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Manta Rays on the Big Island: Snorkel Tours + How to See Them without Getting in the Ocean at Night ; ) 

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I’ve seen and done a lot of things in Hawaii and seeing the manta rays after dark on the Big Island is hands down one of the most special. 

While manta rays can be found throughout the Hawaiian Islands, they are particularly prolific off the coast of Kona on the Big Island. It’s actually one of the top places in the WORLD to see manta rays.

Manta rays are migratory and follow their food source (plankton), but the Kona coast is home to almost 300 permanent manta residents. 

Manta feed on plankton which are drawn to the surface of the ocean to feed off of sunlight. But by accident, a new nighttime feeding pattern was established in Kona in the 1970s. A hotel in Kona had floodlights set up by their restaurant so diners could watch the waves and it turned into a plankton hotspot, which in turn, attracted the mantas. 

The mantas learned that they could feed at night on a higher concentration of plankton, and hotels around the island learned they could set up lights to attract the mantas. 

Now, over 50 years later, nighttime dives and snorkeling tours to see the mantas are one of the island’s top offerings. 

Because the island has a large resident manta ray population (they don’t migrate), you can swim with the mantas all year round and most tours have a high success rate (85-90%) of seeing them. 

Swimming with Manta Rays on the Big Island

I’ll admit…I haven’t quite worked up the nerve to do this yet. I’m normally all about snorkel tours and the list of critters I’ve swam with is ever growing (dolphins, sharks, PIGS), but by the nature of this particular ecosystem, these manta rays only come out at night. In the ocean. EEK. 

Everyone who does this (including people who were TERRIFIED before) absolutely loves it and says it’s not bad at all once you get in the water, but I’m still not completely convinced. Maybe someday I will, but in the meantime, here’s the scoop on where to go. 

There are two main spots where the mantas hang out at night…

“Manta Village” at Keauhou Bay (near the Sheraton) and “Manta Heaven” near the airport. 

Manta Heaven has more mantas but is more crowded with boats. Manta Village statistically has fewer mantas showing up every night, but also fewer boats. I think it all evens out. And here’s the thing…the mantas are very social and curious (plus they’re eating) so they pretty much stay in the area and swoop and circle the entire time. So even if there’s just ONE manta, you’re going to be seeing it pretty much continuously. 

There are a bunch of companies that run snorkel tours via boat from Kona, and it might just come down to availability, but here are some ones to check out: 

Adventure X Boat Tours – $175/person – 1.5 hours

Anelakai Adventures – Hawaiian style paddle boats! $180/person – 1 hour tour

Coral Reef Snorkel Adventures – $99/person – 1.5 hour tour

Manta Discovery Adventures – $120/person – 1.5 hour tour

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The Manta Snorkeling Tour I Would Personally Do

 

NOW…if and when I do this, I will go with Manta Ray Advocates on their “Moonlight Swim with the Mantas.” This is the only (that I’ve found) company that departs from a beach to a private manta location. $145/person. 

They leave from the beach at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and swim (not too far) to a spot that’s rigged with a permanent light to attract the mantas. 

It’s in a small group of about six and it seems like the way to go. I actually watched the whole thing from the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel several times and I’ve really impressed. 

How to See the Mantas WITHOUT Getting in the Ocean After Dark

So like I said I’ve watched the Manta Ray Advocates tour several times from the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. And that’s because they have a place where you can see it all happen FROM DRY LAND. 

The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel has a private light set up over a manta feeding station that you can view from a platform above. 

The first time I came here, I stood for almost an hour and watched them and it was PHENOMENAL. One of my favorite things I’ve seen in Hawaii. They are so close to where you stand and they just loop back and forth constantly. 

From the hotel lookout you can watch the snorkelers come out from the beach (they swim in the water just below where you stand), and there’s usually a few boats further out in the bay too. 

I get asked a lot of questions about coming to the hotel to see the manta rays (I think a lot of people don’t love the idea of getting in the ocean after dark but still want to see them) and here’s what I know: 

The manta ray viewing platform is primarily set up for hotel guests but it’s not monitored really. 

But there is a guard shack to come into the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel so it’s kind of self regulating. 

If you’re not staying at the hotel, I would recommend making a dinner reservation at Manta, the hotel’s signature restaurant, and making an evening out of it.

Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.

The hotel also hosts a luau a couple of nights a week and that would be a great way to kill two birds with one stone. 

There is very limited public beach parking here (40 spots) and it’s all run by the hotel so when you pull up to the guard shack, you can ask about free beach parking (it usually fills up pretty early in the morning). Otherwise, you can pay to valet park ($40 but I think they’ll give you a $20 credit if you shop or dine at the resort). 

Dinner at Copper Bar or Hau Tree is less expensive than Manta and overall a real bargain compared to the price of the snorkel tours. 

If you want to see the manta rays, I really like the idea of coming to the resort for a sunset dinner (cheaper at Hau Tree, more expensive at Manta), and then making your way down to the viewing platform. Consider dinner the price of admission.

Want to read more posts about the Big Island? I’ve got plenty!

Things You Can ONLY Do on the Big Island // 7 Day Big Island Itinerary // One Day in Hilo // One Day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park // Where to Eat on the Big Island // Stargazing at Mauna Kea

Kona vs Hilo // Big Island’s Best Beach Resorts Ranked // Big Island Travel Tips

Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…

Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip

You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!

Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.

That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.

I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )

But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.

Haleakala National Park (Maui)

To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).

Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).

The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.

You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).

If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.

I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.

Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)

To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).

It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Iao Valley State Park (Maui)

To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Diamond Head (Oahu)

To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.

Hanauma Bay (Oahu)

To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.

Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.

Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).

If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.

There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.

It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).

The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.

Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.

USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)

If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.

Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.

Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???

They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.

The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.

They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.

Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)

If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:

1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.

2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.

3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.

The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.

There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.

Other Things to Book in Advance

Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):

Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and dinner reservations usually start filling up about 6 months in advance (they open up bookings 18 months in advance). Make reservations through their website and if the dates you want are already booked, you can join a waitlist. Most people have pretty good success getting in on the waitlist (even if it’s for lunch).

Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.

Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.

Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.

Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.

Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.