The ocean defines Hawaii. It’s a place where the bedlam of evolution has taken audacious steps, enchanting and astonishing even the most well-traveled diver. It’s a destination where huge schools of dolphins, legions of green sea turtles, manta rays, reef sharks and whales share space with rare dragon morays, Tinker’s butterflyfish and piles of endemic marine life. These critters are lots of things, but they aren’t shy — chances are you’ll see a big chunk of Hawaii’s undersea biodiversity during the span of a single dive.
What’s even more remarkable about Hawaii is that it’s the most remote speck of land on Earth: Its idyllic shores are more than 1,000 miles from any other landmass. It’s an inconspicuous sprinkling of island riches, hidden away in the center of the immense Pacific Ocean.
The amazement factor continues above the surface. When you mention a tropical paradise, the first place that comes to the world’s shared imagination of island perfection is Hawaii. Waterfalls here seem to cascade from only the most cinematic of cliffs. The rainforests are thick with unique flora and fauna, and everything exudes a sense of the exotic. There are deep red-rock canyons, silky red-, green-, black- and white-sand beaches that stretch off to the horizon, volcanoes that flow violently into the sea and acres of freshly hardened lava that look like a desolate black moonscape. There’s also something deeply inspiring about a lifestyle where flip-flops, T-shirts and board shorts are daily attire. It’s an addictive Polynesian world offering a lifetime of adventure, discovery and exploration.
From the chilly heights of the “House of the Sun” — Mount Haleakala — through the lush rainforest beauty of the Road to Hana to the unique seascape of crescent-shaped Molokini Crater, Maui comes with all of the elements of paradise that bounce through our imaginations. Maui is also considered to have the greatest variety of diving in the Hawaiian Islands. Sea turtles and sharks are plentiful, and carnivals of wildly emblazoned fish characterize Maui’s underwater world. Humpback whales revel in Maui’s warm waters during their birthing season. When they breach close to shore, locals and tourists alike bring traffic to a standstill to watch the acrobatic displays.
A second home for Maui divers is the nearby island of Lanai, which seems to exist solely for the pleasure of underwater explorers. Here you’ll find First and Second Cathedrals, where shafts of light pierce the caverns like a thousand radiant swords. The areas near those two holy blue shrines are thick with a great diversity of marine creatures. The nearby site known as Pyramids gets its name not from the topography but from the sheer number of pyramid butterflyfish that flutter over the top of the pinnacle.
At Fish Rock the underwater Who’s Who includes menpachi, pipefish, viper morays and whitetips — enough sea life to have even the most seasoned traveler flipping through marine ID books well into the night. And that’s just on the reef. Look to the open water and watch for spotted eagle rays, manta rays and passing sharks, and from November to March, perhaps even humpback whales.
There are plenty of dive shops on Maui, and we showcase four of the best on the following pages. Just name your adventure.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ED
Ed Robinson’s Diving Adventures
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Ed Robinson’s world is defined by diving — the best diving Maui has to offer. Ed has been operating off Maui for 35 years, so he’s as close as anyone can be to the island’s intimate nuances and spectacular thrills. Ed’s also a top-notch underwater photographer, and his knowledge of Hawaii’s unique marine life is keen and considerable — a claim that’s true of his team, too. Most come to work for Ed and never leave, a testament to man and island both.
Ed Robinson’s Diving Adventures (ERDA), which operates from Kihei, caters primarily to divers with experience, and the dive menu reflects that. Since Kihei is only about 20 minutes from Molokini Crater, chances are each morning will find one of Ed’s two custom dive boats slicing a path through the blue toward the site. Here, the Back Wall offers PADI advanced divers a sheer dropoff that faces 1,000 miles of Pacific Ocean. Anything can show up here: whitetip reef sharks, manta rays, dolphins. But the most spectacular element of the dive is the sight of the wall slipping off into the deep and the play of light in 150-plus feet of visibility.
Nearby, the site known as Reef’s End is a bit more productive for marine-life encounters. Whitetip reef sharks abound here, as do battalions of Moorish idols, raccoon butterflyfish, masked angelfish, moray eels and bluestriped snapper. And if it’s small, stealthy and shy, Ed’s staff will most likely find it. With so much marine-biology expertise on hand, the critter count mounts throughout the dive. You’ll come out of the water a much more observant and fulfilled diver; better yet, you’ll have even more stories to tell.
THE ONE-STOP HOUSE OF ADVENTURE
Maui Dive Shop
Especially in a place with as many distractions as Maui, dive travelers often explore the last frontier in the morning and seek terrestrial adventures in the afternoon. Maui Dive Shop knows that, so they specialize in making the most of your island hours. After all, you can sleep when you’re on the plane home.
Slideshow: Polynesian paradise That said, though, you can dive all day if you like, and on Tuesdays and Fridays you can slip into the other side of reef life on a two-tank night dive. I prefer diving at night because I see so much more on the reef, especially color. Just thinking about it I get the same feeling in my stomach I once got on first dates: a blend of magical anticipation and mystery.
Maui Dive Shop plans the first evening dive around dusk. You get to know the reef before the sun sets and then see the changing of the guard. Play a light over the reef and the eyes of shrimp, crabs and lobsters shine back. Tiger cowries ease from daytime hideouts and eels emerge to hunt for dinner. On my last trip I spent an entire night dive following an octopus on the hunt, watching it change color and texture right before my eyes.
Between dives, Maui Dive Shop can arrange for you to bike, raft, hike, take a helicopter tour or rent a jeep. Try biking down Haleakala (after you’ve off-gassed and your no-fly time has cleared). Seeing the sunrise there is like watching the earth come alive, and then it’s one nonstop downhill thrill ride from 10,000 feet to sea level.
The last time I was in Lahaina, the streets were closed and crowded with ghosts, goblins, vampires and the undead. Hey, it happens — especially when it seems like the entire island of Maui crowds into this historic whaling village for the Halloween parade. Lahaina (also home to the largest Buddha statue outside China) draws more tourists than any Maui attraction other than the beaches. It’s also where you’ll find PADI Gold Palm IDC Resort Lahaina Divers, which has explored Maui waters for more than 25 years. In an ironic twist, after my night of canoodling with the devil’s minions, I was heading off to church. Well, sort of.
Lahaina Divers is a relatively short run from the island of Lanai, which has some of Hawaii’s best diving just offshore. Two of its most famous sites are caverns believed to have been formed by giant bubbles in the lava. At First Cathedral, you enter into a dome at about 55 feet. The sensation once you enter is of being in a place of worship. Shafts of blue light pierce the shadows through the collapsed ceiling. All that’s missing are a manger and angels. Seeing a whitetip reef shark meander in and out of the light is like watching a ghost.
Once I got over my initial sense of awe and actually began to explore the 100-foot-long room, I found loads of interesting, shadow-loving critters. A pair of lobsters dashed into a crevice — they must’ve heard my stomach growl. When I found a little enclave of squirrelfish I thought to myself that it must be the choir, dressed in holiday red. Later I discovered the deacon, a whitetip reef shark snoozing beneath a ledge. Just outside, a swirl of pyramid butterflyfish seemed to be holding vigil, and though I didn’t see them, I heard the distant clicks of passing dolphins.
Lahaina Divers heads off to Lanai every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to explore the full spectrum of experiences that await off what is commonly referred to as “Hawaii’s most enticing island.”
I felt like a party crasher, and I wasn’t even dressed for the occasion — everybody else had a shell. I was off the east side of Lanai in Turtle Haven (known as Coral Garden when no turtles are in residence). Six green sea turtles lolled along the reef, some wearing looks of bliss as yellow tangs picked parasites from their skin and shells.
It was a good day off Lanai. Earlier, while diving a site called Armchair, I’d been mobbed by what seemed like the most vain butterflyfish in Hawaii. I could almost hear them saying, “Look at me, look at me!” Pennantfish and snapper seemed quite plentiful, too. Just when I’d begun to think I’d become an undersea pied piper, I discovered why these fish were so friendly: A group of snorkelers had brought tidbits for the inhabitants. About 30 species of marine life, including black durgon and surgeonfish, immediately swarmed in. I was caught in a tempest of color and fins, making my fish-finder gene pretty happy and enthralling my fellow divers.
PADI dive center Dive Maui, which overlooks Front Street in Lahaina, heads off to Lanai several times a week. Besides Molokini and anything after dark, Lanai has some of my favorite dives in Maui County, with abundant endemic fish, the opportunity to spot dolphin and eagle rays and a better-than-average chance of encountering green sea turtles. It’s the marine version of a lively social scene. I, for one, never tire of the company.
I’m hiking across a field of black lava at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Off in the distance a roiling, billowing cloud of steam vaults into the sky as a river of lava reaches into the cooling sea. Hawaii is growing right before our eyes, and by the time we reach the shore and the flow, the active Kilauea Caldera will have added several feet of terra firma to the Big Island, the youngster in the Hawaiian Island chain.
Hidden beneath our feet, there was once a road. “No Parking” signs poke out from the lava. This is probably the one place in the world where no one could break such a roadside edict even if they wanted to. There’s no path for us to follow, just the distant violent column of steam and acres and acres of black lava. Up close the lava has a blue sheen and comes in every shape imaginable. My favorite is the soft, sensual folds of pillow lava crinkling beneath our feet. As we get nearer, we can actually feel pockets of heat. “I like to come out here at night,” says my guide, photographer David Fleetham. “That’s when you can really see the fiery glow of the lava.”
We get as close to the flow as possible and work our way upwind. We stay upwind because the popping, hissing steam cloud is filled with tiny droplets of hydrochloric acid and airborne particles of what is the equivalent of glass shards — not generally part of a healthy daily regimen. We’d brought painter’s masks to cover our mouths and noses just in case, but right now the offshore breeze favors us. Before us the earth strains through growing pains. The sight is at once dramatic and fierce, haunting and poetic. I can only imagine what is happening beneath the waves at the spot where two forces of nature collide.
The results of the hot hand of Mother Nature can be seen by divers. The entire seafloor offshore is built on this volcanic substrate, and the dive sites off Kona (as the west side of the island is known) are riddled with arches, lava tubes, striking caverns lit with streaks of light that slip through cracks in the ceiling, and ancient calderas that have been transformed into aquariums of wildly decorated butterflyfish, tangs, angelfish and triggerfish. In the silence of the vast Pacific, the violence that gave birth to this island world has been transformed into a blue wonderland.
Hawaii is also a crossroads. Humpback whales show up every year from November to March, filling the water with otherworldly refrains. Pilot whales, dolphins, mantas and sea turtles come in droves. For divers, Kona is a rite of passage. Almost from the moment one gets a C-card, Kona comes calling, and rightly so: It’s a world all divers should experience. Like the song of the humpback whale, it will not soon be forgotten.
WELCOME TO THE OHANA
Kona Honu Divers
In Hawaiian, ohana means family, and from the moment you board one of Kona Honu’s boats, you become part of owners Glenn and Maggie Anderson’s family.
It’s a happy family. One thing about the dive experience on Kona Honu’s expansive 46-foot boat is that the divemasters and captains love the dive life and truly enjoy sharing the blue wonderlands off Kona. They take care of your gear, swap out your tanks and play cool music between dives.
I was recently with Kona Honu for what they’ve embraced as their signature dive experience: the Manta Ray Night Dive. Although other shops also visit this site, I can see why Kona Honu incorporates it, too:There’s nothing like it in the world.
Slideshow: A Mermaid’s Playground Several nights a week, just south of the airport at a site called Garden Eel Cove, the Kona Honu dive boat heads out of Honokohau Harbor just as the sun is slipping over the horizon and setting off the daily light show understatedly called “sunset.”
The divemaster sets powerful lights on the seafloor, pointing straight to the surface. Almost as soon as the lights are turned on, clouds of plankton begin swirling in the beams. For mantas, this is akin to ringing a dinner bell, pulling the winged giants to the feast.
Divers form a circle around the main light and soon the beams from their own dive lights fill with manta appetizers. When the mantas make their appearance, they almost seem to materialize from the dark water itself into the very definition of elegance. I’ve been in the water here with as many as 10 mantas, with wingspans from six to 12 feet, watching in awe until dwindling air forced me from the water. The mantas tumble, twirl and loop-the-loop through the mass of plankton, passing so close that you can see every detail of their skin, and even right into their open mouths. Being in the water with these majestic animals reminds me just how lucky I am to be a diver, and how lucky I am to be in one of the world’s ultimate ohanas.
SILENCE OF THE TINKERS
Konaquatica Dive Center
Rebreathers and TecRec Trimix certifications are welcome when you come to Konaquatica. They’re developing a reputation as the place for technical divers in Kona (although they take plenty of nontechnical divers to some of Kona’s top dive sites). If there’s anywhere in the world that the stealth and bottom-time advantage of a rebreather becomes obvious, it’s Kona. The only thing better than seeing big animals is not sending them running with your bubbles.
Although I haven’t dived it with a rebreather (yet!), I’d love to take one to the long-distance southern site called Au Au Crater. (One of the advantages of small, fast boats like Konaqatica’s is that you can get to this site and still have plenty of time to really explore it without bumping elbows with other divers.) I’d like to explore this dramatic site sans bubbles so I can mingle more closely with the spotted eagle rays I’ve seen there; and the hammerheads that show up for me at Au Au always seem to be able to feel the pressure wave from my bubbles and head for the blue. I’d also like to get a chance to photograph, at close quarters, a Tinker’s butterflyfish, a species that likes to hang in advanced-diver depths but is seen as shallow as 100 feet here.
Au Au Crater seems like an oceanic aquarium, harboring much of the wild variety of marine life found off Kona: dwarf eels, frogfish, piles of lobsters, snowflake morays, millet-seed, ornate and raccoon butterflyfish and, the patron saint of underwater Hawaii, the honu, or green sea turtle. The turtles in particular like to hang out on the lip of this massive underwater crater, almost as if they’ve stopped to check out the expansive view.
Although it requires a longer boat ride than most Kona sites, it’s worth the extra effort to get there. And a nimble dive operation like Konaquatica is just the shop to make dives like this happen.
SHOW ME THE DRAGONS
Big Island Divers
They look like dragons, I suppose. Dragons created for a Mardi Gras parade. Although they have the requisite mouth full of flesh-ripping teeth, they’d get laughed out of Camelot by even the foppiest of knights. The ladies in waiting, though, might like to have them around as a curiosity. If they could only be found.
That’s the problem with dragons, both imagined and real: They’re pretty hard to find. They like to hide out in dark lairs and don’t care too much for the spotlight. So like most intelligent people, when we divers want to see dragons (of the dragon-moray-eel variety), we hire experts.
We’re moored at a site called Pine Trees, our first Kona dive. Word has rippled from divemaster to divemaster that there’s a dragon moray holed up here. During the brief, we’re all shown photos of the mythical beast. One of the divers comments, “With colors like that they should be pretty easy to spot. Just look for a splotchy, multicolored, slithering crayon with teeth.”
If we find the dragon moray eel on this dive, we won’t have a long queue for a look at this rare creature. PADI 5-star Big Island Divers’ custom dive boats carry a maximum of eight divers, keeping the dives intimate and the sites mercifully uncrowded. We’re all a curious lot, though, and dive sites off Kona aren’t one-trick ponies. I’m sure there’ll be other distractions.
We would-be blue-water dragon-slayers giant-stride into the magic kingdom. While the divemaster trolls for the prime suspect, I fin around the site, instantly distracted by another dragon: a dragon wrasse. This bouncy, jittery, green-and-white nonstop juvenile of the rockmover wrasse flits over the seafloor like a leaf being tossed in a tempest. I follow the bob-and-weave movements for a while until another movement catches my eye: a whitespotted moray poking its head from a hole in a mound of star coral.
Just then, the divemaster gives us a “heads up” ting on his tank. I fin back to the boat and, right there, almost straight down from the swim step, is the shy eel. Its tooth-filled jaws give it a fierce aspect despite the gaudy appearance, and it’s surprisingly small, especially since we’ve all imagined a much bigger (fire-breathing?) beast. The sight of it mesmerizes us nonetheless; we know we’ll all be bragging about this moment, reading our logbooks aloud to envious divers back home.
Jack’s Diving Locker
Jack’s Diving Locker has been a Kona institution since 1981, and its owners, Jeff and Teri Leicher, have deep roots in the local dive community. In a world where dive staff are mostly transients, Jack’s staff members tend to become part of the family and stay. And with the amount of repeat business that Jack’s has, their dive family seems to be spanning the globe in growing numbers of acolytes. You’ll probably have a member of the Leicher family on the boat with you; even after 25 years, they still have an obvious love for the eclectic diving off Kona. Which, really, demonstrates why Kona has remained a dive mecca.
Over the years I’ve been on dozens of dives with Jack’s and been endlessly fascinated with Kona’s best sites — Turtle Pinnacle, Suck ’Em Up, Kalokos and Golden Arches, Pyramid Pinnacle, the famed manta night dive and Kaiwi Point. But some of my most indelible memories of Jack’s happen between sites, in the deep, electric-blue waters about a mile offshore. This is treasure-hunt diving. Every time we head off into the blue, everyone on the boat is primed in anticipation of the unexpected. Jeff, his son Kawika and one of the luckiest captains in Hawaii, Greg McLaughlin, seem to have a knack for taking guests to just the right patch of ocean. And this part of the Pacific, for all its vastness, seems particularly crowded with pelagic passers-by.
Nothing can prepare you for the sensation of peering off into the bottomless blue, streaks of sunlight piercing deeply into the 200 feet of viz, and seeing a pod of pilot whales materialize around you. They look you in the eye with a sentience you can feel, then continue on in their relentless search for something only they know. I’ve seen beaked whales and a tiny frogfish known as a sargassumfish that was clinging to a micro-world of shredded nylon rope tangled under some flotsam, and I’ve felt a tingle of apprehension when oceanic whitetips pop in for a look at who’s in their stomping grounds. When the waters fill with a hundred spinner dolphins, clicking and squeaking in a huge cacophony, you can sense the sonar pings as they echo back an image of the awkward visitor in their water.
There’s one particular moment that will resound in your memory: just being in the water and experiencing the ephemeral caress of whalesong as it fills an immense ocean with its lingering lyrics. You’ll never want to return to the boat. But as they say, that’s another Kona day.
The Garden Maze
Seasport Divers, Kauai
So far this dive, I’ve moved a grand total of about 20 feet. I’m hovering under a volcanic arch at Kauai’s Sheraton Caverns. Under a ledge in front of me a green sea turtle naps, completely oblivious to my presence. The reason I haven’t felt compelled to move is that in the 20 minutes I’ve been in the water, I’ve watched a parade of green sea turtles descending from the surface, rising and cruising under the arch like stunt planes in a movie. None of them seems the least bit bothered by me. In fact, they barely give me a sideways glance unless I make a sudden move. They slip past me, head into one of the many passages, lava tubes and overhangs and settle in. Like the Sheraton hotel that watches from the beach (and lends the site its name), Sheraton Caverns is place to crash, rest, catch a few Z’s and then carry on with the business of life — if you’re a turtle.
While green sea turtles are a big draw along the south coast of Kauai, near the beachside town of Poipu, they’re just the gatekeepers at most of the sites. After a few more moments of sea-turtle reverie at Sheraton, I decide to fin around a bit just to be sure the divemaster from Seasport Divers doesn’t think I’ve fallen asleep.
I ease into one of the many lava tubes, a school of bluestriped snapper polarizing as I pass, and I take a stab in the dark with my dive light. The shadowy walls pop to life. Loads of eyes reflect back from the walls as several species of shrimp retreat into crevices. A massive tiger cowrie sits between rocks on the seafloor with its leathery-looking mantle wrapped around its spotted shell. About that time, a slipper lobster reveals itself and confirms my explorer fantasy. But then everything about Kauai seems to exist in an ether of fantasy. With the surreal folds of the Na Pali Coast, waterfalls by the dozen and Waimea Canyon all nearby, it’s hard to know where to begin to fill your topside time.
But I make my choice. Between dives, I sneak off and explore the nearby National Tropical Botanical Garden, one of Kauai’s many topside diversions. This place is rife with things I’d like to spirit away to my own backyard. I particularly covet a massive angel’s trumpet plant, tiny orange blaze epindendrums and bright-yellow cassia fistulas. And I’m always mesmerized by the fleshy and gothic-looking Dutchman’s pipe flowering vine, with its delicate heart-shaped leaves and two-foot-long purple blooms that fill the air with the unexpected scent of lemons.
I come back to sea under the influence of my botanical interlude. It gives me a fresh appreciation as I explore the volcanic fingers of Fast Lanes, with its black coral trees that hide 7-11 crabs, spiny lobsters and zebra and snowflake morays. Redfin and ornate butterflyfish flit through the growth like their terrestrial namesakes, and slate-pencil urchins and pincushion sea stars look like flowers against the dark substrate. Later, I roam the aisles of General Store; there’s a cleaning station for more green sea turtles, where their shells get a wash and wax by yellow and Achilles tangs. It seems a fitting silent moment of bliss in a place where fantasy is so much a part of reality.
Ocean Concepts, Oahu
There’s something surreal about traveling from Waikiki to Waianae on Oahu. My buddy Jeff and I had arrived in Honolulu and checked into our hotel about a block away from famous Waikiki Beach. The beach is just like everything you’ve seen on TV: surfers everywhere. We even saw a dog on a surfboard. Heck, there’s a sign on the street warning drivers to look out for surfers crossing the road. (As if you could miss some dude in a neon shorty carrying a longboard.) Boogieboarders take giant leaps off the end of the pier (much to the surprise of nearby tourists) to get to their favorite spots.
Sunbathers from around the world line the beach, too. There are Hawaiian outriggers and the bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku with the ever-present fresh leis around his neck. Tourists, pro football players (here for the pro-bowl) and high-school marching-band members (here for the bowl-season parades) patrol the boardwalk with little silver digital cameras, and shoppers walk wide-eyed through the famous corridors of the International Marketplace. Every three steps you hear a different language. It’s almost like that bar scene from Star Wars — a place where all the aliens make themselves at home. That, in an odd sort of way, is why we’re here: to enjoy our favorite alien haunt, which currently stares blankly at us as we gaze past the surfers to the vast Pacific beyond. And that brings us back to the surreal …
Early the next morning, the van for PADI 5-star Career Development Center Ocean Concepts picks us up to takes us to Waianae Harbor. About 20 minutes away from the nonstop energy of Waikiki, we begin driving along a coast lined with long stretches of pristine and — amazingly — empty beaches. It’s mostly locals, hard-core surfers and scuba divers who find their way down this road, which eventually reaches a dead-end. Out here, Waikiki seems a million miles away. The volcanic seascape offshore is riddled with lava tubes, swim-throughs and one of Hawaii’s top wreck dives, the Mahi. Even though Jeff and I have been diving with Ocean Concepts before, it’s almost impossible to pass up on another dive on the Mahi. As it turns out, all the other divers on the boat feel exactly the same way.
The 176-foot Mahi sits alone on a sandy seafloor. Much has changed since the 1982 sinking of this onetime cable-layer. The center section has caved in and the ocean has knitted her a furry covering of hydroids, cup corals and encrusting sponges. But one thing hasn’t changed: The Mahi is a world-class fish attracter. There’s almost always a flock of spotted eagle rays hovering over the wreck. The collapsed center section is filled with snapper and Moorish idols. Green sea turtles sometimes stop by, and there are a few resident green morays. We’ve brought our dive lights, because there are lots of nooks and crannies to poke around in. Being in such an exposed spot makes this an oasis for almost anything that passes by. On our dive, it’s the eagle rays that steal the show.
After the Mahi, which, at 94 feet, is a deeper dive, divers usually head for the caverns. Makaha Caverns features two lava tubes that converge, Black Rock Arch has a massive overhang under which you’ll find a thick coat of cup corals, and Keaau Corners, which winds around like an underwater wander-world, follows an undersea ledge that parallels the coastline for about a mile. It’s full of stealth critters like octopus and the occasional frogfish, as well as a nice selection of nudibranchs. And it’s a favored place for green sea turtles to settle in for a nap.
At the end of the dive day, we drive back to the buzz and hum of Waikiki, where we just catch the end of the high-school marching-band parade as the sunset ignites the famous waves — and the hidden worlds beneath — with its golden fire.
As the official publication of the PADI Diving Society, Sport Diver is the magazine divers turn to each month to find out what’s going on in their world. Sport Diver is the ultimate source for up to date information on dive culture, equipment, travel, training and PADI Diving Society activities.