ADVENTURING TO A NEWFOUNDLAND OUTPORT

Examining a map of Newfoundland, I noticed some dashed lines curving out over the Atlantic Ocean and paralleling the coast. One of these lines led out from the remote port of Burgeo, on the south coast, and looped along the coastline, stopping at a few tiny and isolated communities. I wanted to experience one of these outports, which are connected to the rest of Newfoundland only by a small ferry, so we made plans to visit the village of Francois in the middle of February.

Fishing Stages and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a S
Fishing stages and colorful homes in Francois during a snowstorm

The first leg of the journey was the drive to Burgeo, a fishing village accessed by Route 480 from the Trans-Canada Highway near Stephenville. The wild and beautiful landscape was covered with deep snow, and the conifers were magically encrusted with a thick layer of hard snow so that, in places, they looked like snow elves. We kept our eyes alert for Woodland Caribou, but didn’t see any on the drive. When we reached Burgeo, we stayed at a small motel that would be convenient for catching a ferry the next morning.

View of Bay In Burgeo, Newfoundland
View of colorful houses across rocky bay from Sandbanks Provincial Park in Burgeo, Newfoundland

We packed what we would need for the trip in two suitcases and left the rest in the car, since we couldn’t take a car on the Marine Voyager ferry. These communities have no roads and no cars, so all that is needed is a foot ferry, albeit one that can carry enough cargo to meet a small community’s daily needs. We walked up the ramp on the ice-covered boat, then descended into a room for the passengers. Comfortable seats, round portholes, and a soap opera on the television – what more could we hope for? We paid our fee of $6 per passenger, which was clearly subsidized by the government, and settled in for our sailing along the coast.

Karen Rentz on Ferry Marine Voyager In Burgeo, Newfoundland
Karen Rentz on ferry Marine Voyager, which takes foot passengers and cargo between Burgeo and the outports of Grey River and Francois, leaving the dock in Burgeo, Newfoundland, Canada
Captain on Bridge of the Ferry Marine Voyager In Burgeo, Newfoun
Captain steering Ferry Marine Voyager, which takes foot passengers and cargo between Burgeo and the outports of Grey River and Francois, leaving the dock in Burgeo
Passenger Cabin on Ferry Marine Voyager In Burgeo, Newfoundland
Passenger cabin interior on ferry Marine Voyager

There were only a couple of other passengers, and they lived in the villages of Grey River and Francois (a French name Newfoundlandized to “Fran-Sway.”) We were invited up to the bridge for a front-row seat and visit with the captain, who was a lifelong resident of Francois. One of the other passengers, a younger man named Cody who owned a fishing boat, introduced himself to us as well. He was also a lifelong resident of Francois and he told us about the community and what he liked about living there. 

Hesitantly we asked the captain if he thought the ferry would be running two days later when we wanted to make our return trip, which would give us enough time to drive back to St. John’s and catch our flight back to the USA. He said this was the first time the boat had sailed for a week because of storms but that the weather looked good for our return trip. We had two nights at Francois and could enjoy ourselves. We had been watching the marine forecast every day for the past two weeks of our trip, trying to find a three-day window of weather when the ferry would be running; there were high winds and high seas every day and then finally the forecast looked good.

Houses in the Outport of Grey River, Newfoundland
Waterfront with floating pancake ice at the outport of Grey River, which is snuggled along a fjord, viewed from the ferry Marine Voyager

The south coast of Newfoundland has a series of fjords, which provide sheltered locations and harbors for fishing communities. The village of Grey River was the first village we came to, and was located partway up a fjord. We motored through pancake ice and past colorful houses to the dock, where about ten people were waiting for the boat. All these people helped unload bread and beer and Amazon boxes full of the stuff a small community needs. Snowmobiles and ATVs were the transportation in town.

Structures in the Outport of Grey River, Newfoundland
Unloading and transporting cargo at the outport of Grey River, which is snuggled along a fjord, viewed from the ferry Marine Voyager
ATV Transporting Cargo from Ferry to Store in the Outport of Gre
Transporting cargo from dock to store by ATV at the outport of Grey River
Waterfront and Sea Ice in the Outport of Grey River, Newfoundlan
Waterfront with glaze of sea ice at the outport of Grey River

We soon set sail again, with no new passengers – after all, who would go from Grey River to Francois in the middle of winter? The sea was rough and it started to snow, and was just about dark when we carefully navigated the narrow fjord that ends at Francois. By this time the wind was howling and the driven snow stung our exposed faces. We didn’t know where our rental place was, but the captain and another man showed us the way and took our bags for us on a snowmobile. We settled into our place for two nights, and ventured outside briefly to get a feeling for the town.

Snowstorm Hitting Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Snowstorm at night when the ferry Marine Voyager reached the outport village of Francois
Snowstorm Hitting Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Snowstorm when ferry Marine Voyager reached the public dock in the outport village of Francois, transportation of cargo by snowmobile and ATV
Karen Rentz in Snowstorm in Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Karen Rentz in snowstorm at night when the ferry Marine Voyager reached Francois
Snowstorm and Ferry in Outport of Francois, Newfoundland
Snowstorm when ferry Marine Voyager reached the public dock in Francois

We spent the next day wandering the village along its boardwalks and pathways – remember, there are no roads needed in a town with no cars or trucks. All the houses are connected by these paths. The town is small, but has Sharon’s Place, a grocery and liquor store that is open morning, afternoon, and evening, with breaks for lunch and supper. There is a church that sits above the rest of town, and a large school that currently has six students and one-and-a-half teachers. This must be one of the smallest schools in the world in terms of the number of students! But education also arrives by computer, with courses available to older students online. There is a medical clinic, but no permanent doctor in town. There is a helipad used during emergencies.

Colorful Houses and Fishing Stages in Francois Outport in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois
Wooden Sidewalk in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Wooden community sidewalk in Francois, a place with no roads

Colorful houses are a feature of the town, with red and purple and turquoise tones mixed together in a delightful jumble. In winter some are occupied and some are not, with some people leaving for part of the year for jobs. There are stages along the waterfront: small buildings on stilts where fishermen stored gear and later processed the catch. These are a distinctive and wonderful feature of all the Newfoundland coastal towns.

Colorful Houses and Fishing Stages in Francois Outport in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois
Colorful Houses and Stages in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Colorful houses and stages along the fjord containing Francois
Public Outhouse in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Public outhouse in Francois, with the slogan “I take crap from everyone!”
Shed with Moose Antlers in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Shed with Moose and Caribou antlers in Francois
FIshing Stage in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Fishing stage window with fishing ropes coiled inside along waterfront in Francois
Cleat and Rope for Docking in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Cleat and rope for docking in Francois

We walked past one house just as a lady in perhaps her late 70s was leaving the house on this snowy morning to meet for morning coffee with two other ladies who were 84 and 85 years old. We spoke with her briefly, and she told us she had lived her entire life in Francois. There were 89 people living in this little town in 2016, and we met perhaps eight of them – all of whom had lived here nearly their entire lives, except for time spent in the military or going to school. This lady was really concerned about the dwindling population of Francois.

As the snow continued to fall, we met up again with Cody from yesterday’s boat ride when he drove up on his Ski-Doo (the Newfoundland name for all snow machines) and chatted with him about the town. After graduating from the town’s school, the St. Simon & St. Jude Academy, he went to work on his father’s fishing boat. Later, he bought his own boat and now fishes for crabs, lobster, scallops, and sea cucumbers with his wife and up to five crew members.

Fisherman in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoundland
Cody, a fisherman who has lived his whole life in Francois, and now owns his own boat harvesting scallops, lobster, crabs, and sea cucumbers
Fishing Boat in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Fishing boat along colorful waterfront in Francois
Fishing Gear in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoundl
Fishing gear on a boat in Francois
Fishing Boat in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Fishing boat along colorful waterfront in Francois
Fishing Boat in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoundl
Red building with firewood, crab traps, and a high birdhouse
Colorful Houses in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois
Colorful Houses in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfou
Colorful houses and fishing stages in Francois during a heavy snowstorm
Snowmobiles are a Great Way to get around Francois Outport in Wi
Ski-Doo operator transporting stuff on a trailer on the wooden sidewalk in Francois
Fishing Stages in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoun
Fishing stages in Francois
Fishing Stage in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfound
Old fishing stage in Francois, where gear is kept, bait prepared, and fish cleaned

 Cody’s diverse fishing activity is a big change from the past, when the fishery was based upon the seemingly never-ending cod supplies. Alas, every time people think that a natural resource is unlimited, they use it up, and Newfoundland’s fishery was no exception. It was devastated by overfishing of the once common cod, a harvest made possible by technological advances utilized by both Canadian and foreign companies. In July 1992, with cod stocks down to less than 1% of historic levels, the Canadian government abruptly shut down the 500-year old cod fishery in order to try and save the fish. This instantly put 30,000 Newfoundlanders out of work and devastated local communities. In the years since some, like Cody, were able to diversify and found a path to the future. Others found a future in tourism, which is starting to take off in Newfoundland. The cod has since rebounded but the fishery is extremely small and limited compared to the good old days. Just try to get fresh cod in Newfoundland most of the year! 

A bit later we ran into another man on the boardwalk who was driving his Ski-Doo. He stopped to talk and told us that he was also a lifelong resident, but he didn’t make his living on the open ocean. He was a helicopter pilot who had worked for the Canadian Coast Guard, but now owns his own company and ferries a lot of people on remote hunting trips, mostly for Moose.

Snowmobiles are a Great Way to get around Francois Outport in Wi
Ski-Doo operators meeting on the wooden sidewalk in Francois
Sharons Place and Snowmobiles in Francois Outport during a Snows
Sharon’s Place, a general store, liquor store, and gathering place, with snowmobiles in Francois
Sign on Public School in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Sign on St. Simon-St. Jude Academy, the public school, saying “A Clean Town is a Happy Town”

As I mentioned, the houses are scattered all around town seemingly randomly, with no clear lot boundaries. We asked one man about this, and he said that all the houses are built on Crown land, which is government land. People own their houses, but not the land under them.

We met another man driving his Ski-Doo who we had seen shoveling snow off a boat, which turned out to be his uncle’s boat. He works fishing for herring, crabs, lobster, and sea cucumbers. He was also a lifelong resident … are we beginning to see a pattern here? People are born here and live their whole lives here, though with a strong tether by ferry and by the internet and television to the larger world. When we asked Cody about his fellow citizens, he said that most everyone gets along well in town, but over time some people are moving away and the population is getting smaller.

Fishing Stages in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfoun
Fishing stages in Francois during a heavy snowstorm
Fishing Stage and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a Sn
Fishing stage and colorful homes in Francois during a snowstorm
Fishing Stages and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a S
Fishing stages and colorful homes in Francois
Fishing Stage in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfound
Fishing stage, where gear is kept and equipment maintained and bait prepared
Fishing Boats in Francois Outport during a Snowstorm in Newfound
Fishing boat in Francois during a snowstorm
Crab Post and Stage  in Francois Outport in Newfoundland
Crab pots and boat on a dock in Francois

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador has had a decades-long effort to move people away from the outports, which require huge government subsidies for ferry and helicopter transportation and education and medical care. By now, most Newfoundland outports have been abandoned, with the people voting to disband their towns and move elsewhere, but Grey River and Francois have been exceptions. In Francois, the question has come up for a vote twice over the years, but both times it was defeated (the latest in 2013) and the people remained. I understood that if the people voted to move out, the government would pay each homeowner $250,000 to compensate for the abandoned homes. It still could happen, but it is wonderful to see a few of the outports still hanging on against the tide of modernization.

I continued to photograph the buildings and waterfront and falling snow to my heart’s content on this wonderful day, when we talked to more strangers than we usually talk to in a week. Newfoundlanders are like that … they go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome, and we did.

Francois Outport at Night in Newfoundland
Francois at blue hour twilight
Francois Outport at Night in Newfoundland
Francois at blue hour twilight along a fjord with mountain towering above
Francois Outport at Night in Newfoundland
Francois, at blue hour twilight with lights reflecting off the fjord
Fishing Stages and Colorful Homes in Francois Outport during a S
Colorful homes in Francois

There is even a good story that might be mostly true or wholly true about a German submarine that entered the fjord containing Francois during World War II. It came to quietly get fresh water for its tanks at a waterfall entering the sea. It was on a Saturday night and there was a dance at the community center in town; some handsome but unknown young men showed up who knew little English and who danced the night away with the local girls. The young women apparently thought that these might be Basque fishermen who often fished nearby, and didn’t realize that the men were German sailors.

Francois Bay in Early Morning from the Ferry Marine Voyager in N
Francois Bay in early morning from the ferry Marine Voyager, after leaving the quaint outport of Francois in Newfoundland
Newfoundland, Canada
Francois Bay in morning light
West Point Light Tower at Mouth of Francois Bay in Newfoundland
West Point Light Tower at mouth of Francois Bay viewed in winter morning light from the ferry Marine Voyager
Ferry Smashing into Waves along South Coast of Newfoundland
Ferry Marine Voyager smashing into waves on the open ocean between the outports of Francois and Grey River in Newfoundland
Ferry Smashing into Waves along South Coast of Newfoundland
Ferry Marine Voyager smashing into waves on the open ocean between the outports of Francois and Grey River in Newfoundland
Waves from Ferry in Fjord Leading to Grey River Outport in Newfo
Waves from ferry Marine Voyager distorting mountain reflections in the fjord leading to the outport of Grey River
Colorful Houses and Sea Ice at the Grey River Outport in Newfoun
Ferry Marine Voyager passing the colorful houses and sea ice at the outport of Grey River
Ferry at Entrance to Fjord Leading to Grey River Outport in Newf
Ferry Marine Voyager passing mouth of the fjord leading to the outport of Grey River
Bridge of Ferry Marine Voyager Plying South Coast of Newfoundlan
Bridge and wheel on Ferry Marine Voyager near Burgeo

The next morning we prepared to leave Francois for the voyage back, and the ferry Captain came to retrieve us. The morning showed a bit of sun and good weather for an ocean trip, so we went down to the dock and prepared to leave. The trip back was stunningly beautiful, with morning sun kissing the snow-covered headlands. And we got back in time to make the long drive to St. John’s to catch our flight.

Ferry Passing Colorful Houses at Burgeo, Newfoundland
Arriving in Burgeo from Francois and Grey River outports in Newfoundland, Canada

To view more of the photographic work by Lee Rentz, go to leerentz.com, where you can see thousands of photographs and purchase a special one for your walls.

BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII: Virgin Snorkelers at Kapoho Tide Pools

Our lives have moments of pure awakening, when we experience a place (or a new idea or fresh music or a great book) for the first time. That was our experience in the Kapoho Tide Pools, a wonderful coral reef south of Hilo.

Snorkelers and Coral Reef off Big Island of HawaiiKaren Rentz and our friend floating over the Kapoho coral reef

Our lives have moments of pure awakening, when we experience a place (or a new idea or fresh music or a great book) for the first time. That was our experience snorkeling in the Kapoho Tide Pools, a wonderful coral reef south of Hilo.

Reflections of Coral Reef on Surface of Kapoho Tide Pools off HaDappled by sunlight, the coral reef casts its reflections up on the surface

Snorkeling was entirely new to us. The idea of safely breathing underwater while encountering strange creatures was so alien that we wondered if we could even do it. A variety of relatives and friends had tried it and had trouble with trying to breathe and swim underwater at the same time. We were apprehensive, but how can you go to Hawaii and not even try? On the other hand, we didn’t try surfing, the other great Hawaiian form of water play.

We started by visiting a dive shop, and getting lots of advice on masks and snorkels. After purchasing our first masks and snorkels (from an online source, without fitting the masks first–a big mistake!), we visited our local high school swimming pool during free swim hours, and learned how to breathe through a snorkel, knowing that a life guard might be able to save us if we inhaled water instead of air. I took the risky step of investigating–then purchasing–a truly expensive underwater camera housing so that I could potentially take some coral reef photographs. That step forced me to make it a success!

For snorkeling wear, we each obtained a shorty wetsuit, which covers the torso and thighs and upper arms, and gives some warmth in cool seas. In May in Hawaii, it proved to be just right, though on land I felt like I had been stuffed into a casing like a sausage. We also wore neoprene caps to keep our heads warm and out of the sun. Finally, we wore neoprene booties to prevent the abrasion of the upper foot surfaces that flippers can cause. After all these purchases, we read that two Washington State snorkelers had just drowned while trying this new activity off the Hawaiian coast. Oh oh …

We flew to Hawaii, then drove around the island to visit some old friends who are now living on old lava flows south of Hilo. They had agreed to host our first few days in Hawaii, and to teach us how to snorkel in a place that has the reputation of being among the best snorkeling places on the Big Island. First they took us to a small cove along the coast that features water heated by volcanic activity. It was like snorkeling in bathwater, and was a shallow and forgiving place to try the basic techniques. There were even a few coral reef fish enjoying the water with us.

After graduating from the kiddie pool, we went with our friends to the Kapoho Tide Pools, which is actually a narrow and small bay that provides a relatively protected coral reef experience. We walked a short trail to a public access point, then donned our flippers and masks, and apprehensively floated off into the bay from a lava shelf.

Snorkeler's Legs at Kapoho Tide Pools on Hawaii Big IslandMy beautiful legs at the edge of the Kapoho Tide Pools; this small cove is bordered by cottages and a community park where visitors can enter the sea

We immediately experienced magic, with bright yellow Raccoon Butterflyfish and vivid lavender Blue Rice Coral and a hundred other creatures. The crystalline aqua waters revealed the promised new world to us, and it was even more wonderful than we could have imagined!

On our first day at Kapoho we gradually grew more confident about snorkeling, learning to expel water from a mask, clear a snorkel that had taken on water, and deal with leg cramps from flippers that were too long. Eventually we grew physically tired and hauled ourselves out for the day–wonderfully satisfied with what we had seen and learned.

Karen Rentz Snorkeling off Big Island of HawaiiWe each used a camera underwater to try and capture the magic

We returned the next day, enthused about seeing the place again. This time we had more challenges: we ventured out to where waves were roiling the reef, and found out that swimming and photographing under wavy conditions was more difficult than it had been in the bay’s more protected areas. Karen got a little seasick while trying to photograph where waves were tossing us around, and I was shoved by a wave into some coral, which left a coral-shaped bloody pattern on my knees and lower legs. Fortunately there weren’t any sharks nearby! We also found that saltwater tastes really salty, after ingesting too many mouthfuls.

Raccoon Butterflyfish in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hilo Coast of BigA school of Raccoon Butterflyfish in the aqua waters, watching us get our snorkeling lessons

Blue Rice Coral in Kopoho Tide Pools on Hawaii's Big IslandVivid purple of the Blue Rice Coral, a species found only in Hawaii and becoming rare

Blue Rice Coral, Montipora flabellata, in Kopoho Tide Pools on HThe corals are incised with dark lines; these are the recesses where Petroglyph Shrimp live

Slate Pencil Urchin and Coral in Kapoho Tide Pools off HawaiiSlate Pencil Urchin, with its fat reddish-orange spines, lives among the corals and other species of sea urchins

Ringtail Surgeonfish and Reef Reflections off Big Island of HawaRingtail Surgeonfish were one of approximately 35 species of fish we saw in this reef habitat

We were finally tired after two hours in the waves, and swam back to haul ourselves out. When I looked down at my legs, I realized that the backs of my Seattle-white legs were suddenly vivid pink.  As were Karen’s. Not good. We had forgotten to apply sunscreen, and hadn’t realized that we could get such an intense burn while snorkeling. Unfortunately, these burns were painful for Karen the rest of the trip, and she used a great deal of aloe vera to alleviate the pain and heal the skin. Live and learn.

We came away from our two snorkeling trips to the Kapoho Tide Pools newly aware of the wonderful world of the coral reefs. Sure, we had visited such reefs vicariously on television, but nothing can compare to actual experience. We learned new skills, and came away enthralled by a place of transcendence that we shall never forget.

Karen Rentz Snorkeling in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hawaii's Big IslWhen we swam to the mouth of the cove, the waves became more powerful and it was easier to lose sight of one another

Karen Rentz Snorkeling in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hawaii's Big IslI used a fisheye lens in this fisheye kind of place; this proved wonderful for showing the expanse of coral reef, often including reflections and the sky, as in this photograph of Karen

Photographer Lee Rentz Snorkeling off Big Island of HawaiiI even did a self-portrait with the fisheye lens, in which I come out looking a lot like a fish

Over-under View of Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiI did a bit of what is called “over-under” photography here, simultaneously revealing the surface and underwater scenes

Saddle Wrasse and Plump Sea Cucumber off Big Island of HawaiiA fat sea cucumber and a Saddle Wrasse add color to the reef

Ringtail Surgeonfish and Reef Reflections off Big Island of HawaRingtail Surgeonfish and reef reflections up to the surface

Resting Yellowfin Goatfish in Kopoho Tide Pools off Big Island oYellowfin Goatfish rest the day away in sandy alcoves among the coral, then feed at night

Corals in the Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiI found the surface reflections of the shallow reef endlessly fascinating; these are best where the reef is topped by shallow water, as it is here

Corals in the Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiI haven’t figured out what caused all these bubbles floating in front of the lens

Coral and Reef Bottom in Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawWith small waves and a bright sun overhead, the surface casts this network of sunlit wave patterns on the floor of the reef

Convict Tangs over Coral Reef off Big Island of HawaiiConvict Tangs are named for their prison-issue uniforms

Karen Rentz Snorkeling in Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HaFor those who haven’t tried it: snorkeling involves a mouthpiece attached to a hollow plastic tube that goes above the water. The nose is stuck inside the face mask, and isn’t used for what God intended it to be used for. Snorkelers become mouth breathers.

Snorkelers Reflections at Kapoho off Big Island of HawaiiKaren and Alice gliding through a liquid passage between sky and earth

Lined and Threadfin Butterflyfish off Big Island of HawaiiLined and Threadfin Butterflyfish above a sandy spot in the reef

Raccoon Butterflyfish in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hilo Coast of BigRaccoon Butterflyfish were approachable, often coming within inches of my lens

Rice Coral in Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiRice corals remind me of some of the shelf fungi that grow on trees–but on a much bigger scale

Looking Up Toward Surface of Kapoho Tide Pools off HawaiiWho knows what we’ll next find as we swim the length of the reef?

We used an excellent ebook snorkeling guide for advice on snorkeling hotspots. The Big Island Hawaii Snorkeling Guide is available at Tropical Snorkeling.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

HAWAII MANTA RAY ADVENTURE: Night Snorkeling with Huge Winged Fish

At one point, a big Manta Ray swung up from the ocean bottom and came directly toward us, with its gaping mouth open, and circled within perhaps a foot of us–not touching any of us. It was a thrill beyond belief for this landlubber from the great Midwest.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-129A Manta Ray glides toward us in the Pacific Ocean, lit by the lights of divers and snorkelers

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-77A magical view of fish gathering in the lights

The idea was intriguing. We would go out at night in the Pacific Ocean and snorkel with huge Manta Rays with 15′ wide wingspans that would come within inches of us. Or maybe the idea was just plain scary! Anyway, we decided to do it.

One key thing to realize is that Mantas are not carnivores who would eat people. That helped. Yes, their mouths gape wide and could swallow Jonah or Karen, but that has never happened (to the best of our knowledge!). They eat the ocean’s small stuff, such as shrimp and plankton and small fish, much as many kinds of whales eat small krill and some Grizzly Bears eat moth larvae (oops, not a good example, because they eat much bigger stuff too!).

We checked in at a dive shop at a strip mall in Kona. The enthusiastic staff outfitted us with wetsuits and prepared us for the experience. They had us sign the waiver form, and told us to meet at a marina at 5:30 p.m. We drove there and met up with our group, and with the staff who would be guiding us.

We signed up to go out on a tiny boat with three crew members. Our group had ten snorkelers and two scuba divers: four Swiss, two French, two Canadians, and four Americans. All of us had some previous experience in the ocean, though in the case of Karen and I it was just a few hours previous snorkeling, and that was in shallow waters.

When the boat was ready, we climbed aboard and motored out of the marina and into the choppy Pacific Ocean. We surged north along the coast, bouncing along the waves in the early evening. When we reached our destination, we set anchor and wriggled into our wetsuits, enjoying and enduring all the joking of the crew. The staff really went out of their way to make us feel at ease in what was a really alien experience for all of us. However, we were there long enough, bobbing in the ocean, that Karen grew queasy with the motion; we should have taken two tablets of Bonine.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-4Preparing for the experience, putting on wetsuits and checking our gear

One guide asked the divers if they were sure they could handle the idea of a huge Manta brushing right by their heads; one tiny young woman from Switzerland looked scared to death, but she decided to do it anyway. The divers were told not to wear snorkels attached to their masks, because the Mantas can sense the electrical fields of the human body and not touch living flesh, but the snorkel projecting above the head wouldn’t be sensed, and they could collide with it, ripping off a diver’s mask. I don’t even want to think about that possiblity, but I suspect it happened once upon a time.

Viewing Manta Rays is a surprisingly social experience. Several companies take out clients to one spot in the ocean, near the Kona airport, where the Mantas are known to feed. The people who want to scuba dive go down to the ocean bottom with bright dive lights. They are spaced out by the boat crews so that they cover perhaps a 100 x 100′ area of the ocean floor, and they project their dive lights upward. Those who want to snorkel grab onto a floating square made of PVC pipe with their two arms, and look downward. Each boat has its own floating square, and each square is equipped with lights projected downward. The night we went there may have been about 100 people participating, with perhaps twice as many snorkeling as diving.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-52Snorkelers holding onto a square assembly of PVC pipes that holds lights (looking up toward the ocean surface)

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-53Self portrait at night, using a noodle float to help stabilize me and my big camera housing

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-73Bubbles rise from the scuba divers below; Karen was wearing a shorty wetsuit and said that the bubbles uncomfortably tickled her arms and legs

The whole experience hinges upon the lights, so the more lights the better. With all the lights in the ocean, plankton and other small prey creatures swim toward the lights, which concentrates this source of food for the Manta Rays. The rays have come to expect this, so they come to feed near the lights. Which is why we get to see these otherwise hidden creatures of the deep. Over two hundred different Mantas have come to feed here; the staff can identify them by the markings on their bodies.

We climbed down into the dark water and swam over to the floating square. As a group, we moved out away from the boat and began peering down into the water, at once seeing the magic of all the lights projected up from the ocean bottom. I felt like I was in a spaceport, expecting the alien Manta spacecraft to arrive any second. By this point on our Hawaii trip, breathing through a snorkel became almost second nature, so we were able to relax in the ocean. The ocean was warm enough that we felt entirely comfortable in our wetsuits.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-83

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-89Hawaiian Flagtails gathered in the lights to feed, attracted to the concentration of plankton

Actually, it took some time for the Manta Rays to arrive. In the meantime, fish swirling in the lights kept us entertained and gave my itchy shutter finger something to do (I can’t stand it if I can’t take pictures!). Eventually, two Mantas swam gracefully into view, and I discovered that my alien spacecraft vision was not very far off. They truly do look alien.

At one point, a big Manta swung up from the ocean bottom and came directly toward us, with its gaping mouth open, and circled within perhaps a foot of us–not touching any of us. It was a thrill beyond belief for this landlubber from the great Midwest.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-113

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-130

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-131The huge mantas wheeled gracefully in the ocean

Eventually, the lights on the ocean bottom switched off as the divers started ascending, and we kicked our way back to the boat and climbed aboard, adrenaline and endorphins coursing through our thrilled bodies and minds.

That night we only saw two Mantas, but some nights they see about 25. It was such a profound experience that I would love to do it again.

Video by Karen Rentz of the experience

The company we used for this trip was Big Island Divers, and we were extremely pleased with their competence in dealing with all of us novices.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.