Every year scores of people come to the Big Island’s Kona Coast to join dive instructors for dinner with the manta rays. It’s an awesome experience. The sheer size of these exquisite winged sea creatures zooming into view is the first clue. Their side or pectoral fins have evolved into triangular wings with spans reaching up to 12 feet across. Adults can weigh as much as a small elephant. Though related to sharks, they have no teeth and no tail stingers. Indeed, they are quite harmless, using their speed to outwit predators.

They dine on minuscule shrimp-like organisms called plankton funneling it into their huge, toothless mouths, gliding, pivoting and somersaulting as they feast. One expert compares them to angels flying through the liquid ebony of the night water. These “giant flying carpets” are of the species Manta birostris and are said to have adopted the name manta from the Spanish for cloak. In Hawaiian, they are called hahalua.

The Kona Coast is known as one of the best places in the world to get close to manta rays, but you really have to join them to get the full experience, which means diving or snorkeling in their underwater turf. Of course, like most sea creatures, their venue changes at whim. The best way to find them is to call one of the many Kona Coast diving companies that conduct night manta dives.

Or you can hope for a peak from the shore. The waters off the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa are a regular feeding spot for manta rays. A good place to see them is from the lanai off the Crystal Blue cocktail lounge. The resort will turn on the outdoor lights when the Mantas appear.

Dive shop owners say that the rays can be found most days from as far north as waters off the Keahole-Kona International Airport to Keauhou Bay. Kona Coast dive companies adhere to a set of guidelines that should be followed when interacting with the mantas. Divers are instructed to stay near the bottom, snorkelers on the surface, to allow the mantas room to maneuver. Do not ride, chase or harass. Hands off is the basic rule.