Manta Madness – A World-Famous snorkel experience in Kona

Recommended as “ONE OF THE TOP-TEN THINGS TO DO IN YOUR LIFETIME” by The Travel Channel, the manta night snorkel was not something I was going to pass up. And wowza, was it an experience.

The manta rays feed on planktonic marine life that scattered throughout the water column. These large animals need a lot of calories to survive, and since their prey are so small it is much more efficient for them to feed in plankton concentrated areas. During the day you can find the occasional lone manta feeding along the coastline, but nighttime is when the true magic happens. For years, dive boats have been attracting manta rays to certain bays along the Kona coast by creating plankton-rich feeding grounds at night. Plankton are attracted to light, and this entire ‘world-renowned snorkel adventure’ has been built upon that sole fact. By lowering “campfires” (bundles of dive lights) to the bottom of the sea floor with divers, and by having floating campfires with the snorkelers on the surface, the water column becomes bright enough to attract yummy plankton. After a small wait period, the mantas arrive for dinner. With their mouths agape they swoop through the light and feast on their prey, wowing spectators nightly.

The mantas are residential to the area, and if you’re really good you can identify individuals based on their stomach spot patterns. For the past 20 years research has been done in the area to create a library of the local individuals as well as record their age, sex, family, etc. Check out some of the research at www.mantarayshawaii.com.

I’d seen video footage of a friend’s experience with the mantas so I knew what to expect, but still nothing can prepare you for the spooky, eerie feeling of being surrounded by these winged giants in a dark abyss. While watching a video prior to the dive I could anticipate that something amazing would happen in the frame where the videographer has focused on the action, but in real life it is much more intense because things are happening all around – in front, behind, above, below – and all you have is the frame provided by your foggy mask.  Adding to that, imagine being in a pitch black, 3D environment with your hearing rendered useless. You can only see where the light beams are projected, with no idea about anything lurking beyond, and every movement around you is unpredictable. You are partially blind and surrounded by 2,000+lb acrobats that you can’t see until they want you to see them.

Manta feeding on plankton in Kona, Hawaii

Manta feeding on plankton in Kona, Hawaii

What I thought would be a predictable, flamboyant display by these mantas turned out to be exciting and… suspenseful. I was surprised by how surprised I was. Even though I knew what to expect, having those mantas come so close to me and loop away suddenly had me giggling into my snorkel like a peek-a-boo playing toddler. What FUN.

Taking pictures didn’t work, no matter what setting I tried to use, so I stuck to video instead. Here is a little bit from my snorkel with the mantas:

 

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Taking the Bite out of Hump-Day

It’s that time of the week again folks, the middle of it. For you this may seem like half way to your finish line that is 5 o’clock beers and relaxation, but for me it’s just an excuse to talk about humpback whales on my blog. Because here at Seaing Blue’s head office (the office is in my head) Hump Day is actually known as Hump(back whale) Day. So clever and not yet overused, right?

Today I was reading about some of the ectoparasites that humpbacks endure and a particular one peaked my interest. You may already know all about how whale lice claws on and feeds off the dead skin of the whale, and you may have heard of the variety of barnacle species that cement onto the skin and filter feed during the winter months, but how much do you know about cookie cutter sharks?

I know very little. For years I had no idea what those circle scars on the backs of the whales were, and when I learned that they were scars from sharks I thought ew, gross, must be a crazy looking shark, and I googled it. This is one of the top grotesque images that google has so gratefully provided for us:

Cookie Cutter Shark Mouth.
Image from Treehugger.com

Thanks Google, for fueling my nightmares. After seeing that face I shuddered and quickly closed the browser without investigating further.

Don’t do the same thing! Stay and let’s learn about this animal togetherrrr.

The cookiecutter shark is a species of the dogfish shark family, and luckily for our nightmares, it doesn’t grow very large. Full length for a full grown is about 50cm long.

Image from Wikipedia

As you can guess, they get their cookie-cutter name from the perfectly circle-shaped chunks that they carve out of their victim’s flesh, much like how a cookie-cutter gouges soft dough. The top teeth are pretty small, but the bottom teeth are long and bandsaw-like. They have great big lips that act as suction cups, enabling it to cling-on to its mark as it moves fast, slow, and every which way to escape. While it is attached it will use its bottom teeth in a saw-like manner, twisting around, and cutting out a perfect Oreo bite.

This humpback whale's back is riddled with cookiecutter shark scars

This humpback whale’s back is riddled with cookiecutter shark scars

Scary yes, but attacks on humans are incredibly rare as this shark peruses the waters of the great deep. Occasionally they will rise to the surface, but the majority of their time is spent well below 85m. And here’s what’s even more fascinating… they are participants of ‘diel vertical migration.‘ Like many species of diatoms and freaky-looking larvae species, this shark migrates extreme distances throughout the water column on a daily cycle. This is known as the greatest migration in the world in terms of biomass. The cookiecutter shark will hang around 85m during the night, but as dawn approaches it will make its trek back into the mysterious deep, sometimes traveling as much as 3km!

Image from Florida Museum Pressroom, Photo taken by Joshua Lambus at J.Lambus Photography

It’s ventral side is covered in photophores so that when viewed from underneath at night it’s bioluminescence gives it a very bright green colour, greener than any other shark species. The dark collar band supposedly acts as a lure to attract larger animals that might mistake it for a small fish. When the larger animal approaches, the cookiecutter shark bursts towards it and sucks on. Sneaky buggers! And what could be more terrifying than a surprise attack by a tiny saw blade? Tiny saw blades. They swim in schools….

Spinner dolphin seen here with a cookiecutter scar

Spinner dolphin seen here with a cookiecutter scar

Sweet dreams ;)

Muahaha… 
Image from AnimalPlanet

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Some whales and dolphin photographs from Hawaii

The weeks are starting to just fly by here in Kona, and I’m not even sure what I’m doing with the time. Then I take a look at my iPhoto accumulation and am overwhelmed with images and videos that I told myself I would sort and edit and do something with. Not exactly sure what that something is, but hopefully it’ll be a wonderful something. I’ve been logging hours at sea patiently waiting for those special cetacean encounters and testing my luck on proper positioning for those a-ha moments, but regrettably the majority of those moments escape the lens because they arise without notice, lighting is poor, distance is too great, my mind was too blown, etc, etc. But good things come to those who wait, right? So for your viewing pleasure (but mostly just motivate myself to declutter) I’ve sorted through the worst of it,  freed up precious hard drive space, and compiled some of the goodies that will hopefully give you sweet cetacean dreams at night. Enjoy!

Spinner Dolphins January 25th

Spinner dolphins resting in a shallow bay.
January 25th

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Spinner dolphins playing with a plastic bag… a friendly, infuriating reminder to put your trash where it belongs!
January 25th

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One of my favourites
January 25th

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Look at all of those scars! Stay tuned for a post about the culprit…
February 1st

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A beautiful wing
February 1st

Head slam!

Head lunge! This is a competitive behaviour and these juveniles were doing it beside each other repeatedly.
February 1st

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A young whale fills up his throat to make himself appear larger (and impress all of the ladies onboard).
February 1st

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Eermeghad, fun! I love the movement of the water and “wings” in this one. 
February 1st

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The social tensions are building! Just north of the Kona Pier these three whales were “chasing after” a female. Four humpbacks is the most I’ve ever seen in a group, and at the quick speeds they were travelling it was surprisingly hard to spot them.
February 4th

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A screenshot from a video I shot so the quality isn’t the best, but I like the lighting and colour contrasts you can see from just a small change in depth. Also that it’s mid-exhale.
February 7th

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Another screenshot from a video, this was one of the best passes of the day. This close huddled group swam by so calmly as we exchanged curious glances. The leaf playfully being pulled on his pectoral fin looks much nicer than a plastic bag, right?
February 7th

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A screenshot from a video of mother and calf surfacing near me. Instead of coming up for a single breath and leaving they completed all three breaths at a leisurely pace. I’ll read this as a demonstration of trust felt from the mother, and proof that sustainable dolphin watching can be done as long as people back the eff off.
February 7th

And a bonus turtle photo just because…

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Honu! It’s quite common in the shallow warm waters of Hawaii to see green sea turtles swimming along a reef, but I’d been hoping for awhile to get a shot that include yellow tang. And here they are just hanging at 15ft, nom noming on some algae!
January 27th

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