When you dive with this giant, 3,000-pound ray that can have a wingspan of 15 feet, you often become very calm and peaceful. It is easy to forget about your worries in life as you connect with nature at its deepest level. The Hawaiian name for the manta ray is “hahalua,” which means “two breaths,” and this gentle giant of the sea has a long history with the Hawaiian people, many of whom feel the manta ray represents wisdom, grace, strength and flow.
The Hawaiians in the past would swim with hahalua when they needed to get back in balance with their lives, family or community. A chant was often given to the manta rays, and it goes as “huli i ke au hou,” which means “to begin anew in a new space and time.”
The manta ray does not have bones, but has a cartilaginous skeleton, and that is why when it dies it is rarely fossilized for future generations to find. These rays have one of the largest brains of any fish in the sea, and they are semi-pelagic, which means they travel the open seas in search of food. Hahalua has cephalic lobes or flaps that surround its mouth.
They filter feed on zooplankton and shrimp, and when feeding they open their flaps to channel food into their mouths. The manta rays are extremely peaceful and harmless to humans, as they do not have a stinger on their tail like most of their stingray cousins.
Manta rays tend to feed at night, and on several dive sites on the main island of Hawai‘i boats will shine bright lights onto the sea surface, which attracts schools of shrimp. The manta rays show up to eat the shrimp, and divers underwater can watch the activity.
The manta will do a very-graceful back flip underwater with their mouth open to scoop up millions of tiny shrimp for a meal. It is quite an event to watch from underwater, but the rays are suffering some health problems due to having over 50,000 people a year in the water with them.
Manta rays live for a long time, and only have one to two live babies every other year. They have a long, 10-month gestation period. They usually mate on a full moon, and dozens of these large rays may congregate, but normally you tend to just see a couple of them together swimming along the surface of the open sea. From time to time you will see hahalua jump completely out of the water, up into the air just like a humpback whale may breach.
We don’t know for sure why they launch out of the water, but it may be to remove parasites that grow under their wings, which are large, pectoral fins. They may also breach to communicate, see the world above the sea surface, or maybe even just to play!
Hahalua has a special place in Hawaiian culture, and plays an important part of Kumulipo, which is the Hawaiian chant of creation. One old story about hahalau I love to share with my marine-science students goes as such : Hahalua the manta ray meets the sun as its sets off of Ha‘ena on the North Shore of Kaua‘i, then she takes the sun under the islands and brings it back up in the morning at Ha‘ena on the east shore of Hawai‘i Island!
I tell my students that I have movies of hahalua meeting the sun setting in Kaua‘i and also movies of hahalua greeting the sunrise on Hawai‘i Island, but I haven’t yet shot video of the rays bringing the sun under Hawai‘i. But if I ever do get that shot I will let everyone know right away! You can see hahalua in action in the movie “The World’s Guide To Hawaiian Reef Fish” on my underwater educational web page. I will have a new movie out about Hawaiian manta rays soon.
Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei and co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawai‘i, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawai‘i go to www.reefguardianshawaii.org.