Wednesday we drove across Big Hawaii from Hilo to Kona, a roughly two-hour drive that took us around the northern coast of the island. There are three routes across: one through the middle, which is the shortest and goes via Volcano National Park, the south (and I think the longest), and then the north which is the most lush. We opted for the north with plenty of time to make it to Kona for my evening snorkel with manta rays.
The drive was easy. We stopped a few times, the first at Rainbow Falls practically in Hilo, and then at Akuna Falls (but we didn’t do the hike). The rest of the drive was spent mostly looking at the window at impossibly green rainforest and being disappointed that dinosaurs weren’t going to emerge at any minute.
The change between the Hilo side and the Kona side was stark; Kona doesn’t get much rainfall so it’s almost desert-like over there. Plus there’s a lot of black volcanic rocks along the side of the road, making it look a little like a quarry.
We arrived at the Courtyard by Marriott just after 1, were given an early check-in and excellent service. I think we were a pleasant contrast to the demanding customer beside us who seemed to think that because she was tired that meant she should be given early check-in to a room that didn’t have a tree in front of its balcony. Seriously. A bloody tree.
We’re still a bit jet lagged from the time zone shifts between Iceland, Toronto and Hawaii. I’m not even sure what time it is back home in Perth, and when I do look it confuses me. So we’ve been waking up early so by the time we reached Kona, a nap was needed. I don’t think I slept but it was nice to lie down. I think I was also excited about the manta rays.
I started to get ready about 3:30, putting in contacts and packing my bag. Glen slept. As this activity would involve a boat and getting in the water with sea creatures, he was a firm ‘no’. I would be endangering my life by myself tonight.
Because it’s Fourth of July, there’s a parade down the street where our hotel is, meaning the road was going to be closed for a few hours, making getting the car in and out potentially difficult. I opted to walk from the hotel to the dive shop and check-in, thinking that the marina where the boat would launch was going to be just down the road and therefore not need my car. It wasn’t. The marina was about two miles away (which is imperial for ‘a bloody long way’).
I called an Uber to take me there and was picked up by a guy who was either tired or stoned as his eyes were red. His car was also running on empty and asked if I minded if we got some fuel. I didn’t, as I had time, but then he said he’d probably be fine, then said he probably should get it, and then we got stuck in slowing traffic for the parade.
On the plus side, this little side trip took me back towards near the hotel and I said I’d end the journey here and go get my car. Poor guy looked worried he was going to get a bad rating. I collected the car and drove down to the marina. In the end it was a good thing as when we returned from the snorkel, the place was practically deserted and I would have had no way of getting back to the hotel other than walking the hour or so back.
The boat trip started at six. There were ten of us—two from Denmark, seven from the US and me. We were given info about the manta rays to start off with, how big they get, their individual markings, instructions on what to do and what not to do. The guide, Griffin, mentioned sharks and that no one had seen one, which was a bit of a joke because we’re out there at night and unless one swims underneath our lights, we really wouldn’t see them. But there had been no incidents so we were given the illusion of safety.
We boarded the boat, met Dane, our captain, and then zoomed off south down the coast. Before we left, they said the sea was very calm and flat, and for a moment I thought that perhaps Glen could have come after all, but once we were bouncing around on the water, smashing into very small waves in the speed boat, I think it was probably best Glen didn’t come along after all.
Speeding along at sunset was incredibly relaxing. The water was still (where the boats weren’t), the sun was setting, there was a lazy haze across the water, it was wonderful. We even saw a flying fish! We were going south to the waters off the Sheraton Hotel. The company goes to another site up north near the hotel but they haven’t been seen them there lately, including the night before when they ran two boats and the ones who went north didn’t see anything. I would have been gutted.
We arrived at the site where there were a lot of other tour companies and boats so it wasn’t the solitary experience that I was expecting but in the end that didn’t matter. We put on our wetsuits, fins, snorkel and mask, and then got into surprisingly warm water to hold onto a floating PVC-pipe-and-surfboard contraption with lights shining down.
It took a while to get to the right spot, seeing manta rays in the distance, barrel-rolling underneath another boat that had a lot of children on it who screamed every time the rays came near them. Eventually, however, we joined up with them and the manta rays gave us some love.
There were only four manta rays, two of which were huge, that were feeding around us, but because of their frequency visiting it felt like more. The rays would come from down low then barrel-roll so their bellies were almost touching the board, and their mouths would scoop up the plankton that was attracted to the light. It was phenomenal.
They are so majestic and swim so smoothly, none of our uncoordinated flapping about. They came close enough that I could see down their throats, or into their gills, or the individual markings on their bellies. I loved it.
We were in the water for about 45 minutes, 25-30 of that was spent having an awesome animal encounter. Our time over, we were dragged back to the boat, got out of our wetsuits, dried off, were given hot chocolate and cookies, then zoomed back to the marina.
While in the water we’d seen a few bursts of the official fireworks, but on the ride back fireworks were going off all along the coast and in the hills as people lit their own. It was nice. We ran out of fuel just outside the marina but had spare on the boat so it was a quite fill and then we were back in.
We got off the boat, handed out our tips (I never know how much outside of a restaurant), and then drove back to the hotel. The roads had reopened and the traffic was non-existent so the dire predictions didn’t come to pass. I told Glen all about the experience, mimicking barrel-rolling manta rays, and then we went for dinner over the road from the hotel, lucky to find somewhere still open at 9:30pm.
If you’re interested, the tour company is called Big Island Divers and I’d recommend them.