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Hawaii's waters are populated by species so exotic that they are found nowhere else in the world, and all presided over by honu — the Hawaiian green sea turtle.
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updated 1/29/2008 1:12:52 PM ET 2008-01-29T18:12:52

Hawaii is a place where waterfalls plunge down green, cloud-veiled cliffs that look as if they came right out of a Japanese painting, where volcanoes are fountains of orange into a starry black sky, and fields of fresh black lava look like nothing so much as a moonscape — if the moon had an ocean view. This is one place where you can use the word “paradise” and nobody rolls their eyes. Yet it’s paradise with a laid-back style and a casual dress code: a culture in which flip-flops and board shorts are daily wear, and dressing up for a business meeting means you’re wearing an aloha shirt. And then there is the ocean: underwater landscapes of lava tubes and volcanic rock, populated by species so exotic that they are found nowhere else in the world, and all presided over by honu — the Hawaiian green sea turtle. Beneath the surface and above it is the stuff of dreams. Only in this case, the dream can come true.

The Island of Hawaii: The Big Island
The ancestral home of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, the Big Island teems with life. It also has 11 of the world’s 13 climate zones within its boundaries, so every corner and turn of this island is unique. This diversity has seeped into the waters that surround its shores. A virtual scuba village, Kailua-Kona, on the island’s western shore, is crowded with dive flags and for good reason. Just offshore, incredibly clear waters harbor a wild variety of underwater experiences.

From January through March, pods of humpback whales come to give birth off these shores, their songs providing an enchanting soundtrack to every dive adventure. In the open water within sight of shore, pilot whales frequently swim, often followed by packs of oceanic whitetip sharks. Between dives, huge aggregations of dolphin fill the waters, their leaps and acrobatics making time fly by during surface intervals.

Close to shore, the dive sites that dot the area have become world-famous. At Garden Eel Cove, massive manta rays come in at night to feed on tiny krill and other organisms attracted to lights set on the sea floor. It’s a world-class site, with an experience straight from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Place of Refuge and Turtle Pinnacle attract green sea turtles by the dozens to their cleaning stations, and after a good cleaning these turtles will often pull themselves ashore for a nap.

The lava substrate has riddled the shoreline with underwater caverns and arches in which you’ll find nurse sharks, legions of squirrelfish and every kind of ray of light imaginable. Sequestered in the nooks and crannies of the dive sites, you’ll find brightly colored frogfish, dragon, zebra, whitemouth and yellowmargin morays and fluttering extravagances of endemic milletseed butterflyfish. There’s even an extremely photogenic wreck, the Naked Lady, right in the Kona harbor.

For a thrilling treat, head out at night for a deep-water drift dive. You’ll hook onto a floating downline and encounter some of the most otherworldly inhabitants of the sea. Larval marine creature along with deep-water denizens come up to the surface at night to feed and get eaten. Almost every speck you’ll see is alive and, upon close inspection, more alien-like than anything else you’re ever likely to see in the sea. Jellies of every description, and even pelagic seahorses might be part of the passing parade, all in water so deep that even during the daytime you’d never see the bottom.

Yet another night-time spectacular off the Kona Coast is the manta night dive, in which powerful lamps are placed on the seafloor, attracting flurries of plankton that, in turn, draw in giant manta rays. These silent stealth-fighters of the sea pass into and out of the water column above the lights, making graceful pirouettes and loop-the-loops, all just a few feet (and oftentimes just a few inches) above the heads of an appreciative audience of divers. It’s a spectacle that’s impossible to forget … and a great, easy meal for the mantas. In fact, just about the only creatures that don’t consider it an evening to remember are the plankton.

Slideshow: Polynesian paradise Spectacular diving also can be had along the mostly uninhabited Kohala Coast, just northwest of Kona, famous for its pristine hard coral gardens and lava formations, and abundance of whitetip reef sharks, as well as its blissful lack of crowds. And those Big Island trademarks, huge green sea turtles, are a frequent feature of many dives here — their ancient eyes examining you as they swim in tandem at a pace that makes it look as if they have been doing this since the dawn of time.

More than 80 recognized dive sites are visited regularly around the Big Island, making this the sort of destination that requires a number of dive trips — and some would say a lifetime of dive trips — to fully appreciate. From octopus and parrotfish to roving pods of dolphin, there’s always something new to see.

With all this action and diversity underwater it’s easy to think of the Big Island as an aquatic destination, yet the sea is only half the story here. After all, how many places are there where you can watch the sun rise from the rim of a volcanic crater, or stand in awe as ribbons of lava flow sluggishly into a roiling, steaming sea? It’s geology in action on an island that is still growing, as evidenced by places where road signs peek, half-buried, from beneath the hardened lava. And between horseback riding in the high country or along the beach, and mountain biking on trails where the view is the stunning, blue Pacific, there are plenty of ways to pass topside hours in a fashion that is every bit as wild and exciting as the diving.

With its vast and delightfully natural landscapes, stunning marine diversity, and primitive allure, the Big Island of Hawaii still holds all of the charm that it has when Captain James Cook first anchored in Kealakekua Bay (where a monument now memorializes him), nearly 230 years ago. It is a place strongly tied to the forces of nature and the sea, and it is a place to which its visitors become tied as well, returning again and again.

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Maui
From the “House of the Sun,” Mount Haleakala, through the remarkable beauty of the Hana Road, and offshore to the one-of-a-kind diving off Molokini Crater, Maui features a complete set of the elements that define paradise. Still relatively unfettered by mass tourism, Maui revels in its pastoral charms, especially in the upcountry, where you’ll find horse ranches, goat and lavender farms, stunning scenery and even a winery — but it’s not without its share of top eateries and luxury resorts.

Maui is also considered to have the greatest variety of diving in the Hawaiian Islands. Abundant sea turtles and sharks, and huge numbers of fish, define the underwater landscape here. Humpback whales crowd the sea during their birthing season, often causing roadblocks with their nearshore leaps.

The best-kept secret about Maui is very probably the wreck diving. Some are relics of war, such as a US Navy PB4Y-1 bomber ditched off Maui in June of 1944. That wreck, broken, with its wings flipped upside-down, is a technical-diving adventure (the old warbird rests in some 200 feet of water). But others are quite accessible to recreational divers.

The former shrimper St. Anthony, for instance, is an artificial-reef project that was placed in 70 feet of water off Keawakapu Beach in 1997. The 65-foot boat can be penetrated, and is home to a wide variety of marine life.

Off the south side of the island, in 65 feet of water, divers can visit three large abandoned anchors and a concrete mooring block that were once used to secure Navy ships during World War II. Local historians say that the site was a degaussing station — cruisers would moor here while electrical fields were passed through their steel hulls in an attempt to lessen the attraction the ships would hold for magnetic mines floating in the Pacific.

But by far the biggest draw for Maui wreck divers today is the Carthaginian II, a steel-hilled tall ship that was docked for years as a whaling museum in Lahaina.

Slideshow: Magical Maui Originally a 1920s-era commercial bulk carrier used in the Baltic Sea, the Carthaginian II was named after another sailing ship, the Carthaginian, that was built for the 1966 movie Hawaii, based on the James Michener book. Refitted to resemble a 19th century Alaskan whaling vessel, the Carthaginian II did museum duty until maintenance requirements outstripped her value as a tourist attraction. Although visually striking, the ship had no true historic value, so the decision was made to prep, safe, and sink her in 97 feet of water in December of 2005. She went down gracefully, taking less than half an hour to settle beneath the Pacific, and now rests perfectly upright, with her masks reaching up toward the sunlight.

Although on the bottom only two years so far, the Carthaginian II has already settled well into her new role as a reef, attracting a wide variety of sea life, and well on her way to becoming decorated with growth.

And then there are the satellite islands that give Maui-area diving its special appeal.

Diving the island of Molokai, for instance, is like descending into a Wild West shootout —thrilling, unpredictable, seat-of-your-pants kind of diving. During most dives, lemon butterflyfish accompany divers like bright yellow leaves in an autumn wind. And the night diving here is modestly described as spectacular. Spanish dancer nudibranchs often take off like magic carpets during night dives, while eels, cowries, slipper and bull’s-eye lobsters and a host of other nocturnal denizens will keep your dive light humming. There are new sites being discovered here all of the time.

Almost a second home for Maui divers is the other nearby island of Lana’i, which seems to exist almost solely for the pleasure of scuba divers. Here you’ll find the world-famous lava domes of First and Second Cathedral, where divers hover silently beneath vaulted ceilings while shafts of light pierce the caverns like a thousand radiant swords. Beyond that is an incredible diversity  of dive sites, in which a great variety of marine creatures play out their lives around this diver’s playground. The site called Pyramids gets its name from the sheer number of pyramid butterflyfish that flit perpetually around the tip of the pinnacle. At another site, Fish Rock, menpachi, pipefish, viper moray, large cowries and whitetips headline a Hawaiian who’s who list that will have you poring over ID books for hours after a day of diving — and that’s just on the reef. Look to the blue and you’ll have a good chance of seeing spotted eagle rays, manta rays and passing sharks, and from December to May, perhaps even the humpback whales that come here to calve their young.

For more information check out http://www.visitmaui.com/ or call 800-525-MAUI.

O’ahu
O’ahu — scarcely a person alive cannot conjure an image of Waikiki, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbour, or the surf of the North Shore. For divers, though, O’ahu means wrecks. The most famous of these is the one-time cable-layer Mahi, which resides at 95 feet on a sandy seafloor off the Waianae coast. Spotted eagle rays school around the mast, large aggregations of blue-striped snapper come so thick they literally block the view of the wreck, and pennant butterflyfish flit and flow among the shadows. And all kinds of passing pelagics visit here, including tiger sharks and green sea turtles. Closer to Waikiki, you’ll find four intriguing wrecks. The YO-257, the San Pedro, a WWII Corsair fighter/bomber, and theSea Tiger. The transformation of the 175-foot YO-257 from machine of war to reef has been startling. And just 100 feet away, the San Pedro makes an enticing two-for-one proposition out of this diver. Both are virtual turtle hotels — yet when you surface you are within sight if the Waikiki skyline.

The Corsair, a result of pilot error (he ran out of gas on the way home), makes a unique experience for the logbook. And the 168-foot Sea Tiger rests upright in 125 feet of water, deliberately sunk in 1999, it’s already beginning to don the wardrobe of a reef.

But wrecks aren’t the only attraction off Oahu. If you’re interested in seeing Hawaii’s singular variety of endemic species, grab a snorkel and head to Hanauma Bay. This lovely caldera is strikingly beautiful and packed with marine life. There’s also a spectacular collection of volcanic caverns, home to stonefish, sharks and turtles. You’ll have plenty to talk about over your evening Mai Tai.

Kaua’i
Known as the Garden Isle, Kaua’i should change its name to Hollywood’s Preferred Backlot. It seems every inch of this lush island has appeared in a TV show or movie. Perhaps its two most famous natural features are the awe-inspiring  Na Pali Coast and the spectacular Waimea Canyon. In between are about a zillion waterfalls and the wettest spot on earth, Mount Waialeale. Kaua’i is a mecca for hikers, mountain biers, producers, adventurous types and, of course, divers.

Slideshow: The heart of Hawaii The holy grail of diving in Hawaii, about a 45-minute boat ride away, is the “Forbidden Island,” Ni’ihau, sold to a private owner in the 19th century for $10,000. At sites like Ni’ihau Arches and Lehua Rock, divers frequently encounter endangered monk seals, eagle rays and blacktip reef sharks, as well as a busy metropolis of marinelife.

Off Kaua’i, most of the diving is centered around Po’ipu Beach. Here you’re (almost certainly) guaranteed to encounter green sea turtles, often by the dozen. Sheraton Caverns lays claim to being the unofficial local hangout for these fascinating marine creatures. But they’re not the only attraction. You’ll also find loads of bluestripe snapper, whitetips and, for the observant, stunning nudibranchs, tiger cowries, leaffish, turkeyfish, triton trumpet shells and 7-11 crabs.

© 2012 World Publications, LLC

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