BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Incredible video of a monk seal up close and personal during a manta ray dive on Hawai'i Island is unlike anything you've seen before.
The underwater encounter was captured over the weekend off the Kona coast during an evening dive. Tour operators say they've never experienced anything like this.
The amazing video showcases Waimanu, a Hawaiian Monk Seal, who according to Ocean Wings Hawaii operators has been hanging out at "Manta Ray Heaven" over the past few weeks, but always in the dark outskirts -- until Saturday.
"We've done tons of manta ray dives every night since 1991 and we've never ever, ever seen a monk seal on it," said Ryan Leinbach, one of the photographers who caught the special moment on camera, as the pregnant monk seal swam through the dive site while manta rays fed on plankton.
"To see the monk seal's reaction to the manta rays. You see the monk seal go by and the monk seal is looking at this manta swimming underneath it and it's almost like the monk seal is going what the heck is that thing?" described Leinbach.
NOAA officials say they were happy to see divers stay a safe distance away -- for the most part -- but there are some concerns.
"We don't speak monk seal, they don't speak human, so I think the potential to accidentally condition an animal in a way that's not safe for swimmers is there and I don't want to instill fear about monk seals but being responsible and being respectful of wild creatures and allowing them to stay wild in their environment and respect from a distance is the responsible thing that we can do as people and Hawaiian residents and it's a very helpful thing to do for monk seal conservation," explained Stacie Robinson, a research ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.
NOAA experts say familiarity with divers or fisherman could lead seals to become dependent on humans for food -- and that would decimate the dwindling population.
"The more they're accustomed to humans, the more they think it's okay or enjoyable to play with humans or interact -- the more danger that animal is going to have and the harder it is for us to protect this really special Hawaiian species," said Robinson.
NOAA officials say reports from the public are one of the best ways they can keep tabs on the monk seal population and how they're doing in the wild, which is why they ask folks to please report any sightings or interactions to their hotline: # (888) 256-9840.
Watch the full video courtesy Hawai'I Manta Ray Advocates
Learn more about NOAA's efforts to protect the Hawaiian monk seal