State is proposing first-ever rules for manta ray viewing at two popular Kona Coast spots

Oct. 30—Tours offering close encounters with manta rays have become a must-do activity for many Hawaii visitors, especially at two sites off the Kona Coast where vessels deposit hundreds of snorkelers and scuba divers nightly to observe the marine creatures.

Tours offering close encounters with manta rays have become a must-do activity for many Hawaii visitors, especially at two sites off the Kona Coast where vessels deposit hundreds of snorkelers and scuba divers nightly to observe the graceful marine creatures as they feed on thick columns of zooplankton attracted by artificial lighting.

Sixty to 70 vessels—ranging from outrigger canoes to boats carrying 50-plus passengers—are currently engaged in manta ray viewing tours off Kona, according to state officials, resulting in overcrowding, safety concerns and user conflicts that the state Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation is hoping to curb by drafting Hawaii's first-ever manta ray viewing regulations.

Companies running the tours already must possess commercial use permits issued by the state, but would require an additional permit created specifically for commercial manta ray viewing that would come with a monthly fee of $300.

The new permit and other rules governing the tours would be in effect at two designated manta ray viewing zones in the West Hawaii Ocean Recreation Management Area—at Makako Bay, more commonly known as Garden Eel Cove, and Kaukalaelae Point, near Keauhou Bay.

DOBOR said that for now, only those two spots are being proposed as viewing zones since they are the most established and can serve as pilot sites for refining future regulations.

Other proposed rules allow no more than 24 commercial manta ray viewing permits for each designated zone and set viewing hours in two-hour shifts from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. Additionally, operators would be limited to a maximum of 60 passengers within any 24-hour period.

Another rule would ban manta tours within 7 miles of the two zones, preventing unpermitted operators from running tours just outside the boundaries and drawing mantas away from authorized viewing sites.

First-time rule violations would result in permit suspension for up to 30 days, with escalating penalties for repeat offenders.

The proposed changes and rules, to be added under Hawaii Administrative Rules Chapters 13-230 and 13-256, would apply only to commercial activities and would not stop the general public from manta ray viewing on stand-up boards, kayaks and other vessels or swimming out from the shoreline, as many people do.

After testimony Thursday from a number of tour operators and others, the Board of Land and Natural Resources gave DOBOR the green light to move forward with the rule-making process, including public hearings that have yet to be scheduled.

THE DIRECT economic impact of manta ray tourism at the Kona sites alone was roughly estimated at $6.2 million in 2017, but Keller Laros, founder and president of the Manta Pacific Research Foundation in Kailua-Kona, says the figure now could be as high as $12.4 million in tour sales. He also offered a broad calculation that anywhere from 41, 000 to 113, 000 people participate in the manta tours annually.

"It's good that we're getting something going but the document is flawed in so many ways, " said Laros, who is also a master scuba diver trainer for Jack's Diving Locker, which offers manta tours.

"It's designed for the locations, not for the activity. If they only recognize the two sites and they start closing things down, we're just going to have 50 boats at Mauna Kea (a less popular viewing site ), where the waters are shallower and there's increased risks from boat propellers."

The nonprofit Manta Pacific Research Foundation worked with the Coast Guard, DOBOR and tour operators in 2013 to develop voluntary standards and best practices for the manta tours that are widely followed by the local industry, with some outliers.

Tour companies primarily run their snorkeling and scuba dive boats out of Keauhou Small Boat Harbor, Honokohau Harbor or private boat launches, with some operating multiple boats or multiple trips in a single night. A quick survey of several tour websites revealed prices of $125 to $150 per person.

Once at the viewing sites, groups of scuba divers gather in a circle around a central rock pile, known as a campfire, generally at a depth of 30 to 35 feet, with dive lights directed upward, while snorkelers hold on to floating boards or rafts at the surface that are outfitted with lights pointed down toward the campfire. The arrangement provides a clear space in the water column for the mantas, whose wingspans can reach 22 feet or more, to move freely between the groups as they feed on zooplankton.

Most tour operators instruct participants to either remain seated at the campfire during the experience or float at the surface lying flat, and prohibit free diving or touching the mantas, according to an prepared for DOBOR's planned installation of day mooring buoys at the two designated viewing sites.

THE MANTA rays of Kona's nearshore waters first surfaced as a marine attraction in the 1970s, when the Kona Surf Hotel at Keauhou turned bright lights onto the surf at night for the enjoyment of guests, the environmental assessment said.

The artificial lighting attracted zooplankton that, in turn, brought in feeding mantas. The area, nicknamed "Manta Village, " became one of Hawaii's most popular dive sites until the hotel shut down in 2000 and the lights were turned off. Divers discovered new manta feeding sites at Makako Bay, which became known as "Manta Heaven, " according to the environmental assessment.

Manta ray viewing tours there quickly expanded, and in 2004 the former Keauhou hotel reopened as the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay and the night lights were turned back on. The mantas returned and viewing tours have continued to grow at both sites.

DOBOR Administrator Ed Underwood told Land Board members Thursday that his staff has been working with stakeholders and community members on manta ray viewing rules for eight years, ever since the Legislature passed a concurrent resolution urging DLNR to adopt rules to better manage the manta ray dive sites.

Although the matter before the Land Board was only whether to authorize DOBOR to initiate a formal rule-making process and public hearings, members got a preview of some of the concerns likely to arise.

Land Board member Aimee Barnes pointed out that the number of tour passengers allowed under the proposed rules would be far greater—potentially over 1 million divers and snorkelers—than what's currently taking place at the two viewing sites.

Board members and tour operators alike pressed for more details on how DOBOR would determine which among the 60 to 70 current commercial use permit holders for manta tours would be selected for the 48 permits—24 for each viewing zone—that would be issued under the new rules.

Underwood said DOBOR is restricted by state law to award the permits via lottery. Under the proposed rules, eligibility would be limited to applicants who have been engaged in commercial manta ray viewing operations for at least four consecutive years. He said he plans to ask the Legislature to amend the law to allow the permits to initially be awarded based on the length of time operators have been providing tours, and then by auction as permits become available.

Tait Heitz and Paul D'Angelo of Big Island Divers, one of the largest tour operators, with 46 employees, told board members the company was not consulted on the draft rules, many of which seemed "arbitrary " and out of sync with current industry practices, such as the proposed 8-to-1 ratio of guests-to-guide.

"Our snorkel guides have a lot of certifications ... and we take 11 snorkelers on a raft and have never had an issue, " Heitz said.

Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner Mike Nakachi, a boat captain and dive instructor who has advocated for marine resources throughout the state, asked why an environmental assessment of the impacts of manta tours has not been conducted.

"I feel for DOBOR and I feel for you all, however, this boils down to a situation that it is again man before hahalua, or manta, man's dominion over things not at symbiosis with his surroundings, and it's always about kala (money ), " Nakachi said.

ALSO TESTIFYING were Derrick "Iko " Balanga and his wife, Holly Crane, who said their business, Anelakai Adventures, relies on "paddle power " to take small groups for manta ray viewing in a double-hull canoe.

The couple said their eco-friendly, sustainable operation offers manta tours at Kaukalaelae for snorkelers who float on the surface between the hulls, as well as those who prefer to watch while seated in the canoe.

The couple wondered aloud whether they would be shut down under the new rules, which they said appeared clearly written for motorized vessels.

Balanga told board members the situation at manta viewing sites "does look like chaos but it's pretty controlled chaos, " and that the tour companies "work really well together on the water."

Third-generation opelu fisherman Bryan Fujikawa had his own set of complaints that included long waits at overcrowded boat ramps while manta tours load guests, and reckless behavior by some "cowboy " tour boat captains who disregard no-wake zones and speed through the water as they race back and forth on multiple trips to the viewing sites.

"They have no respect for fishermen. We have the right to be out there also, " Fujikawa said.

DOBOR is planning to reconfigure existing moorings at Kaukalaelae Point and Makako Bay and install 12 and 13 surface moorings at each site, respectively, "to accommodate more ocean users, reduce overcrowding and offset anchoring on sensitive reef habitat at the sites, " according to the environmental assessment, which was finalized in September 2021 with a finding of no significant impacts.

DOBOR this month awarded a $142, 286 contract to Jack's Diving Locker for installation of five day mooring buoys at Kaukalaelae Point and inspection and maintenance of the new moorings and four existing moorings for one year.

The remaining day mooring buoys will be installed at both locations in future phases.