Kona Manta Concert

In the last hour before sunset, I watched the last dive charter boat make its arrival in the cove bringing the total to eight next to our live-aboard, the Kona Aggressor II. Watching the crowd of divers and snorkelers prepare to get in the water from the sun deck I wondered what kind of mob scene was going to be in the water. The very notion of it was giving me second thoughts about even doing the night manta dive at all here at Garden Eel Cove.

As the sun begin to set, divers and snorkelers in the neighboring dive boats prepare to get in the water for the nighttime show.
As the sun begin to set, divers and snorkelers in the neighboring dive boats prepare to get in the water for the nighttime show.

When we first arrived at this site, we had a wonderful encounter diving with wild spinner dolphins. That afternoon was also spent watching several mantas cruise back and forth feeding along the edge of the reef and surfacing to play with snorkelers. What more could I ask for?

Ben, the KA-II’s photo pro/divemaster had briefed us on the plan to swim over and join the group (or mob) of divers already on the bottom just 60 feet away. Once there, our group would sit and watch mantas feed on the plankton attracted by two large light boxes, one on the surface, one on the bottom. I was still hesitant, but Ben assured me, “go, you won’t regret it.”

Between the constant rise of bubbles from the large number divers present, the amount of plankton in the water, creates a strange visual effect.
Between the constant rise of bubbles from the large number divers present, the amount of plankton in the water, creates a strange visual effect.

After entering the water, I doused my own light to make it easier to follow both Ben and the illumination at our destination point. Two-thirds of the way there, the scene in front of me started taking form, and it was looking really weird. Backlit by all the dive lights, we could see the outer edge of a crowd of divers circled around a primary light planted on the bottom; they were aiming their own lights towards the surface like groupies holding up Bic lighters at a rock concert.

With divers remaining positioned on the bottom, manta rays glide overhead to feed on the plankton attracted to the lights brought by the divers.
With divers remaining positioned on the bottom, manta rays glide overhead to feed on the plankton attracted to the lights brought by the divers.

In the perpetual glow and curtain of bubbles we could see several large, white-bellied apparitions sweeping in from all directions, doing summersaults before disappearing again into the surrounding blackness. As I got into the mood of the spectacle, it seemed the only thing missing was the smoke machine and the heavy beat of drums and a base guitar.

Manta swooping in close with mouth wide open as it filter feeds on the plankton.

I have never witnessed a night dive like this. I was amazed by the local dive operators’ ability to conduct and maintain such a well-orchestrated dive, and by the divers themselves, for not turning the experience into a free-for-all. And most of all, at just how many large mantas there were, the stars of the show; nine, ten, fourteen, there were most certainly a bunch.

Forty-eight minutes later, it was time to head back to the boat, but I wasn’t ready for the show to end. I love concerts.

Capturing the Image

Reef manta ray (Manta alfredi) feeding on plankton in the night.
Reef manta ray (Manta alfredi) feeding on plankton in the night.

Wide-angle photography can have its challenges when done in the dark, but the results can turn a moment into magic.

Camera info: Nikon D300 with Tokina 10-17mm fisheye zoom lens inside a Subal ND30 housing with DP-FE 4 dome port. Images captured using two Sea & Sea YS-250 strobes set at 1/4 power with camera set to raw at 800 ISO, shutter 1/30 sec., with f/5.6 for my primary aperture setting.

One added note: if your camera settings allow it, like they do in most Nikon DSLR bodies, place the camera’s settings to work in rear or second curtain sync to get the best affect. Unfortunately most Canon DSLR’s do not allow that function in camera unless they are linked with a Canon model strobe with E-TTL, so instead, your shutter speed will need to be between 1/100 and 1/180th of a second to work without ghosting.