Scuba divers interact with manta rays each evening near the Kona Sheraton

Scuba divers interact with manta rays each evening at the Kona Sheraton and at Garden Eel Cove

The Manta Learning Center in Kona, Hawaii celebrated their first anniversary on August 16-22 with a celebration and a wide range of educational activities for locals and visitors alike. In addition to celebrating the anniversary, the week of art, cultural and educational activities also helped raise funds for the Manta Pacific Research Foundation (MPRF).

This Manta Ray Learning Center is located at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa in Keauhou Bay on the island of Hawaii.

Keller Laros of Manta Pacific

Keller Laros of Manta Pacific Research Foundation

Activities during “Malama Hahalua” (Manta Ray Week) included a live painting exhibit by accomplished Hawai’i marine life artist and children’s book author Patrick Ching, a performance by local favorite musician LT Smooth, a Manta Ray Open House event where guests were invited to visit with Keller and Wendy Laros, founders of the Manta Pacific Research Foundation, interactive cultural activities such as lei-making, ukulele lessons and hula lessons, a silent auction by local artisans and other community businesses, and guest lectures by Keller Laros and Roxanne Stewart. Each evening, guests were invited to view the manta rays in their natural environment in Keauhou Bay from the lanai of the Sheraton’s Rays on the Bay restaurant. Rays on the Bay also contributed to manta preservation and education, with themed drink and culinary specials during the week and their Table 53 initiative, where one table’s profits all week were donated to the MPRF.


History of the Manta Learning Center

The Sheraton’s Manta Learning Center was created in 2014 when the Sheraton partnered with Manta Pacific Research Foundation founder Keller Laros. Keller (a Tiburon, CA native) and his wife Wendy established the 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2002 to study manta rays in their natural habitat, conduct scientific research and provide education programs for the public about manta rays. The Center resides in the expansive hallway and small alcove that leads to the restaurant Rays on the Bay.

Manta Pacific's Keller Laros gives a presentation on Mantas

Keller Laros from Manta Pacific Research Foundation gives a presentation

This August not only celebrates the one-year anniversary of the Manta Learning Center, but my 30th anniversary of diving with manta rays.” said Laros. “As long as I’ve been diving with them, I’ve been looking for a permanent home base to share this knowledge with the public.”

The Sheraton's Cultural Director Lily Dudiot

Sheraton Cultural Activities Director Lily Dudiot

Through their partnership, the Sheraton has become that home.

“I’m so happy that the Sheraton team gave us the opportunity to build the center with informative plaques and photos about these beautiful marine creatures – right next to one of the best viewing areas in the world at Pa’akai Point.”

Cultural Activities Director of Sheraton Kona, Lily Dudiot, worked with Keller and Wendy Laros to bring the vision of the Manta Learning Center to life. The Center now includes beautiful, large-format photographs of the manta rays (taken by marine life photographer Bo Pardau), video displays of the mantas swimming in the oceans of Hawaii, and informative placards throughout the center, sharing interesting facts about the magnificent animals.

On Thursday, August 20th Keller and Wendy hosted presentations on their Manta Identification Project. With an interactive presentation, Keller told stories and shared photos of Kona manta legends such as Lefty, Big Bertha, and Koie. Following the presentation, participants joined Wendy and Alexander Laros to build their own Manta puppets.

Artist Patrick Ching painting mantas by the pool at the Sheraton

Artist Patrick Ching painting mantas by the pool at the Sheraton

Painting the Mantas

Featured artist Patrick Ching was at the event each day, educating, entertaining, and inspiring guests of all ages with his paintings. His canvases were set up by the swimming pool in the daytime where people could view the transformation from blank canvas to finished paintings as the week progressed, and visitors even had the opportunity to contribute to each painting.

As an island native, painting mantas comes naturally to Patrick, and he has spent a lifetime devoted to the preservation of Hawaii’s native wildlife.

Patrick grew up exploring the valleys and shorelines of Hawaii, and during a month long Outward Bound wilderness program, saw his first Hawaiian Hawk in the sky over Pololou valley.

“During that experience I decided to devote my life to educating people about Hawaii’s native wildlife through my art”.  In 1980 Patrick won a scholarship to Otis/Parsons Art Institute in Los Angeles. He also attended the University of Hawaii at Leeward college and UH Manoa. His most influential mentor is international surrealist artist John Pitre.

Patrick has authored many award winning books including Sea Turtles of Hawaii, The Hawaiian Monk Seal and Honu and Hina. Patrick now travels internationally painting and conducting realistic nature painting workshops. He also conducts regular art classes at private sessions from his gallery, via webcam, or at workshops around the world.

At the conclusion of the Manta Week celebration, Patrick’s completed paintings were sold in a silent auction to raise money, in part, for the Manta Pacific Research Foundation.

Alexander Laros of Manta Pacific helps with crafts during one the Manta Week presentations.

Alexander Laros of Manta Pacific helps with crafts during one the Manta Week presentations.

A Successful Week for the Mantas

The weeklong celebration and activities concluded on Saturday, August 22nd and it was a very successful week. The silent auction and donations from Rays on the Bay raised $3,115, and an online auction will be posted soon for more of Patrick Ching’s prints. More importantly, however, is that hundreds of residents and guests of all ages had the opportunity to learn more about the beautiful manta rays.

Planning Ahead for 2016

With the success of the 2015 event, the Sheraton Kona and the Manta Pacific Research Foundation have already planned for another event in 2016. While the exact dates have not been confirmed, it will likely take place in late August. Stay tuned and we’ll post the dates as soon as the events are finalized!

Learn More

Manta Pacific Research Foundation

Artist Patrick Ching