KEAUHOU — Their canoe pointed west, Miranda Natividad and her son Preston, 6, paddled their way into a sunset.
As they and the other paddlers in the double-hulled canoe headed out into Keauhou Bay, Aunty Ilima Choy of Hawaii Lifeguard Surf Instructors and Hana Yoshihata of Anelakai Adventures spoke to their guests about the moon hanging above them and the manta rays swimming beneath them.
When the canoe reached the others, Choy and Yoshihata turned on the canoe’s lights, attracting a scattering of plankton into its beams. Within minutes, a manta ray soared beneath the vessel.
Its appearance sparked a chorus of “oohs” and pointed fingers from the canoe’s passengers, an excitement only amplified by the appearance of a second ray.
After about 15 minutes or so, the canoe headed back toward shore, where its passengers were greeted once again by Christmas carols, food and the fun that awaited them.
Back on dry land, Miranda Natividad and her husband, Paolo Natividad, said Surf For Special Needs, which hosted Saturday’s manta ray viewing event, meant a lot for her family.
“Sometimes when you have a special needs child, you feel like you’re going it alone,” Miranda Natividad said. “And so it’s nice to be reminded that you’re not.”
Their family was among dozens of families — totaling more than 120 people — who came out to Keauhou Bay Saturday for an evening of manta ray viewing with Surf For Special Needs.
This event marked the organization’s fourth this year since it first hosted a surf day on Mother’s Day.
“It’s turned into something far more than I’ve ever imagined,” said Star Shortt, president and founder of the organization. “And we’re just pounding full-speed ahead.”
The canoes for the manta viewings were provided by Anelakai Adventures. Owner Iko Balanga said they were excited to partner with Shortt and his organization for Saturday’s event.
“We’re all about giving back,” Balanga said, “so this is just another way for us to have more local people to enjoy the ocean as well as viewing mantas.”
Natividad’s family came to Kona a year ago from Utah, and this was their third outing with Surf For Special Needs. She said Kona, as a small town, offers a great sense of community, although it can be a challenge to find opportunities that fit every family’s needs.
“And in our case, that’s what Surf for Special Needs fulfills for us,” she said. “We just feel like everybody’s family. I think that’s the big difference between here and the mainland. Everybody feels like family here.”
Paolo Natividad added he also appreciates that the events aren’t exclusively for children and include people of all ages who have special needs.
Events like these, Shortt said, are critical. Without them many of these kids might not be getting on or in the water.
“When they come with us, we just break that mold,” said Shortt. “The ocean can be a little scary, but when you’re out there and you’re having fun, all that goes away.”
Ellen Ching, who came to the event with her family, said events like Saturday’s give her son Derek, 9, an opportunity to get an experience he might not otherwise get, saying he normally wouldn’t try some of the activities Surf For Special Needs puts on for participants.
“But here, because there are so many instructors here and other uncles here, he feels comfortable, and so he’s willing to try it,” she said. “And especially with so many other kids with special needs that he sees that are like him that are trying, so he himself wants to try.”
Getting on the water is an important experience, Balanga said, adding it can be a much-needed break for families with busy schedules.
“Just getting them out, getting them out to breathe the ocean breeze and just being with other people and especially being with all the animals in the ocean, it’s super important,” he said. “If we didn’t have the ocean, if we didn’t have plankton, we wouldn’t have life.”
Shortt said the events also help the parents of those who participate.
“When we started all this, my thing was ‘Oh, I cannot wait when these kids are surfing to see the look on their face,’ but I had it all wrong,” he said. “It’s the parents who put in all the work that really need this break.”
And it was an amazing experience, Miranda Natividad said.
“They were so beautiful. I didn’t expect them to be so beautiful,” she said of the mantas. “They were just stunning.”
Ching, too, said Derek enjoyed going out to see the manta rays.
“He loved it,” she said. “He loved it.”
Paddling in a canoe, Balanga added, brings with it some valuable lessons.
“When you lash canoes together, it’s how you keep your community together,” he said. “Everybody’s tight and gets together and holds strong together. And then once in a while it loosens up and then we go and we lash again.”
And through events like these, Shortt said, families are getting to know one another and build relationships throughout the community.
“I gotta tell you, my heart’s pretty full,” he said. “Growing up, I was kind of a wild kid, Banyans boy, surfer. But now, I look at my kid, and it’s time to give back.”