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Grand Central

The world’s greatest night dive is underrated. I discover this truth during the first five minutes on a site I’ve waited 20 years to dive. Here’s a secret you might not know, though: It’s the buildup to the Kona mantas that’s almost as good as the dive itself (but not quite).

As the sun dies and we began our briefing — which includes the rules for the encounters, and what to expect — aboard the expansive Kona Honu Divers’ boat deck, I watch as a handful of other boats unloads rectangular rafts bristling with snorkelers wearing different-colored lights. The snorkelers’ exclamations as the first mantas appear build to a crescendo, and the wild colors and excited chatter from the divers on the other 10 dive-only boats — it’s crowded by now — give the bay a carnival atmosphere. Two mantas appear off the dive boat’s stern, attracted to a bright-blue light attached to the ladder.

I’m one of the first of our group into the water, and as I swim to the Campfire — a collection of rocks encircling a campfirelike pit where a giant bank of lights is placed — I can see a few mantas have already begun eating in front of a few other divers. I get myself settled onto a rock and do as I was told: Point my light upward to attract the plankton, which attracts the mantas. The mantas come almost immediately, pointing directly at me and gulping up planktony goodness before banking upward at the last second.

As the rest of the divers arrive, I notice that I’m in the middle of the larger circle. I swim to the outside, next to Masa, who has bigger camera lights, and so, more plankton. He keeps getting passes from Big Bertha and Lefty, a large female with a paralyzed left cephalic fin. Despite the black sky indicating it’s night, this is hardly a proper night dive with all the lights shining down from the rafts above and the 50 divers below shining up. Mantas barrel-roll near the surface, where a several-thousands-strong school of silvery Hawaiian flagtails gathers to feed.

Toward the end of the dive, I find myself off to the edge of the group. My camera is out of battery, so I content myself by just watching. I point my light upward, quickly cultivating handfuls of plankton that gather in the beam. The plankton attract one manta, which swoops above my head again and again, barrel-rolling in the glow of my light, brushing my head with its belly. I am down for 50 minutes but could go another 50.

“The great thing about the mantas is that they’re not seasonal,” says Taiki Sakai, a divemaster with Kona Honu. “It’s amazing to think that something like this can happen every night, and yet every night is different with new mantas, old friends and mating behavior.” He gives us the final tally for our dive: 14 mantas, split evenly among male and female. He’s even managed to ID all 14; there’s Lefty’s name, as well as Big Bertha’s.

There is talk among the operators of regulating the manta night dive — to make it safer for the people and safer for the mantas — and they’ve already drafted a list of best practices. It’s a tough call: more boats, more people; more people, more lights; more lights, more plankton; more plankton, more mantas. And despite all the people, I always felt like I was getting personal attention from the mantas in the world’s greatest night dive — a title that’s challenged one night later.