, sink, move, and then come back, each time allowing rescuers to slice more of the line until, eventually, it was completely removed. These experiences with Koie Ray are wonderful examples of the trust that can develop between humans and mantas.
Garden Eel Cove, where the campfire is set up every night, is not far from where jet planes disperse tourists daily on the Kona coastline. The celebrities of the neighborhood are not the people getting out of the private jets lining the runways. Here, the mantas are the stars, showing up for 90% of their booked shows yearly from 2012 - 2015. Not a bad appearance rate for wild animals not on payroll. Many of those arriving tourists are drawn to the Big Island for the “manta ray experience,” quickly becoming recognized as one of the greatest opportunities to interact with large ocean animals in the world. Known as a “must do” activity for anyone who travels to Hawaii, the Kona manta ray experience was rated “One of the TOP 10 Things to Do in Your Lifetime” by the Travel Channel. Over 250 mantas have been identified off the Kona Coast since 1979, that said, it is known that mantas disappear for a time, and then return. In stats gathered from 2012-2014, 80-90 individual mantas were recorded making annual appearances. Today, the manta ray experience is thriving because of approximately 30 courageous mantas that show up to the “campfire” more than 50 times a year, giving tourists great odds of encountering them in their natural habitat.
Operators are quick to credit the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay as the initial benefactor of the manta show. Built in the 70’s, the Sheraton had a saltwater pool with an illuminated pool deck and lights that shone into the ocean. As nature took over where man-made endeavor left off, phytoplankton were attracted to the lights, and following inevitably, zooplankton arrived to assume their place on the food chain. In short order, the mantas discovered this new food source, understanding that the lights signaled a gushing food source. In 1991, commercial tourism at this spot was introduced with one dive boat going out one night a week. Gradually, more dive operations were added, and in 2007 snorkel boat operators added themselves to the agenda. The industry established the “campfire” method for the manta ray experience early on, an organized way to introduce the most amount of people with the least amount of intrusion.
Build it, and they will come. Recent numbers point to around 90,000 visitors on average coming to the Big Island yearly to snorkel from above or dive down to sit around the “campfire,” observing up-close and personal the gentle, yet strong “otherworldly” manta rays as they feed on clouds of tiny planktonic marine life. The secret is out, at least in the international dive community. How is it possible that a group of wild mantas show up relatively consistently for a nightly gathering that is now entertaining upwards of 200 people a night? Sounds too good to be true, and it might be. Numbers of mantas in the area in 2016 dropped to 66%, which logically mirrored a decrease in the site’s plankton. Operators don’t know whether to attribute that to the international global warming crisis of 2015, or to the increased human traffic and confusion at the manta ray campfire site. . .or both.
In late 2009, the State lifted a moratorium on commercial permits. Local established tour operators soon began to see a significant increase in the number of outfits selling the “manta experience” to tourists. Anyone with a boat could jump into this game, and many did. The qualifications for entry were easily achievable: a commercial-use permit from the state Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation; a licensed captain; and a commercially registered vessel with the state or documented with the U.S. Coast Guard. Many fishermen with boats had started manta-based tourism businesses. Most operators agreed that the saturation of this local industry decreased the quality of the activity and increased the risk to manta rays and tourists alike. Much to the dismay of the veteran operators, hull lighting on boats was introduced as well. Soon after, the add-on of “disco lighting” on surface snorkeling floatables turned the “campfire” into something that felt more like a nightclub, with 30-40 divers and upwards of 40 snorkel rafts with multiple guests convening on the scene every night. The use of additional lighting close to dangerous things that mantas DO NOT understand—lines, hulls, rudders, ladders and propellers—created more dangerous distractions. Martina Wing, a professional underwater videographer and co-founder of Manta Ray Advocates, has spent over 4000 hours in 19 years underwater capturing the manta experience on film and video. “It has gone from a pleasant, serene experience to a chaotic, light-war, carnival-like atmosphere. The problem is, tourists don’t understand the difference between a reputable tour company and a non-reputable company. And as competition increases, pressure is on for reputable companies to switch to more negative practices to gather experiences,” she says. “Harmless, passive interaction is possible and was practiced for over 20 years. At Manta Ray Advocates, we simply care about these beautiful creatures and do not want to see them harmed by human interaction. Hence our motto: “do no harm”.”
The increased popularity of the manta experience over recent years has led to problems concerning the balance of tourism demand and the safety of these marine creatures. Accidents have increased as numbers of tourists and boats have gone up, with manta rays running into rudders, being gashed by propellers, getting entangled in lines coming from snorkel boards, running into things, and having anchors dropped on them. And the continued fragmentation and confusion at the campfire could mean that less people are getting a good show. The main concerns over the growth of this experience include the numbers of operators (and thus, the nightly overcapacity of humans in the water to experience the campfire show), the questionable conduct of operators (no official training in marine life behavior or safety is mandated to date), and the lack of enforcement of the “gentleman’s code of conduct.” Unfortunately, the existing industry safety standards have been voluntary, with no consequences for non-compliance.
A diligent segment of the Kona operating community had shown continued commitment to create a safe and peaceful tourism experience that is inspiring, yet still respectful of these giant angels of the sea. In December of 2012, the Coast Guard and Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) recommended creating industry standards. After three months of discussion, the majority of companies that run the manta ray experiences with legitimate commercial permits approved the developed set of standards. In May of 2013, the Manta Ray Tour Operator Standards were put into effect and given to the State, Coast Guard, and DLNR. Today, after five years of negotiations and discussions, the State of Hawaii is in the process of writing part of the standards into the administrative rules that will include a new system of permits and mooring, expected to be passed late in 2018. In the meantime, there remains the challenge that there is no legality and no enforcement to these standards—no penalization for not adhering. So, how do those concerned ensure the experience is “pono”—righteous—for both human and animal?
On June 1, 2014 the team at Hawaii Ocean Watch launched the Green List, a list of operators who pledge to be committed to the Manta Ray Tour Operator Standards. Hawaii Ocean Watch is a non-profit organization that was formed by the Manta Ray Advocates, three highly active educators and underwater photographers who, combined, have 58 years’ experience in the ocean, 5 nights a week/each monitoring these animals. Together with others in the Kona community, they have maintained a vast database of information about the resident manta population (meticulous records, image archive and statistical analysis) which gives us a clear picture of the Kona manta’s individual status and movements. As of January 1, 2017, they have started a nature fee of $5 charged direct to each consumer participating in the manta ray experience. Six companies have committed to collecting this fee, which will support the work of Hawaii Ocean Watch in maintaining the Green List, implementing crew training in regards to animal and passenger safety, and elevating outreach efforts to educate tourists on which companies operate under the standards.
The Manta Ray Advocates have advice for tourists looking to have this experience. “This is an extremely special experience and we want to keep it that way. . .and also keep it inspirational and accessible,“ says Captain and Co-Founder E. Ryan Leinbach. “We want people to have access to this life-changing experience, so we encourage you to research and look through green-listed activity providers: boat operators who are proven to be ecologically-minded and adhere to the operator standards.” Leinbach and many veterans believe that the “perfect world” is coming, where all operators at the manta experience sites are officially permitted and educated on animal safety; where the “campfire” is a central viewing area away from boat hardware and mooring lines; light is regulated to low lumens; a limited number of boats and rafts are allowed at one location; and everyone gets to see the largest number of mantas for most amount of time. And perhaps most important for the future, consistent and stringent enforcement of regulations that ensure the safety of these magnificent creatures.
How do you describe the ineffable? By definition, you can’t. I left our “campfire” and the manta rays that night knowing I had witnessed something powerful and majestic, not to be dismissed as merely “an adventure.” It was a privilege and an honor. What happens in Kona could be a model for the world, as we realize the value of animals, alive rather than dead, and aspire to create peaceful, inspiring, yet respectful interactions with them.