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Hawaii's Snorkeling Paradise
By Rick Millikan
For Travel Writers' Tales

The Big Island's underwater world fascinates me. From our Kona coast resort, my wife and I initially explore adjacent Kahalu'u Beach Park where a reef encloses a sublime bay. Meeting green sea turtles and collections of finny friends, investigations climax with a snowflake moray eel wiggly-jiggling into white cauliflower coral.

An hour's drive away, another protected bay lies outside the sacred palm-shaded Place of Refuge, where once Hawaiians sought sanctuary within its high 1,000-foot long lava-stone walls. Off Honaunau Bay's lava ledges…nicknamed by locals as "three steps…" I jump into crystal waters to admire a coral wonderland, recognizing many of Hawaii's astonishing fish, which often resemble terrestrial namesakes: butterfly, parrot, hawk, turkey, squirrel, goat, hog, and lizard-fish. In this swirl of color roams Hawaii's tongue twisting and famed humu-humu-nuku-nuku-apu'a'a, which means snouted pig fish.

Boats access further splendid marine sanctuaries. Boarding the Fair Wind II at Keauhou Bay, we embark on an extraordinary maritime adventure. Spinner dolphins surf in the sleek catamaran's wake. Arriving at beautiful and historic Kealakekua Bay our captain points out a tall white obelisk. "That's the Cook Monument. Captain Cook was first welcomed here as a god in 1779…but months later slain as a troublesome mortal." Then his crew instructs us on habitat preservation and safety, distributing flotation devices and snorkeling gear, including prescription masks.

Cleaning my lens, I climb down the stern ladder and snorkel off into kaleidoscopes of piscine beauties. Fancifully striped Moorish idols and silvery unicorn tangs parade by, yellow trumpet-fish pose idly ready to slurp a meal, small neon bright wrasses clean other finned kindred and red cardinal fish gather in the shadowy depths. Preying on a purple sea urchin, a triggerfish fires water jets to flip it over. Below, a small brown octopus slithers and curls under cauliflower coral…

Following a tasty barbeque and one last dip for snorkelers in this phenomenal bay, the captain gathers us up and sets a homeward course. The onboard naturalist begins a media program on marine animals. Midway through her tale about a monk seal that had ventured into this bay and mischievously tugged peoples' fins, the captain announces, "A humpback mother and calf are off the bow at two o'clock…" Everyone hustles forward to watch these marvelous mammoth mammals…

Yet, the most incredible of ocean encounters involves the devilfish. Their chilling name derives from their large cephalic horns that unfurl at nighttime to scoop plankton into their huge mouths. Boasting fearsome wingspans from three to sixteen-feet and weighing from 800 to 2,000 pounds, these toothless filter feeders are actually harmless. For over two decades shoreline spotlights at a nearby Keauhou resort have attracted these magnificent creatures, popularly known now as Manta Rays.

Returning dockside at sunset, we board the Hula Kai to dive with manta rays at the only place on earth that offers such experiences. The videographer sits on the bow telling us how researchers identified this area's 150 mantas by noting distinctive spot patterns on their backs and discovering that these unique creatures live only here, off Kona's sunny coast. He warns us against touching them, as scraping their mucus membranes causes skin lesions and infections. His Big Bertha story makes us wonder if this awesome 2,500-pound beauty with her 18-foot wingspan will appear tonight. Estimated at 50 years old, we learn she's lived only half her potential life...

Snuggly svelte in our wetsuits for this cool adventure, our group eagerly plunges into the dark water and swims to a long raft aglow with pot lamps. Scuba divers sit on rocky ledges twenty-five feet below, pointing flashlights upward. Our collection of bright lights readily attracts plankton…thereby mantas.

Bobbing under starry skies watching these minuscule organisms rise from the coral, I discern their snaky embryonic bodies squirming in a nearby beam. Small silvery fish dart into view, snapping up these tiny critters.

Within minutes, the first manta swoops into view! Soon afterward, two more join the festivities, flapping their powerful six and eight-foot wings. Endowed with amazing vision and electromagnetic sense, they swirl and sweep around us, all the while scooping up their nightly meal. With flexible cartilage and powerful muscles, these marine ballerinas perform perfect pirouettes and jetes. One soars toward me...and just before contact, barrel rolls sharply away, exposing her bright-white underbelly. Surely the ocean's most graceful creatures, they mesmerize us for nearly an hour with their amazing choreography.

Water wonderments end far too soon. Yet surely we'll return for further Big Island adventures and delight in new maritime encounters.


Hawaii's Big Island Tourism Site overflows with aloha spirit, photos citing exciting possibilities and planning considerations.

Luxurious Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa offers nightly Manta Ray visits seen from its deck and evening Manta programs in the adjacent lounge.

Fair Wind provides info-taining cruises and helps guests have a terrific time at Kealakekua Bay. Their manta encounters conclude with soup, warm rolls and hot drinks.

For four decades along Kailua's waterfront Huggo's. specializes in fresh deep sea Hawaiian fish and Pacific cuisine. Manta Rays may be sighted here as well…


1.Author Enjoying K. Bay- The author snorkeling Kealakekua Bay! (R.Millikan)
2.Manta Snorkel Raft.jpg- The raft lighting attracts mantas. (Fair Wind Photo)
3.Manta ray.jpg- Manta sweeping the ocean for plankton. (Fair Wind Photo)
4.Manta Snorkeler.jpg- A large gentle manta soars into view. (Fair Wind Photo)
5.Barreling Manta Snorkelers.jpg- This manta performs a barrel roll. (Fair Wind Photo)

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