No, I didn't actually pay $250,000 and hop aboard one of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space flights, but ever since I was a kid and even to this day I have yearned to journey out of our earthly atmosphere and experience the open expanse above. I'm not sure if I'll ever get the opportunity in this lifetime to go interstellar but I did recently get to experience the next closest thing. I traveled with my good friend & diving partner Alberto to the Big Island of Hawaii to do something I always said I'd never do ... jump into the ocean at night, under the cover of darkness, into the abyss where you literally see nothing. Well, I conquered my fear and what I experienced was nothing short of extraordinary. Join me as we journey into Garden Eel Cove and encounter the majestic, gentle giant of the sea, the Manta Ray.
Here is some excellent background music to go along with this particular blog post. Enjoy.
Let me start by saying that I did my research on the best company to use for this once in a lifetime experience and I'm so glad I did. I decided to go with Big Island Divers in Kona. They were not only professional but made us feel like we were the only ones on the trip. I highly recommend them if you ever get the chance to take part in this experience.
The trip consisted of 2 dives, 1 twilight dive and 1 night dive. First the twilight dive.
We headed out toward our dive spot - Garden Eel Cove. The sea was very rough and the weather was not pleasant at all. Windy, rainy, and very choppy seas made the trip very uncomfortable on the way out as those on board were being tossed around and the rest were trying to stay warm. The amazing staff at BID made us as comfortable as possible and let us know right away that the weather, although bad, was not so bad that they would cancel our trip... something we were all worried about.
We finally made it to Garden Eel Cove and the scene was very surreal.
The sun was almost down, the sky's were a worrisome grey, and it was misting on us... probably the closest you're going to get to a winter day in Hawaii. Once we anchored down and got settled we started getting briefed on our first dive. The knowledgeable staff told us about the landscape below, what we may see and the normal rules about staying together and not killing yourself. We started suiting up and almost immediately we started hearing reports that the giants we came to see during the night dive had already started arriving and they were under the boat. There was also a pod of bottle nose dolphins in the area that I immediately spotted not to far from us. We were all ecstatic and were now in high gear trying to get all suited up and ready to 'giant stride' into the cove.
TWILIGHT DIVE - GARDEN EEL COVE
I can't explain the feeling you get as you're standing on the edge of a boat looking into the deep knowing that there are giants underneath you... but it's something I wish all of you could experience. I'll give more information on the mantas a little later when we journey through the 2nd dive but for now I'll just show you some photos.
Surreal doesn't even begin to explain the feeling of navigating above the sloping, coral landscape. Peace, tranquility, and eerie silence is what enveloped me. I could barely comprehend what I was seeing... I knew it was real but it felt more like I was in a dream state. I'll let the photos speak for themselves. In them you will see my first encounter with the gentle giants I've come to love as they glide effortlessly along side, underneath, and above me ... also an absolutely amazing coral mountain slope and other fascinating sea life.
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DIVING AFTER DARK - OUTER SPACE
Re-surfacing and climbing back onto the boat I realize this will be an evening I will absolutely never forget! If the adventure would have ended right then and there I would have been left in awe, telling of my experience for the rest of my life... but it didn't end ... in fact there was so much more to behold, but to experience it I would have to conquer one of my deepest fears.
I don't know why but I think we have all been afraid of the dark in one way or another at some point in our lives. Whether it's in your bedroom as a child or walking down the street at night with no street lights... there is something that has the power to grip and paralyze you. In my adult hood I had defeated all other forms of being 'scared of the dark' accept for 1 area... the ocean! The thought of sinking into the vastness in complete darkness where the only thing you can see is the tiny beam of light coming from your little light just terrified me. I had come too far. I was not backing down now. This was it! My heart was about to pound out of my chest as we were sitting there in the dark, listening to the safety briefing and teetering back and forth on the rocking vessel.
We're all geared up, our heads are spinning from all the information we'd been given, our LED tracking lights are connected to our BCDs so we don't get lost in the darkness, and we are ready to jump into the unknown.
I'm standing on the edge of the boat and it's my turn. I have the same churning in my stomach that I had the first time I ever jumped out of an airplane at 12,000 ft... the only difference is ... this time I can literally see nothing... I thought, "at least in outer space you can see planets and stars"... here, nothing. I put my regulator in my mouth ... uttered a silent prayer and leaped off the boat. I was immediately disoriented and felt cold. I was confused, wet, and desperately trying to orient myself with the surface and trying to find the light of our underwater guide. Breathing very heavily I finally got my bearings and could see our guide over near the anchor line of our boat. I quickly swam over to meet him ... grabbed onto the line and began to calm myself and control my breathing. There we waited on the rest of the divers in our group to come meet us so we could descend to the ocean floor and witness something beyond amazing.
Garden Eel Cove is one of the only places on earth where you can experience and get up close and personal with Giant Manta Rays at night as they gather in large groups to feed. Here are a few facts about these magnificent, gentle creatures:
1.) Mantas can grow to nearly 25 feet from wingtip to wingtip, live for a quarter century, and will consume about 60 pounds of plankton and small fish each day by filter feeding.
2.) Despite its size (1-2 tons - the weight of a average car), manta rays are completely harmless to humans with no stinger and 300 useless skin covered little teeth. Being filter feeders, the standard diet consists of crustaceans, plankton and small fish.
3.) Mantas have the largest brains of all 32,000 species (approximately) of fish known to date. They display intelligent behavior, such as coordinated and cooperative feeding.
4.) Like leopard sharks, manta rays can be individually identified by the spots on the underside of their bodies.
5.) Mantas, were once tagged with the unflattering name “devilfish” because the cephalic lobes attached to each side of their mouths resemble horns. When extended, the flattened lobes help direct food into their mouths.
6.) Giant manta rays, in particular, are truly deep-divers. To keep these large brains warm these rays have an amazing counter-current heat exchange system going on within their veins and arteries, which allows them to become effectively warm-blooded, or at least keep their temperature more stable than most fish.
7.) Mantas produce only one large baby on average every one to three years. They also grow slowly and have a long lifespan, some wild manta rays have been seen over 30-year-periods.
8.) Mantas have no bones in their massive bodies, their structure is made of cartilage.
We are now all on the ocean floor shining our lights up toward the surface to attract the plankton that the mantas will be feasting on. Snorkelers are on the surface shining lights down toward the floor thus creating a crazy light ball in the middle. The plankton have to be the dumbest creatures on the planet because every night around the same time these lights show up and they think, " It's light outside ... that must mean it's morning time... think I'll go see what's going on over there", and then they become a meal for the hungry and excited dinner guests!
The photos will explain the experience far better than I can so I'll leave you with this:
I can literally say this was one of, if not the best experiences of my life and I urge you, if you ever get the chance, do it! These giants, with wingspans of up to 16 ft were larger and heavier than most cars and were gliding around like massive spaceships that I've only seen the likes of on Battlestar Galactica. They were so graceful in their movements, displaying twists, turns, summersaults, and scooping down right on top of my head ... touching me... but not harming me. The draft and wake of their powerful bodies would drag me through the water as they passed by. Most of the divers that were with me were picking up rocks on the seafloor and putting them in their laps so they wouldn't be swept away by the manta's current. Being so up close and personal with these majestic beings made me realize once again, just how small I really am in this world.
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