The Manta Man of Kona

Manta rays changed Keller Laros’ life; now he strives to protect theirs
Story by Judy Edwards. Photos by Jason Lafferty.

Keller Laros, the “Manta Man” of Kona, thought he was going be a lawyer. In December 1984, he was only one year away from wrapping up his political science degree at Lewis and Clark College when he realized he still needed a lab credit. His roommate planned to get a marine biology credit during a summer dive trip to the Bahamas and Cayman Islands.

Keller, who’d been certified in Puget Sound with water temperature in the low 50s and awful visibility, was ready for warm water and coral reefs. So off the men flew to the crystalline waters of Bimini and Grand Cayman. Keller returned to finish up his senior year, ready to roll into law school with his buddies. But that following summer, the Laros family—Keller, his two sisters and their mom and dad—came to dive with manta rays in Hawai‘i.

The Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay south of Kailua-Kona is now world-famous for the near nightly ballet of looping, swooping manta rays that feed on the zooplankton attracted to lights shining from the hotel into the water. The hotel bar, Rays on the Bay, capitalizes on this. Nightly crowds tote sweating drinks to the railing in the hope of seeing a manta’s ghostly underbelly rolling upward in the illuminated water. A flotilla of dive and snorkel tour boats gathers there, too, offloading adventurers with glow sticks and GoPros into the sometimes choppy waters. 

Nearly every night, mantas come close to shore at Keauhou to feed on clouds of plankton. The large and graceful rays swoop and barrel roll among awestruck snorkelers and divers.

Back in the mid-’80s the visiting mantas were still a local secret. Keller dived with his family from a little boat called The Blue Dolphin. The sight of the animals astonished him. “The graceful way that they moved in the water … I was blown away. Then I made eye contact. It was really dramatic, like a lightning strike,” he says. “It’s an emotional thing that happens, that click. And it happened to me that summer.”

Manta rays are the black and white magic carpets of the ocean, large and graceful, subsisting on zooplankton that they scoop into their perpetually open mouths with twin cephalic lobes. They fly in slow motion through the electric blue of tropical oceans—mesmerizing, peaceful, placid and free. Recent studies have shown that their brains are very large for a fish, leading researchers to wonder what that big brain might be thinking about. They are elasmobranchs, cousins to sharks, but tend to elicit an opposite reaction from snorkelers and divers. Pretty much without exception, people want to be near them.

And mantas seem to want to hang around Sheraton Keauhou. Captain Kalani Nakoa, who currently runs boat tours there, says that the word “keauhou” means “the new current” in Hawaiian and references a current that formed about eight hundred years ago, when a lava flow changed the shape of the bay. The lava pushed out a few hundred yards beyond the existing shoreline to make a shallow reef, where today the rays congregate. “Everyone has a theory about why,” says Kalani. “I believe that this current running along the coast consolidates the plankton, which calls the mantas.”

Back home from Hawai‘i, Keller zipped straight to the Professional Association of Diving Instructors College in California to complete his scuba instructor training. “Rather than going to grad school and getting a business suit,” he says, “I went to scuba college and got a wetsuit.” He moved to Kona in 1991 and started leading dives for Jack’s Diving Locker. Back then, Jack’s was a mom-and-pop operation with ten employees. “It was a bunch of t-shirts, masks, fins and snorkels, a few regulators and BCDs [buoyancy control devices] for sale, all jammed in together with a fish tank in the center of the shop that had a zebra moray living in it.” Most of the Grateful Dead band members and some of their roadies were certified to dive through Jack’s; Jerry Garcia was a regular customer and avid diver with whom Keller has a pile of pictures and an even bigger pile of stories. Dive classes were taught sitting on the grass across the street by the ocean. “We were kinda on Island time,” says Keller. “If we had something scheduled for 8:30, people would roll up about a quarter to nine.”

Keller crewed on weekly night dives with another diver who had just moved to Kona from California. “Wendy was the best instructor I’d ever met, a great teacher and a good person,” he says. She became the love of his life, mother of his three children and partner in advocacy for Hawai‘i’s manta rays. It was, he says, “a Jack’s love story.”

In the 1980s and ’90s there were few resources for dive instructors to learn about mantas, and no firm consensus on how to identify them. Were they all one species? Two? More? Finally, in 2009, a paper released by Andrea Denise Marshall determined that manta rays were two species: The giant pelagic manta, dark, mysterious and huge—measuring up to twenty-two feet from fin tip to fin tip—is Manta birostris. The smaller, nearshore manta is about sixteen feet from tip to tip and sports spots on its underside. This is Manta alfredi, sometimes called the reef manta. It is upon the M. alfredi’s graceful back that Kona’s night-dive industry is built.

Laros dedicates considerable energy to manta ray education and advocacy. Here he briefs divers before they plunge into the world’s number one night-dive site off the Kona coast.

Mantas glide through the world’s warmer oceans, chasing plankton in the band of water around the planet’s equator. M. Birostris moves like a dark, elegant kite through the deeper waters and seems to stay ever in motion. The M. alfredi. alfredi overlaps somewhat with that of their bigger cousins, but these are nearshore reef mantas, spotted leaping from the sea now and again and faithfully revisiting their favorite cleaning stations and feeding areas. Polynesians know them well: The Kumulipo, a Hawaiian creation chant, lists all living things as they are born out of darkness. It says, “Hānau ka hāhālua i ke ka lā holo”—the manta ray gives birth in the sea, swimming. Hawaiians, meticulous observers, no doubt witnessed the unfurling of the rolled-up manta pup birthed from its mother into the ocean and, from that point forward, responsible for itself.

During those early Kona dives with Wendy, Keller realized that he could identify in M. alfredi. alfredi by the pattern of spots on their ventral sides, much the same way that humpback whales can be identified by the marks on their tails. He noticed that the spots on Lefty—a manta named after its floppy left cephalic fin—looked different from those on W, whose spots made a W shape. He and Wendy started identifying mantas on dives. “That first year we had ten or twelve rays in our catalog,” says Wendy. “The next year, maybe twenty.” No one else seemed to be cataloging mantas in this way. “Maybe no one else had a consistent population of mantas that they were viewing and photographing,” says Keller. “Back in the day, it was a really challenging process—you’d have to get a clear shot, and you still had to run out to get the film developed. Now you can shoot and view immediately.” 

Laros’ efforts include teaching future tour guides the manta naturalist course he developed with the help of his wife Wendy. The couple began compiling manta tour guidelines in 1993 to help stem the decline in global manta populations.

Keller could not help but name these elegant creatures. “I’ve named about a hundred of them,” he says, “because the first person to snap a photo of a new manta gets to pick the name. I first saw a lot of these manta rays on vacation dives before I moved to Kona, so I’ve known some of these animals longer than I’ve known my wife and kids.” After another manta-smitten diver offered Keller and Wendy a generous donation to support their work in 2002, they founded the nonprofit Manta Pacific Research Foundation. They have identified 282 Hawai‘i Island mantas to date, in addition to a ticker tape of other accomplishments. “One of our future project goals is to collect DNA samples of the rays here in Kona so we can compare them to one another and create a family tree,” says Keller. During dives he writes the names of visiting mantas on slates for the other divers. Koie was named after a niece. Hip Hip HooRay was named to celebrate mantas being added to the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) M. alfredi doing barrel rolls at feeding area dive sites are old-timers; every now and then there is a new kid on the reef, and sometimes well-known mantas just stop coming, which worries him.

Mantas are hunted around the world. They are killed as bycatch in the open ocean, harpooned and netted for meat or used as bait. The Asian market demand for dried manta gills seems bottomless. The animals can live forty years or longer, but they are slow to reproduce. Females don’t reach maturity until around eight years old, their single pups take 370 days to gestate and they may give birth to just one pup every two to three years. The pressures on them are mounting. 

Laros and Wendy were the first to notice that Kona’s mantas each have distinctive patterns on their bellies. They began cataloging individual animals; compiling data that helps scientists track a manta’s movement and behavior over the course of its lifetime.

Keller wondered: Were dive tours adding to those pressures? He and Wendy took a long look at that situation and in 1993 went to work developing manta tour guidelines and best practices for their own boating community. In 2009 the foundation, which runs on Keller’s apparently infinite energy, Wendy’s whip-smart web site skills and sporadic donations, lobbied hard for manta protections in Hawai‘i. Because of their efforts, in 2009 Gov. Linda Lingle signed an act making it illegal to kill or capture mantas in Hawai‘i waters. 

Voluntary manta tour operator standards for Kona followed in 2013, as the growing industry attempted to self-regulate. Keller and Wendy were deeply invested in the process and involved in finding solutions. Manta Pacific co-hosted stakeholder meetings between commercial scuba and snorkel tour operators. In 2014 in Kona alone, Keller estimates that there were between 41,000 and 113,000 snorkelers and divers in the ocean with these animals. “The manta tour industry has reached a point where the quality and sustainability of the experience is going to trend down, and the hazards for mantas and humans are trending up,” he says. “We want to avoid that and have people leave the dive being advocates of ocean conservation.” 

Manta rays are filter feeders; they corral plankton into their open mouths with their flipper-like cephalic lobes and expel seawater through their gills as they swim.

No one is a bigger advocate than Keller, with nearly thirteen thousand dives to date and a “Manta Man” license plate. “He really is the guy,” says Wendy. “The manta community respects him, and truly likes him, because he just gives.” Keller is a focused bundle of chatty energy dispensing nonstop puns (“How do you tell the genders of ants? Simple. You drop one in the ocean and if it floats, it’s a boy ant”) and manta trivia. Despite his very public affection for kava, the calming Polynesian bitter brew, he doesn’t seem able or likely to gear down. “I wish that Manta Pacific could be a full-time paid job, and maybe someday it could be,” he says. “As it is, it’s just a mission of the heart. Someone said I was like Peter Pan, that I should grow up and get a real job. But when I got hit by that lightning bolt all those years ago, it burned the youthful enthusiasm into me.”

Keller splits his time between leading dives, teaching classes through Jack’s and volunteering at his foundation lobbying the state legislature on behalf of mantas and divers. “We think there should be at least one trained lifeguard or water safety professional on every commercial boat charter. I want things to be safe and sustainable for people and mantas,” he says. He’s been working hard with Hawai‘i politicians to make that happen. “In the dive industry in particular, we are in a position where we can impact people. Scuba divers tend demographically to be educated and well-traveled, and they vote. They can contribute to help make change for the better.”

One recent study of the value of manta rays around the world concluded that a dead manta is worth about $500 for its meat and gills. That same manta is now estimated to be worth $1 million in tourism revenue over its lifetime. Right now, the chance of seeing mantas on a night dive in Kona is, according to Keller, around 90 percent. To keep it that way, he says, “We have to take care of things. I want to create a future where my grandchildren can swim with manta rays, so we have to be smart, diligent and keep going. I dream about mantas all the time. They’re always trying to lead me somewhere.”  HH