The Kona coast in Hawaii is rich with marine life, but the most renowned are the Kona manta rays.
At night these gentle giants congregate and swirl around in Kona’s shallower waters.
Kona manta rays move with surprising agility and grace despite their large size (12-18 feet wingspan), making them truly wondrous to see.
If seeing manta rays is at all on your bucket list, then the manta ray night dive in Kona is a must-do activity.
It is an easy dive (accessible for beginners) and you get to see manta rays up-close and feeding at night. It’s a spectacle unique to Kona diving and unlike anywhere else in the world!
I did this dive in Kona back in January of 2022, and it was one of my favorite dives ever — so much so that I am planning a return trip to Kona soon, and I’ll definitely be diving with the manta rays again!
What to Know Before Your Manta Ray Dive in Kona
1. You can see Kona manta rays year-round.
You can find manta rays in Kona at any time of year.
Dive operators set up underwater lights that attract plankton — the main food source for manta rays — which makes manta ray viewings fairly consistent.
This is why all Kona manta ray dives take place at night time.
That said, some times of the year are better than others.
The best time to see Kona manta rays is around summer onwards (June-November), since they thrive in warmer waters.
January through March yields rougher waters, which can make diving less pleasant or have a higher chance of cancellation due to storms.
The other thing to consider is crowds, if you prefer fewer scuba divers in the water and easier scheduling with dive shops. Kona tends to be less crowded in January and September.
Overall, the dive still an amazing experience year-round.
I did my Kona manta ray night dive in late January, during a strong swell.
While I had to grip rocks to avoid bumping into other divers, I still had a blast seeing 7-8 mantas “dance” above me as they gulped up plankton inches away from my face.
Other divers told me they saw almost 20 mantas the night before!
2. However, there’s no 100% manta guarantee.
While it’s highly likely you’ll see manta rays any time of the year in Kona, it’s not guaranteed. This is wildlife, after all.
To compensate, some dive shops will allow you to reschedule for another manta ray night dive at no cost, provided they have room on the boat ride and the weather cooperates.
For that reason, I recommend scheduling your dive early in your trip to increase your flexibility for re-booking the dive later, just in case you’re unlucky the first time around.
Keep in mind that this dive is popular, so you may want to keep your trip itinerary flexible just in case you need to reschedule and fit the dive shop’s schedule.
If you don’t see mantas in Kona, don’t worry — you’ll still have fun.
Many Kona dive operators have a contingency plan for nights when no manta rays show up.
They will bring you to another dive site or explore the area to see other marine life so you will have a fun experience regardless.
3. You may even see an extra visitor!
The beauty of night dives is that you may see animals you aren’t likely to see during daytime dive.
The dive site (Garden Eel Cove / Manta Heaven) is known for a local undulated moray eel named Frank who has a reputation of showing up to the manta ray party.
In the day typically moray eels only poke their heads out of rocks, but on this night dive Frank the Eel may come out to snack on fish drawn to the same underwater lights.
You can easily spot Frank the Eel hanging out by the underwater lights, or sometimes even wrapped around your BCD vest!
You’ll be led by a dive master, so should you turn around and find Frank on your shoulder, there’s no need to panic.
Frank is friendly (think of him as that kooky neighbor) and your dive master will help you safely remove the eel.
4. You need an open water certification to scuba dive with manta rays in Hawaii.
The manta ray night dive in Kona is beginner-friendly, but an open water certification is required from PADI, SSI or any other official scuba program.
If you have zero dive experience, you can do a Discover Scuba experience in Kona but not the manta ray night dive.
However, there are also manta ray night snorkel tours if you’re not certified.
Manta ray night snorkel tours are incredibly popular in Kona, and a great option if you don’t have a scuba diving certification.
Instead of diving under water, on the snorkel tour you’ll be on a floatie and stay at the surface to look down at the manta rays. Learn more about manta ray night snorkel here.
5. Scuba diving at night is very different than diving in the day.
Night dives can be unfamiliar for many divers used to morning dives.
The Kona manta ray dive can only take place at night time, but luckily it is an easy one because you stay still for the majority of the dive.
As always with night dives, knowing how to use your dive gear even if it’s dark and staying calm is important.
Also, it never hurts to have good buoyancy. This helps you protect the manta rays and avoid touching them.
On my trip I met plenty of new divers. One diver who just got his open water certification days before, and others had never done a night dive, nor used dive lights before.
Everyone still had a great dive thanks to our expert dive master.
She helped us sit or lie down at the dive site where the lights are set up (known as the “campfire”) and then all we had to do is look up to see manta rays feeding.
You won’t even use lots of air, since you’re still most of the whole time. This allows the dive to stretch out to 45-60 minutes long, plenty of time to enjoy the show.
6. There are three manta ray viewing sites, but one main site for scuba divers.
Garden Eel Cove (Manta Heaven)
Garden Eel Cove (Manta Heaven) is the most important manta viewing site for scuba diving.
It is north of Kailua-Kona, next to the Kona International Airport. Most dive operators will take you here as it is more protected from swells.
The site has good topography with a flattish bottom about 30-40 feet deep where the operators can setup a “campfire” with dive lights.
Scuba divers are placed in a circle where everyone can have a great view of the manta rays swooping in overhead.
Manta Village in Keahou is the most famous site for snorkeling and the original site where manta ray tourism first began in Kona. It is in front of the Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa.
However, most dive shops do not favor this location (unless the weather is bad at Manta Heaven).
It’s the most popular site for snorkeling tours and draws large crowds and many boats, which can be a safety challenge for divers underwater.
Lastly there’s Manta Point in Kohala, next to Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
The advantage of this site is that it’s good for casual snorkeling (day or night) due to shore access via Mauna Kea Beach and has relatively calm waters.
There is also a light already set up at night on the north end of the beach that attracts the manta rays.
7. You might get chilly. Prepare accordingly if you tend to be cold.
Water temperature in Kona tends to be around 78 degrees Fahrenheit or 26 degrees Celcius (range of 75-81 F or 24-27 C depending on summer or winter season).
If you tend to get cold, you’d likely want at least a 3mm full body wetsuit.
Dive shops will provide you the gear you need, like full body wetsuits, regulators, BCDs, but keep in mind that if you want extras like a hood or booties to keep you warm, you’d likely have to bring your own.
The rocks are surprisingly rough, so next time I would definitely bring my scuba gloves too.
Kona manta ray night dives also tend to be a single dive. If a dive shop offers a two-tank manta ray dive, the first dive is a late afternoon reef dive before the second dive in the evening with the mantas.
This is probably for the best as you might get cold on the boat ride between dives or after dives in the evening, so remember to pack extra layers.
I always bring a large sized quick dry towel on the boat to dry off quickly and stay warm.
8. Not all dive operators are created equal. Choose one with sustainable practices!
With so many dive shops in Kona, it can be hard to figure out which one to choose.
One helpful tool is to choose a company that does conservation education and committed to protecting manta rays. Check out the Hawaii Ocean Watch (HOW) for a “greenlist” of manta ray activity providers to help you narrow things down.
That said, Hawaii Ocean Watch is also founded by a dive company, so I would treat them as a helpful source rather than an authority. You can always ask the company you’re interested in directly about their conservation practices.
9. There are many other epic dives in Kona — so give yourself plenty of time.
The manta ray night dive may be the most famous, but there’s plenty of great dives available in Kona.
There are easy boat dives, cave swim-throughs, and even advanced dives such as the blackwater night dive to see jellies and planktons.
Leave lots of time to explore Kona diving — I’ll have a full guide for this soon!
Frequently Asked Questions About Seeing Manta Rays in Kona
What is the best time to see manta rays in Kona?
You can have an amazing experience with manta rays year-round, but the best time is around summer (June-November).
For fewer crowds, Kona tourism low season is in January and September.
What should I bring for my manta ray dive or snorkel trip?
A 3mm full body wet suit is recommended for most, since the water ranges 75-81 F or 24-27 C depending on the season.
Dive shops will rent any equipment you need. But if you tend to get cold, then you may want to bring a hood, gloves, booties, and bootie-compatible fins as dive shops don’t always rent these.
I always recommend bringing your own mask and snorkel for comfort.
Lastly, don’t to forget your GoPro to capture your manta memories! Bring waterproof housing for your GoPro, because GoPros are only waterproof up to 33 feet.
What’s the difference between a manta ray night dive and manta ray night snorkel?
The difference between the manta ray night dive and the manta ray night snorkel is where you will be situated in the water.
For scuba diving, you will be lying belly down or sitting down on the rocky floor, looking up at the manta rays swooping overhead.
For snorkeling, you will hold onto a floatie and lie face down on top of the water, looking down at the manta rays.
Typically diving will allow you to get up-close and personal with the manta rays, as you’ll be underwater with them.
That said, snorkelers still have a wonderful experience. Most snorkel tours will supply you with lights, and the manta rays may still come close to brushing up against you near the surface of the water.
What type of manta rays will you see in Kona?
In Kona, you will find reef mantas, which are smaller than giant manta rays you might find deeper out in the open ocean.
Like their namesake, reef mantas stick to the coast near reefs for warmer tropical waters. Your chances of seeing a giant oceanic manta ray in the Kona coast will be very low.
Reef mantas are around 12 feet in size (up to 18 feet maximum) which is still huge — almost a midsize sedan! But that’s small compared to their pelagic cousins who can grow to around 22 feet wide (bigger than most camper vans).
Why are there so many manta rays on the Big Island?
Hawaiian coastal waters create an ideal habitat for reef mantas, who gather together in shallow areas to feed.
What’s unique to Kona is the manta rays learned to come regularly to the same sites where underwater lights that attract their food source.
As many as 300+ unique manta rays have been identified in Kona! The spotted patterns on their bellies make each manta easy to recognize.
What do manta rays eat?
Manta rays eat plankton, making them filter feeders.
Their unique mouths have evolved to maximize eating, which is why they have two mouth flaps that funnel more plankton into their mouths as they swim.
In fact, manta rays employ all kinds of fun techniques to eat. This includes somersaults and twirls to cram as much plankton into their mouths as possible.
Can mantas sting you?
Rest assured, manta rays cannot sting you as their tails don’t have a stinger or barb, unlike sting rays.
In fact, it’d be impossible for a manta rays to put a human in their mouths, as they are filter feeders that eat plankton.
Don’t be afraid of manta rays, they are peaceful.
Where can I see manta rays at night in Kona?
There are three manta ray viewing sites in Kona, each with their own advantage.
Garden Eel Cove (Manta Heaven) next to the Kona International Airport, is best for scuba diving, although some snorkel tours also visit.
Manta Village in Keahou is the most popular (and crowded) site for snorkel tours and is next to Outrigger Kona Resort & Spa.
Manta Point at Mauna Kea Beach is good for casual snorkeling due to shore access and has relatively calm waters.
How deep is the Kona manta ray night dive?
The Kona manta ray night dive is relatively shallow, at 30-40 feet deep. You will predominantly be staying at the “campfire” location where the underwater lights are placed.
Is the manta ray night dive for beginners?
The manta night dive is fine for all PADI or SSI certified divers of all levels. If you’re nervous about the dark, there is actually plenty of lighting at the “campfire” dive site where you’ll be spending the majority of your time.
Most dive shops will also give you a dive light to help you with getting to and from the “campfire” location.
Can you see manta rays without a tour?
It is not recommended to go to Manta Heaven or Manta Village without a tour, as there’s no shore access, choppier waters, and many company boats in the water, which can be dangerous.
You can view manta rays without a tour at Mauna Kea Beach, if you have a good light, and from above water at an observation point in the Mauna Kea Beach Resort.
Diane is an avid diver who loves to share her underwater travels with the world! She’s a PADI Advanced Certified Diver with 50+ dives under her belt, including diving in Mexico’s Cozumel and Baja California, French Polynesia, Thailand’s Similan Islands, and Hawaii.