Manta Madness: Experiencing the iconic Kona Manta Dive

Love manta rays? Then get ready for the ultimate adventure as the Edges of Earth team shares their experiences of Hawaii’s iconic Kona manta dive. Not everything went to plan but the rewards were well worth waiting for! Read on to find out more.

When we think of diving, we often have images in our minds of reef sharks circling in the shallows of the Bahamas, the manta ray aggregations of Hanifaru Bay in the Maldives, or the vibrant and colorful finger reefs of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Yes, these are all spectacular dives and offer many of us once-in-a-lifetime experiences. But not all diving is so glamorous. In fact, the more you dive, the more you realize that diving will not always offer up the marine encounters of your dreams. As a diver, you have to accept the conditions, for better or worse—living through just as many rough swells, choppy seas, and zero visibility when on the quest to explore more of the underwater world. 

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But having all different kinds of diving experiences is what makes you a better diver. And, for many of us, a dive is a good dive, as it means we are out on the water! As much as diving involves commitment and practice, it also involves a lot more patience than one might assume. Not every day can be manta madness (at least not for most of us).

When I started diving back in 2018, I got lucky with a few dives right out of the gates that blew me away. The magnitude of these first couple of dives was maybe what got me so hooked on the sport in the first place. But at that point in my career, just about anything would have been good enough for me—I was breathing underwater after all! 

However, my luck seemed to turn shortly after that initial burst. If I went to a dive destination with hopes of seeing manta rays, they would not be there. If I went searching for whale sharks, it would be the ONE season in recent history where there were none. 

That’s the thing about diving: you cannot predict or try to force wild encounters

You can try to line up your timing and seasons perfectly to see that one marine animal you are obsessed with. But it still will not matter when the sport often hinges on luck. When you are new to scuba, it might be frustrating to feel like you are missing out on the best of encounters and that you might have traveled quite far for it with high expectations. Especially if your opportunities for diving are limited. Yet, like many worthwhile experiences in our lives, patience is essential to successfully embrace the art of scuba diving

This proved to be especially true when it came to diving in Hawaii. That was a dive destination I had on my radar for quite some time, and I was praying that Mother Nature’s schedule would somehow magically line up for our expedition team as we ventured to the Big Island to experience the famous Kona manta dive. 

Dating back to my first days of diving, I had heard rumors of the legendary "night diving with manta rays" in the vicinity of Kona, the main town on this special Hawaiian island. And I heard, that when all the stars align, the Kona manta dive can be spectacular.

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When it comes to the list of dive destinations on our expedition trail, our team generally advocates for exploring them outside of peak seasons. This is mostly to prevent us from contributing to any over-tourism the location might be experiencing and minimizes our time on sites that typically get hit with lots of activity. 

Even though we yearn to see species in the best of their natural element, there is nothing worse than contributing to the problem many locations around the world are experiencing. We try to be thoughtful about our timing and scheduling to ensure we put as little pressure on the ecosystems we explore as possible.

So, instead of arriving during manta peak season in Hawaii, which is typically May through September, we opted for February. This also allowed us to line up our schedule with the World Surf League’s Pipeline Pro event on Oahu to witness elite surfing at its finest. 

From there, we went to the Big Island to test our luck with the Kona manta dive. As always, we sought out the professional divers who have been studying and protecting these marine marvels throughout their careers. This is what led us straight to a man named Keller Laros, also affectionately known as "Manta Man."

Keller is a character! Ripping "Dad jokes" faster than you can blink, his always-on and full-throttle personality makes every manta dive exciting no matter how many (or how few) mantas you see. Living on the Big Island for the last 30 years, he founded a nonprofit organization called Manta Pacific Research Foundation

With this level of experience, he knows quite literally everything about the island’s manta population—from their names to how many years he has spotted individuals underwater, even down to their specific and individual behaviors. 

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For him, every dive is a chance to observe, record, and report his findings, all contributing to a database of information he has kept on Big Island’s unique manta population for the last three decades. This is an ongoing motivation for Keller: to have the most up-to-date knowledge base on everything about these mantas, to ultimately share this knowledge with all the right people.

Simply put, there was no one better than Keller to show our expedition team everything there is to know about mantas. We had found our guy in Hawaii.

Greeting us at the airport late at night, Keller seemed a bit more dejected than the grandiose personality I had come to expect from our prior phone calls. For the last two weeks, Keller and his usual crew had not seen many mantas at all. The night before our arrival, they had to cancel their dives due to bad weather. He seemed apprehensive, to say the least, and so were we. 

This dream dive experience I had in my mind seemed to be one where we had to give into Mother Nature’s demands. After a night of perfect sleep at the OUTRIGGER Kona Resort & Spa—the property that helped to put manta diving on the map (more on that later)—we were off to finally experience the legendary Kona manta dive. 

Experiencing the iconic Kona manta dive…or not.

Our boat ride out to the dive site near the Kona airport felt like it took only five minutes. The water was calm, there was zero current, and our team was excited about the possibilities. At around 3 pm, we began our first manta dive.

Although we had nearly perfect visibility, the water temperature was that of California’s Pacific, forcing us to wear 5mm wetsuits with layers, all while pushing heater packs into any open space we could find. Shocked by this cold water, we took the plunge and were floored by what we saw: absolutely nothing. 

Keller glared at us with the expression of a concerned father, and we all could not help but succumb to a sense of despair, feeling that our luck had completely run out.

Regardless, we were happy to be out there. The water was peaceful. The vibes were nice. Whales beached in the distance and the epic display of the Hawaiian sunset alone was enough to lift our spirits. Keller and his crew were sharing jokes during our surface interval, keeping us highly entertained (and our minds off the fact there might not be mantas!)

But now, as the night fell, everyone waited for the main event. Around 6:30 pm, we started to kit up, and soon enough, we descended once again into the temperate Hawaiian winter water. Dropping down to the seafloor, we set up lights to help attract the plankton that mantas feed on and hovered at the bottom patiently. 

Within minutes, up to 20 manta rays flooded the area, slowly swooping around us and feeding on the abundant plankton. 

It was pitch black aside from these lights, making the scene rather eerie and mysterious. One by one, mantas practically touched our heads, forcing us to crouch down behind nearby rocks to ensure no physical interaction. And for over an hour, we were captivated by the sight, all while Keller took notes on every little detail happening down there. Just like that, our luck had turned around. This was the Kona manta dive experience we had been waiting for.

Coming to the surface was one of those moments you cannot recreate. The unanimous level of excitement, appreciation, and enthusiasm was off the charts. Everyone was stoked to realize the two-week curse was broken and Kona was back to its manta madness! For the next week, we dove day and night alongside Keller, watching him at work and marveling at the mantas he gets to dive with regularly. Every night, the manta count got greater and greater!

On one of our last days in Kona, we decided to go to the dive site right off the OUTRIGGER Kona Resort & Spa with Keller. About 30 years ago, it was discovered here that lights attract the plankton, and therefore attract the manta rays. And it was at the OUTRIGGER that Kona’s famous "night diving with mantas" experience was born. Ever since, for those in the scuba community, this is the place to be for the closest proximity to the best manta sightings on Big Island. However, we decided we wanted to make it a day dive and test our luck once more. 

We had already felt like we had hit the jackpot with our Kona manta dives, but we had no idea what was about to unfold. We saw spinner dolphins playing in the distance. Gigantic bait balls of fish were swarming all around us. And out of the corner of my eye, I saw a big shadow moving closer to our team. Through the massive fish ball came a perfect manta, who Keller informed us was named Quarantina. And for nearly 45 minutes, she circled us curiously, appreciating us at our safe distance. I am not exaggerating when I say, this dive was one of the most profound experiences we have ever had underwater. 

We felt almost spiritually linked to this manta, as her eyes watched our every move. And it was one of those dives where we remembered why we got into this sport in the first place. 

It also left a lasting impression, reminding us why we continue to fight for the ocean. Why we need to continue telling the stories of those on the frontlines of conservation who spend their days protecting gateway species, like the mantas, and their ecosystems. With Keller showing us his world, the OUTRIGGER opening its doors to us, and the mantas reminding us of our forever "why," our Kona manta dive experiences were one for the books. 

I will leave you with this final note, from one obsessive scuba diver to the next: if you are considering your next adventure and you have had your sights on Hawaii, there is one person you must call. 

Carve out time in your schedule to experience the legendary Kona manta dive with Keller and more than just a single dive. You are going to step off that dive boat wanting more! For all you know, you are up next, and Mother Nature will pull out all the stops for you too. 

Ready for the ultimate manta experience? Click the link below to plan your Kona manta dive:


Andi Cross is an SSI Ambassador and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of positive ocean progress and how to explore the world more consciously. To keep up with the expedition, follow the team on InstagramLinkedInTikTokYouTube, and their website