Before moving to Kwajalein, Marshall Islands five years ago, I couldn't have told you what a manta ray was - let alone how it was different than any other ray. By the end of 2017, I had tallied over fifty different manta encounters with at least 15 different animals. Spotting and identifying mantas had become my favorite Kwaj activity and I was responsible for naming 12 reef mantas along the reef through the international database with Manta Trust. For those of you wanting your own encounter with these amazing creatures, here is my guide to spotting mantas on Kwaj.
The more you go, the more you see
People would often complain to me that they would never see cool stuff when they went snorkeling. When asked how often they would go, their reply was once every couple months. Unfortunately, when it comes to seeing some of natures biggest animals in their natural element, you'll likely need to get in their element a little more than once in a while. I made snorkeling a regular part of my exercise routine on Kwajalein, which meant that I was out the door for a quick 45 minute snorkel about six days a week. This was so much faster than diving for me. In fact, all but one of my sightings came from snorkeling. Simply put: the more you go, the more you see - snorkeling or diving.
Don't sweat the small stuff
Even if you're getting in the water several times a week, it can be easy to miss your encounter if you're not consciously on the lookout for big stuff. There is so much beauty to take in when you snorkel the reef and it's easy to focus in on the coral or small fish. Just remember that the only one of your senses that will detect a manta ray is your sight, so keep your head on a swivel when in the water. Several of my encounters happened as I finally looked away from another fish or coral head only to nearly run into a manta looking at me! That's right! These huge (and completely safe) creatures are very curious and will often swim very close to investigate what you are. You just need to be looking in the right direction. I once saw a huge manta pass within inches of some divers who were enthralled with something in the sand, that they didn't even see the creature until it was well past them. Keep your head on a pivot and look for the big dark creature who may come your way.
Where to search
I wish I could tell you a secret spot where all the mantas feed or a cleaning station that is a guarantee to see them. The truth is that every one of my reef manta encounters happened between the ski boat LCM and Little Bustard, with the vast majority occurring between Emon beach and the North Point stairs (probably because that is where I snorkeled most). My experience is that they will cruise the drop off area, at no particular depth, and will even come up onto the shallow area if the tide is high enough. Mantas need water moving through their gills to breath. Since a strong enough current rarely exists off Emon, you'll only see them swimming by instead of being stationary. My typical search pattern would begin at the large Emon coral head before swimming along the drop off up to the North Point bouy - then floating back to Emon. Occasionally, I would zig-zag between the drop and the more shallow coral, constantly looking around for larger marine life.
When to search
I never found a great correlation between manta sightings and a time of day or particular tidal condition. That said, I recommend going in the early morning, before 10am, simply because the visibility is so much better. At the time of day, the ferries haven't kicked up much dust and the thermals have yet to affect the visibility. Combine that with the sun rays going toward the deeper water and you have great conditions for finding a big friendly manta. Mantas can be seen any time of year along Emon, but the tiny phytoplankton that they eat shows up in abundance during the late spring and early summer months making sightings more frequent. If they find an especially thick area of food, watch for them to do back-flips to keep feeding in that area.
What to do when you see one
Manta rays are so big that it is easy to feel uncomfortable when you see one in the water. Don't worry! Mantas are completely safe and have never been known to hurt people. Even though their tail looks similar to a stinger, it isn't. They are very smart and will likely come take a closer look if they see you. As with any wild animal, it's important to let them swim up to you and to respect their space. I dive down from the surface to allow the manta to see me and then see if it wanted to say 'hi'. If they approach, just be still and enjoy the moment. Even if they swim past you, don't chase after them. There is a very good chance that they'll turn around for another pass - significantly better than your chances of catching up to them. Touching mantas is a no-no as they have a protective coating on their body that helps keep them healthy. If you're able to snap a picture of their unique markings on their belly, you can send your photo to the Manta Trust's online database which helps track these amazing creatures. As a bonus, you get to name the manta if it's never been recorded before!