Top 4 Natural Wonders of the Big Island

By on November 1, 2014

By J. Kat Loren  –

#1 Giant Manta Rays

The best dive in theatre on the Big Island presents one of the most mesmerizing shows you will ever see – the Cirque du Manta Ray. Divers swim to a rock-side seat about 40 feet underwater for the 45-minute show. Snorkelers hover in the waters above holding onto floating surfboards as they peer into the well-lit waters the early evening. Within moments, giant Mantas swoop in with wingspans of up to 20 feet.

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As intimidating as these otherworldly mantas look, they are actually quite friendly. Unlike stingrays or eagle rays, mantas do not have stingers. They feed on microscopic plankton, which accounts for their large, gaping mouths.

Often they come from behind, swim inches above a diver’s head into the center ring where it meets head to head with a manta coming in from the other direction towards a light box. Rather than collide, they both swooped up together, belly to belly, and gracefully turned aside. Other mantas loop into back flips, circling over and over with their cavernous mouths open just below the lights dangling off the stern of one of several boats rafted into a circle mere feet away from astonished snorkelers. The flotilla creates a sort of pen for the snorkelers and divers, each of whom has a glow stick attached to their snorkeling vest or BC, color coded so that boat crew can keep track of them in the water and individual divers can see where their group is in case they get separated. It is a breathtaking and very safe and night in the water.

The Kona Coast is the best place to spot manta rays in Hawaii. You can see this show just offshore at resorts like the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, just south of Historic Kailua Village (Kailua-Kona). 

But the very best way to experience manta rays is to go on a night boat tour. Tours take off around sunset from Honokohau Harbor just north of Kailua-Kona. As night falls, tour companies set up giant lights on the ocean floor in spots where mantas frequent, usually in Garden Eel Cove or right in front of the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay.

Note that manta ray diving tours are held year round, with no peak season. On any given day you can see anywhere from a couple of mantas to more than a dozen depending on plankton levels.

#2 Waterfalls at sunset


A fairyland of waterfalls that seem to flow out of the clouds and tumble in long, thin streams to pools below is hidden deep in canyons north of Kona. They are only accessible by helicopter. If you book a sunset cruise with Paradise Helicopter Tours, you will soar up the coastline and become awestruck by the beauty of waterfalls tumbling off the edge of the world into the sea. Crossing over the top of Parker Ranch’s vast acreage on the flanks of Mauna Kea, you will see the ghost-like white cows climbing up and into giant craters, grazing on the wavy terrain of grass that reveals the deeper patterns of ancient lava flows that lay beneath the green.

Eventually, your pilot sneaks a peek into a canyon, checking for visibility and if the clouds part, he will fly you through the narrow opening. Darting into the canyon like a hummingbird tilting and turning in the narrow passages where ancient plants line the walls of the canyon with their vibrant green foliage, you will be stunned into silence. Truly, this is one of nature’s top wonders of the Big Island. So many waterfalls. So little time to savor them all. The weather window closes in and your pilot flies out of the canyon and back to the coastal falls.


Along the flight path back to Kona, the sun drops low into the sea, projecting its colorful exit onto the clouds that lay scattered above the ocean, defining the colors of the deeper shades of the ocean’s blue while illuminating the yellows, reds and fading colors of the day.

#3 Walking around an active volcano

When Pele, the goddess who is said to live in the volcano, flings her fiery moods to heaven or cries her molten tears into the sea, tourists flock to Kilauea, Volcano National Park’s most active volcano. Since the 1982 eruption, she has grown more contemplative. The red-hot lava no longer weaves its flow towards the sea, falling off the edge of the island like a red river, steaming up the ocean, angry, forbidding.   Instead, she casts her lava where tourists are not allowed to tread.


Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park was established in 1916, and encompasses two active volcanoes: Kīlauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and Mauna Loa, the world’s most massive sub aerial volcano. The park gives scientists insight into the birth of the Hawaiian Islands and ongoing studies into the processes of volcanism. For visitors, the park offers dramatic volcanic landscapes as well as glimpses of rare flora and fauna.

In recognition of its outstanding natural values, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park was designated as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980 and a World Heritage Site in 1987.

Active eruptive sites include the Halemaʻumaʻu crater, 83 meters (270 ft) below the floor of Kīlauea’s main caldera, and a more active but remote vent called Puʻu ʻŌʻō, which is accessible only by gods who gaze from the heavens or individuals booked on helicopter rides. Paradise Helicopters flies over the lava flows from both Hilo and Kona airports.

According to the Hawaii Volcano Observatory the crater, which is two and a half miles across, is currently active, with lava in an open vent fluctuating from 70 to 150 meters below the crater floor. At night, from the Volcano House Hotel, you can see the glow of Pele rising from her caldera home. If you are lucky enough, Pele might toss a few red-hot rocks into the air at night like fireworks lighting up the night.

Around the drive that circles the crater, the Halemaumau Overlook offers another view of the caldera. Yellow-green gases billow deep inside the crater, emitting its sulfur smells of rotten egg.

Take the Chain of Craters Road towards the ocean and pull off to the rain forest parking area marking the Thurston Lava Tube, a natural tunnel formed by lava hundreds of years ago, and you will get a little taste of what Huck Finn experienced getting lost in a cave on his Mississippi. Sparsely lit, with rounded rock walls and water dripping from above, the tube’s entrance is marked by varieties of ferns, some tall standing Tree Ferns and others background foliage in a canyon that looks like the habitat of dinosaurs. Within the park and surrounding areas you may spot such endangered birds such as the Nene, I’iwi and Amakihi.

Dropping from 4,000 feet to sea level in about an hour, this road winds through three distinct landscapes: Jurassic Park-like rain forest, low shrubbery and grasses sprouting from old lava, and bleak sections of jet-black lava. Keep going and you will be rewarded with another turnout where ancient Hawaiians carved their petroglyphs into lava, marking villages, and the birth of babies into the stone.

Eventually, you reach the coast. In the days when lava flowed into the sea, tour boats would ferry tourists along the steaming hot spectacle but that flow has ended for now. However, deep blow the surface, just offshore of the Big Island coast, the lava continues to erupt and build up the island chain’s newest island. According to scientists, you should be able to visit it in about 10,000 years.

#4 Star gazing Mauna Kea


There are places in the world where the stars seem so close that you feel like you can reach out and pluck them from the sky. Mauna Kea is one such place. Tropical enough that you can see the Southern Cross but northern enough that the constellations of both hemispheres appear like ancient gods trotting across the night sky.

The Visitor Information Station (VIS), at the 9,300 foot (2,900 m) level of Maunakea, offer a free nightly stargazing program held every night of the year from 6:00 pm until 10:00 pm with no reservations needed!  Often above the clouds, the night skies at the VIS are often clear and bright, rivaling any other stargazing location in the world!

Dress warmly! It may be Hawaii along the coastline but mountains are mountains and temperatures drop as weather changes.

From either Kona or Hilo side, travel up the Saddle Road that traverses the island between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Along the way, you’ll see a dramatic and diverse landscape of ranchland, sub-alpine dry forest and rainforest (with striking features such as cinder cones, lava flows, lava tubes and kipuka).

The air is thinner here at 9,000 feet. While acclimatizing at the Mauna Kea visitors center, take time to find out why the world’s largest telescopes are located on this spot and learn a bit about the lives of astronomers who work there.

As sunset transforms the area into an unearthly spectacle you will feel as if you are on the moon gazing down at earth. Then, when the best of the color has past, the star gazing party begins. The observatories open and rotate into position. And the visitor’s center telescopes are open for wondering eyes of all ages.

If you don’t want to drive up on your own and ascend to the summit, try booking a stargazing experience with Mauna Kea Start Gazing or Hawaii Forest and Trail. You will keep warm and get in more viewing time with knowledgeable guides interpreting what you are seeing in the night sky.

Originally posted on Crazi Culture.

About J. Kat Loren

J “Kat” Loren is a Pacific NW-based journalist and author of more than a dozen books. She currently focuses on writing health, fitness, and travel articles. Her blog “Crazi Culture” is a popular read among those who like eclectic topics and travelogues about odd places and adventures.

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Top 4 Natural Wonders of the Big Island