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A Close Encounters moment with Konas manta rays.



YOULL BE TETHERED TO THE BOAT, JUST LIKE BAIT, says divemaster Lance Hansen, midway into the dive briefing.
Its night, and Im bobbing on a boat, three miles out to sea off the west coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. The sea floor is some 1.25 miles below.
Ive signed up for a blackwater drift dive with Jacks Diving Locker, to hang out in the dark, over the abyss, and see what comes up.
Im beginning to have second thoughts about doing this dive. It seems like a stunt from an episode of Fear Factor. Who wants to be first in asks the goateed Hansen.
With a splash, my group of four descends weighted lines to a depth of 12m. Equipped with a bright dive light and a leash to keep me attached,
I scan the water column to get my bearings and make sure that theres nothing waiting for me.
The beam of my light disappears into the void, illuminating nothing. I feel a strong tug on the line and my heart skips a beat. I realise that its only a wave bouncing the boat above.
Along with the group, Hansen and divemaster Matthew DAvella are diving untethered between us.
A moment later, the first visitor comes into view, a species of heteropod called a sea elephant, about the size of my little finger. It resembles a translucent elephants trunk with a tiny propeller-like fin on top. Its silvery insides reflect my light like tiny crystals.
As it moves on, another creature drifts into the beam of my light. Its a long ribbon of jelly-like sacs called a chain salp. I notice a tiny fish living in one of the fingernail-sized sacs.
Other bizarre creatures glide by: a tiny pulsating doughnut, a dime-sized disc of eggs with a shrimp on top, and a thimble-shaped jellyfish.

THE HAWAIIAN ISLANDS are higher than the Himalayas, if measured from the sea floor. You dont have to travel far offshore to be in several thousand metres of water.
This is the realm of bizarre, open-ocean creatures. During the day they live deep below, but as night falls they rise to the surface to feed on plankton. For adventurous divers, its a chance to see creatures never seen on a coral reef.
Konas blackwater drift dive has been around in one form or another for more than a decade, but only recently have operators such as Jacks Diving Locker begun offering it to divers. The programme is headed by Matthew DAvella, a friendly, pony-tailed 40-year-old who has become one of its leading advocates.
Every time youre in the water, you see something new, he says. He has made more than 300 blackwater dives and has photographed creatures never before filmed in the wild.
He stresses that the dive is about showing this strange world of ocean-drifting animals - most of which are only a few centimetres long - to divers, but he has had other, less welcome guests as well.
Thresher sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks and even a broadbill swordfish have appeared in the beam of his light.
You realise that youre no longer at the top of the food chain, he says. But these encounters are rare, and the most common risk is a sting from a jellyfish.

HALFWAY THROUGH THE DIVE, Hansen signals me to shut off my light. The others follow, and we drift totally in the dark.
A near full moon illuminates the group in a dim, ethereal glow. My eyes slowly adjust. Its a strange sensation - at first Im spooked, then I feel like one of those tiny animals, weightless, alone and drifting at the whims of tides and ocean currents.
After a minute, the group flick their lights back on. A hydromedusa, a star-shaped creature with bulbous jelly sacs on its tips, pulsates by. A dime-sized crab is running through the water column, and I stick my hand out to intercept. It latches onto my middle finger and flares its pincers up as if to challenge me. It then lets go and continues its sprint through space.
After more than an hour under water, Im back on the boat. Tomorrow night,
I will take in another of Konas unique night dives, but this time to see one of the biggest animals in the sea.

SEVEN MANTA RAYS swoop overhead like stealth bombers, scooping up clouds of plankton with their huge Hoover-like mouths. They come directly at me - so close that I could lean back and kiss their bellies - only to veer away at the last possible moment. Some are more than 5m across.
Its night again, and Im 10m down, kneeling on the bottom in a sandy bay a stones throw from Kona International Airport. Im lined up in a row with
a dozen other divers from my trip with Kona Honu Divers.
There are another 40 divers from four other boats down here, and the site is as bright as a football stadium at night.
In the centre of the action is the Bonfire, a circle of rocks with two boxes of lights pointed skyward.
THE LIGHTS ATTRACT PLANKTON; the plankton attracts mantas. At first I was annoyed to see so many other divers down here but, like a great beach party, the more the better. Its one of the most exciting dives Ive ever done.
Unlike sting rays, mantas have no poisonous barbs, and diving and snorkelling with them is perfectly safe. They can reach a maximum size of 8m across and weigh up to 3000kg. Encounters with mantas rank near the top of most divers wish-lists.
Konas manta rays have been around since the 1970s, when hotels and restaurants on the Big Island would shine bright lights into the water to offer romantic views to guests. The Kona Surf Hotel (which later became the Sheraton) became a regular spot from which to view the rays.
In the early 1990s, divers began entering the water. A popular activity back then was to pet the rays, but divers soon began to see pink patches on them. It was realised that this activity was rubbing off their protective membrane, and touching was banned.
One of the first mantas identified, back in 1979, was Lefty, a 4m female named for her damaged left cephalic fin. She has been a regular at the feedings ever since. More recently, a second site by the airport has also been used.
Over the years, divers have kept a catalogue of the mantas, which can be identified by the distinctive markings on their undersides.
There are nearly 130 resident in Kona, each with its own name and personality.
Lefty is big and beautiful and graceful, says Cynthia Hankins, a divemaster on the Kona Honu boat. A young male named Sugar Ray zips around like a teenager.
After 45 minutes, the show is still going strong. We pack up the lights and make our way back to the boat. Im cold and low on air, but exhilarated. I find Konas underwater nightlife more exciting than any touristy luau.party.

Divernet
Mouth
Mouth agape to take in the plankton attracted by the lights.
Kona
Konas friendly manta rays dine by the light of the diver lights.
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The mantas come close enough to touch, though contact is banned to prevent damage to their protective coating.
FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly from the UK to a west coast hub in the USA or Canada. Several airlines fly to Kona, or inter-island from Maui and Honolulu.
DIVING:Jacks Diving Locker, www.jacks divinglocker.com; Kona Honu Divers, www.kona honudivers. com; Bottom Time Hawaii, www.bottomtimehawaii.com; Sea Paradise, www.seaparadise. com
ACCOMMODATION: Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort, www.sheratonkeauhou.com. Outrigger Keauhou Beach Resort, www.outriggerkeauhoubeachhotel.com
WHEN TO GO: Konas manta and blackwater dives are year-round. Many dive centres also offer manta snorkelling trips.
PRICES: Flights to Kona start from around 650. Sheraton rooms costs $350 a night, Outriggers $279. Blackwater drift dives with Jacks Diving Locker cost $175, two-tank reef and manta night dive $145 (or $115 with Kona Honu Divers).
FURTHER INFORMATION:www.mantapacific.org, www.bigisland.org.