Big Wings Off The Big Island

Where: Kona, Hawaii

Manta rays are huge, magical beasts. Although completely harmless, they can be awfully intimidating at first sight as they propel themselves through the water with wingspans that reach up to 5m (16 ft.), long skinny tails, and up to a ton of weight. Watching these gentle giants glide, pivot, and somersault above your head in the middle of the ocean's dark lair is one of scuba diving's biggest thrills.

There are a few places in the world where you can dive with manta rays in their natural environment (Micronesia and Mexico are two others), but the Pacific Ocean off the Big Island of Hawaii is probably the best. In fact, divers often call the clear calm water off of Kona "manta heaven." The two volcanoes here, on the western side of the island, have helped create an underwater paradise of caves, cliffs, and tunnels that attract a stunning array of marine life. Diving during the day offers a wide variety of mind-blowing sights. Yet the most unforgettable dive must be done at night.

Beneath the moonlight, as you descend 9m to 21m (30 ft. to 70 ft.) into the ocean and shine your dive lights up toward the surface, millions of miniscule organisms congregate, attracted to the glow. Mantas, in turn, are attracted to the plankton you've made appear and they come quickly to feast on the dinner being served with wide open mouths. As they gracefully push through the water like cape-wearing ballerinas, you'll be amazed by how close they come to you, sometimes just an inch away.

In such close proximity to your new nimble friends, you might be tempted to pet one. Resist the urge. The rule with mantas is to look but not touch. You don't want to risk scraping off a layer of mucus and subjecting the mantas to bacterial infection. For more information on research, education, and conservation efforts, visit the Manta Pacific Research Foundation (

In the depths of the ocean, the adrenaline surges fast. As you're gazing in wonder at the manta rays, a moray eel might tickle your legs on the prowl for fish. You may also see shrimp, crabs, and some sleeping sea creatures. After 45 minutes or so (the length of a typical dive), the divers turn off their lights and start rising toward the surface for air. As their audience exits, the mantas slowly disperse.

Even if you're not scuba-certified, you can still witness the mantas' dance. Snorkelers are permitted to watch the show from the surface. While you won't get as close as divers or be in control of the food supply, you can still get a good rush from this position. --JS

Information: Big Island Visitors Bureau, 65-1158 Mamalahoa Hwy., Kamuela (tel. 800/885-1655;

Travel Providers: Jack's Diving Locker, 75-5813 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona (tel. 800/345-4807;

When to Go: Year-round, though summer and fall offer the best conditions.

Getting There: Kona airport.

Where to Stay: Waianuhea, 45-3505 Kahana Dr. (tel. 808/775-1118;