Astronomy in paradise

We visited the observatories atop Mauna Kea today. Another day, another great memory.

You have to really want to get there. We drove upward for miles, and at the 9000 foot visitor’s center we were warned about eight miles of rough, steep road ahead. We forged ahead, up another 8 miles and 5000 feet. The scene at the volcano’s peak is simply surreal. You’re at 13,700 feet, high above the clouds, in a Martian landscape dotted with high technology monoliths. Atop a volcano that last erupted 4500 years ago, though geologists say it will do so again. Sometime.

It’s one of the most alien landscapes I’ve ever seen. And the views…pictures don’t do it justice, though we tried. More pictures later, mostly due to f’ing WordPress suddenly not liking Apple’s HEIC photo format.

The Church of the Manta Ray

We had a near-religious experience last night – swimming with manta rays at night. I wasn’t sure what to expect – I mean, it sounds cool, but…most highly-touted tourist events over-promise and under-deliver. This was the exception.

Seaquest was our tour operator, and they were perfect. Well-organized, professional, everything right on time, and friendly. We left the docks at 715pm wearing Seaquest-furnished wet suit jackets and Zodiac’ed out to an area offshore from the Kona Sheraton. Turns out that Sheraton has created this attraction by accident. For years they’ve played spotlights onto the ocean to create ambiance for their guests. Those spotlights created an attraction for ocean plankton, and that in turn attracted giant manta rays to feed on the plankton. They now show up every night, creating the tour opportunity. A happy accident.

We entered the water about a half hour after sunset, grabbed onto a community float board equipped with spotlights and kept heads down in hope of seeing a ray. In only a few minutes we were treated by a 12-foot ray swirling up out of the depths, coasting within inches of us. That was a shocker – we thought we might see them at a distance, but their behavior was to come to us, mouths wide open scooping plankton, and buzz by us over and over.

Our guides said we saw 5-6 rays, but because they hung around us so long and made multiple passes, it seemed like many, many more. They are majestic and peaceful animals (fish?), and it was incredibly relaxing to float in the dark water and watch them. We only spent about 45 minutes in the water, and every minute of it was a treat. In between the appearance of rays we saw hundreds of needlefish and a big ball of some kind of bait fish swirling about. I was comfortable in the water because I shaved my mustache, solving the nagging problem of water leaking into my snorkel mask.

Our only regret is that we waited so long this trip to try this. We would do it again if we had more time. But it’s proof that even at my somewhat advanced age, there are spectacular new experiences to be had. I’ll look forward to another visit to the Church of the Manta Ray