Ty Sawyer  /  Sport Diver
Female Frogfish
updated 12/8/2006 3:43:42 PM ET 2006-12-08T20:43:42

All of us aboard the Sunseeker had the same affliction. We’d been slowly, unwittingly and maddeningly bewitched by the fire goddess Pele’s workshop: the big island of Hawaii. We were each, in our own way, haunted by these waters. Our dreamy looks exposed blue souls unable to resist the primal rumblings that emanate from Hawaii like slow, leaden ripples through the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. For years now, we’d been joining the roaming marine life that makes long-distance pilgrimages to pause off these, the most remote shores on Earth.

That day as we left the Kona Village Resort to head north up the Kohala Coast to an untamed fringe of Hawaii called Hamakua, the sun was fighting up the distant slopes of the cloud-wrapped peak of Mauna Kea. The first tentative, almost delicate fingers of early-morning light that reached over the mountain revealed miles of raw black lava fields. It was easy to discern that the Big Island still retained the strong blush of geologic youth. Beaches were rare. A ragged edge of twisted volcanic rock defied the sea and defined the coastline. It looked as if it could have flowed from the mountainside the week before, like a wound unhealed.

This, it was easy to see, was not a benign place.

Mercilessly, the goddess Pele alters and molds the Big Island even as we love, dive and dream. She’s a mercurial goddess, prone to disguise, tantrums and divine whimsy. She is revealed with every eruption, every drip and flow of lava, every hiss of steam. Hawaiians today still leave offerings to appease her. But I imagined her spirit rising with the light to watch us on our long journey to a little-seen part of her playground.

The Engines Started
When Paul Warren, owner and captain, had finally started the engines of the Sunseeker that morning, three years of planning and waiting had come to the start of a conclusion. Paul and I had sat all that time ago along the black sand of the Kona Village Resort, probably after a few drinks too many, and ignited — appropriately — a fire.

“Only about 300 people have ever dived there,” Paul said.

“Up the Kohala Coast?”

“No,” Paul said, “around the point to Hamakua.”

“Three hundred? That’s it?”

“Yeah, something like that. Probably less. I’m prone to exaggeration.”

I let the thought of a place such as that,     on probably the most-dived of the Hawaiian Islands, soak in for a moment before a profound word eeked out of my mouth.

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Slideshow: Undersea wonders “Well, I’ve been here for 30 years. It’s tough to get there.” Paul paused and tightened his brow, shuffling back through the years. “Until we go. About 300. For sure. Most people who go have to turn back.”

“What’s so special?”

“Turtles the size of dining-room tables. Lots of sharks. Especially tigers. Big ones. Loads of fish. It’s wild, you never know. Plus, there’s a bunch of offshore seamounts that I’ve been dying to dive. No one I know of has ever dived those places.”

Really? I thought.

“You can only dive there about three days a year.” Paul elaborated, coaxing me in. “When conditions are right. Can you do that with your schedule? Come when the winds and currents are just right? I can probably give you about three days’ notice.”

“No,” I lied.

In the secret, villainous chamber of my saltwater heart, though, I knew if the place was that special, I’d probably kiss the kids and leave in the middle of the night to dive it.

“You’re lying.” Paul said. “I can see the wheels turning.”


And here I was, watching the coastline peel away. Standing next to me, Big Island local and underwater photographer Jim Watt wondered what he’d gotten himself into. He, like the rest of us, was ensnared by the possibility of diving someplace no one had ever been. Of diving a place that he himself had never been, and this was his home turf. But he just kept sipping his coffee, shaking his head and saying, “I don’t know, Ty. I just don’t know.”

His spell, though, was broken by the unbreakable good cheer of Jimmy Kilbride. His dad was famous in the early days of diving, and Jimmy had clearly been born on the crest of a wave. He would act as our divemaster of ceremonies.

Paul checked the weather and winds about every 10 seconds, it seemed. The place we were headed was patently unpredictable, and now the wheels of deep expectation had been unalterably turned. Paul had a captive audience that expected a show — although at that moment, most of us onboard felt a bit like Jim Watt, including me. But secretly I hummed a tune whose title I’d long since forgotten. It was not so much a tune, anyway; more a memory of a field I’d walked into as a kid. The sun had just risen, the dew-fresh grass had yet to be stirred by the morning breeze, and three deer walked out from the woods to graze. It was as if I’d been the first person on Earth to witness the event, and the recollection of the moment stirred within me as we set out.

“Whaddya think, Paul?” I queried.

“We’ll have to see. But we’re going diving in the morning. That’s for sure.”

Ty Sawyer  /  Sport Diver
Just before we were to go around the point of no return, Opolu Point, that would take us from the relatively benevolent Kohala Coast side of Hawaii to the volatile and haunting Hamakua, Paul pulled up and we settled in at the last stop, Mahukona Harbor. The little-used harbor has become a favorite hangout for locals. And as we ate that night on the back of the boat, we could hear Hawaiian songs riding across the water to our boat. We hung out on deck until the sky grew so dark and the moon so bright that all but the most stalwart stars could be seen.

Three-Pinnacle Morning
Early the next morning, Paul steered the Sunseeker around Opulu Point in North Kohala and headed straight for the Pololu Valley, a steeply folded, waterfall-riven and feral stretch of Pele’s land that has mercifully escaped the press of roads and the settlement of people. Paul slowed and maneuvered the boat between two monoliths that shot from the sea like citadels. Sea birds and early-morning mist were our only companions. Not another boat or soul could be seen.

For a brief moment as we anchored, the sea was calm. Then the swells began to roll in — slowly at first, almost indiscernibly. We donned our gear while Jimmy settled the anchor and reported on the viz: about 30 feet. Less than we expected, but as soon as Paul outlined the path we needed to take to the opening of a lava cave that pierced right through the base of one of the pinnacles, we were in the water.

Kendra Choquette, a local PADI divemaster and tremendous diver whose air consumption remains a steady nil even while swimming against a current, led the way with Jimmy. Watt, whose body fat is roughly equivalent to that of the volcanic rock substrate we were swimming past, had no problem keeping up. Me and my buddy (and Sport Diver staffer) Jeff Mondle, who spend a fair bit of time in front of a computer exercising only our fingers, paused at every nudibranch, eel and piece of seaweed we could reasonably find an excuse to interact with (for the sake of the story, of course).

Jackie D'Antonio
Sport Diver
Thankfully, the place was crawling with little critters. If there were big tiger sharks and turtles, as we expected, we probably wouldn’t be able to see them unless they materialized from the darkening water and nudged up against us. But we all felt kinetically charged, nonetheless. We were diving an untrammeled empire. Unexplored paths weren’t meant to be full of immaculate garden paths and knowledgeable tour guides.

As we rounded the pinnacle at 70 feet, the swells began to roil the sea. Underwater, we were being tugged and pushed about 20 feet back and forth with each wave cycle, and the viz was dropping fast. About 15 minutes into the dive, we arrived at the massive dark maw that told us we’d found the swim-through cave. We could see for maybe 20 feet. The cavern opening stretched wide and grinning, like the mouth of the devil’s Cheshire cat. We couldn’t make out its width. At that moment, it was acting as a siphon with each swell that passed. We all hovered just outside the beckoning jawline, getting sucked into the darkness and pushed back into the light several times before making a collective decision to make our way back to the boat.

It was a sad moment on the first dive of our long-awaited exploration up the coast, but a dark overhead environment with the swells, even at 70 feet, battering us around was an accident lurking. But that’s the way exploratory dives go: Some days you discover the next Turtle Pinnacle, others you stop to “observe” nudibranchs and hope you can find the boat on your way back. Though disappointed, make no mistake: We all had that electric thrill of discovery coursing through our veins. We all wanted to come back, or wait it out until the seas were more cooperative, to make our way through that cavern, to see what was on the other side.

But it would have to wait until another time. When we arrived back at that boat, after “bumping” into a couple of medium-size green sea turtles, the boat was rocking like a cradle in a tempest and it was clear we’d have to weigh anchor and pull out. With the boat listing over about 45 degrees with each swell, getting back on the boat safely required the suppleness of a Cirque du Soleil performer and the lightning reflexes of an Olympic gymnast. We had almost none of the requisite skills, so we each in turn took our beatings and boarded the swimstep as best we could.

Little did we know, it would be the easiest water exit of the day.

Interval in the Land of the Lost
As a breather, recovery and surface interval, we headed down the Hamakua coast in the relatively calmer waters farther offshore to off-gas while basking in the prehistoric glow of the lush Pololu Valley. The steep slopes all along this coast are etched with dozens of white ribbons of water that rush down lavish green cliffs in hot pursuit of the sea. Where the shore and sea meet a permanent phantom mist arises, no doubt a place where the ancestral Hawaiian spirits carouse in this time-lost and private corner of the land and sea. The mist rises, dances, swirls, parts, then goes through the routine again and again, as if it is the essential joy of the life vaporous.

While the Kohala Coast revels in sunshine and ethereal volcano-scapes, the Hamakua Coast lives in a primordial dream that seems impossibly remote and untouched in today’s modern world. For a moment we each stood at the rail, silently admiring the landscape as if it were suspended above the Earth like a work of art.

Then Paul spotted a breaching humpback whale in deeper water. Suddenly, the trance turned kinetic and we were off, the mist-dusted coast a distant memory.

The humpback was a juvenile. We all stood on the rail, coiled and ready as we awaited the next launch. The whale leaped skyward once more, then disappeared. But, Paul noted, we were footsteps away from the undersea pinnacles he’d wanted to explore for nearly three decades. And the pull of the water was upon us once again.

First Peek
There’s a moment, just before you stride off the swimstep, when you realize that you have no idea what’s below your fins. At this spot, at this time, our intrepid little group would be the first divers to explore a place that has not felt the gaze of man. And sometimes that will make you do something you shouldn’t.

Slideshow: Polynesian paradise The swells had taken on a life their own at this point. Paul couldn’t anchor, so we had to time our leaps of faith off the swimstep perfectly. We hit the water and swam like mad for the top of the pinnacle at 85 feet, hoping there’d be no current to wash us out to sea.  Once we hit the water, we didn’t give another thought to what awaited at the surface. One by one, like astronauts, we settled on this unexplored planet in the sea. Unlike the nearshore pinnacles, these seamounts were washed with the kind of clear, 100-foot-viz water only found in Hawaii.

Immediately we knew that our efforts were not in vain. Though we were still getting tossed around by the swells and swirling currents, we’d found an oasis. Above the seamount, bluefin trevally patrolled. Aggregations of black durgon triggerfish and teardrop, pyramid and threadfin butterflyfish prowled the uppermost part of the mount. The protected areas were all covered with tremendously healthy stark white and red gorgonians, which provided respite for a wary peacock grouper and a shy potter’s angelfish. Yellowmargin eels were squeezed into impossible crevices We all kept looking to the blue and were rewarded with a couple of passes by ancient green sea turtles, sadly too far away and too deep for us to pursue. 

Our time at this depth was short, and too soon we had to ascend. The swells, which had begun life in far corner of the Pacific and traveled across the wide blue field of the ocean, arrived on this coast in earnest and full of fury. We bobbed up and down, rising sometimes up to 12 feet. Our luxury haven, the 62-foot Sunseeker, now looked like a house ready to fall on our heads — more Whomping Willow from Harry Potter than a place of refuge.

We figured out that among the group of us we had more than 35,000 dives under our collective belts. But at that moment, as we were being rocked in the cradle of the deep, we wondered how the heck we were ever going to get back on the boat. We all knew this with certainty: We were just a part of the ocean right then, no more or less important than the molecules of water that churned around us. And the heaving Sunseeker was certainly indifferent to us. I don’t recall exactly  how we did it, but Paul managed to get us all back on the boat, and soon we were rounding Opulu Point, passing the 5th-century Hawaiian ruins of the Mo’okini Heiau and once again coursing along the north Kohala Coast.

Kohala After Dark
Not many divers get the chance to experience the Kohala Coast’s rich reefs just off the unmarked Ohiki and Kiholo Bays. It’s generally too far for dive boats from Kona. But these sites are legendary, and on the way back south we dived at places you’re unlikely to hear about in most dive circles.

There was one, though, that we’d all heard of and wanted to explore: Ulua Caverns. So when we anchored that night just offshore of the remote Pu’ukoholo Heiau, which overlooked the caverns, we were all ready to get in immediately.

While Paul fired up the barbecue (we’d caught a nice-sized wahoo along the way), Jimmy, who’d dived Ulua Caverns years before, pulled together a briefing from the cobwebs of his memory.

“From what I remember, there’s a massive lava tube that goes pretty far back into the shore. Lots of tiger cowries, octos, cool things like that. It’s best not to get lost. Everyone ready?”

We followed Jimmy to the opening of the cavern. With no run-off, the visibility along the Kohala Coast remains high, and we could see the entire cathedral-like opening. It easily accommodated all of us, and we ventured in pairs. In the beams of our lights, the tubastrea cup coral that covered the walls glowed a brilliant orange, punctuated by stoplight-red encrusting corals. Looking closely, the corals reached into the water like a thousand grasping orange hands, plucking plankton from the blue.

I wasn’t 10 feet into Ulua before I spotted a fist-size (think of Shaq’s fist) tiger cowrie, with its mantle fully exposed around its shell. Kendra and I explored the turns and twists of the caverns, then ventured out into the cove. Jimmy and Jeff had corralled a reef squid and were following its nocturnal hunt. They also  discovered several lobsters. Puffers passed, and as we swept our lights over the rocks, a thousand tiny eyes reflected back, exposing legions of shrimp out on their nightly forays. 

The dive was gratifyingly easy after the whip and shake of the pinnacles, and that night we toasted the Sunseeker, the quiet hush of the calm cove and Paul’s barbecue savior-faire. We toasted the idea that even a place as popular as the Big Island can still harbor secret blue kingdoms. And we toasted the fact that the exploratory portion of our trip was cut short by the caprice of the sea, for that only increased our resolve to return during that happy circumstance when the ocean would be more willing.

But there was still Kohala. The next day we’d ply more familiar waters, places where privacy-hungry Hollywood stars had dived.

More Legends
Early the next morning, we weighed anchor and motored down the coast to a site called Ledges, just off the Kona Village Resort. Watt had never dived this site, which, like Ulua, is legendary in Kona dive circles. Like the Pinnacles of Hamakua, Ledges is hit-or-miss. We got lucky and, according to Jimmy and Paul, got conditions they’d never seen.

Usually, the dive is done as a thrilling drift past ledges, overhangs and coral fingers, but we’d hit the site in a rare current-free time. We still had about 150 feet of viz, though, so we lazily finned along at about 60 feet. Whitetip sharks hung out in the overhangs, and the volcanic substrate was bejeweled with loads of hard coral bushes inhabited by black and white Hawaiian dascyllus, yellow tang and rainbow cleaner wrasse, all of which would rise curiously above the safety of their coral home during the quiet of our inhalations, then dash back into the folds of their coral fortress with the rush of bubbles when we’d noisily exhale.

On our last day, in an attempt to dive every site in the area, we ascended from Ledges and headed straight for the Kona Village signature site, the Arch. We actually had a plan of attack at this well-known site, which is fairly exclusive to Kona Village guests. First, we headed straight for the double arch. Almost a permanent fixture, in the shadows of the lower arch small whitetip reef sharks gather to rest. Just above the whitetip arch, a shallower arch teems with raccoon butterflyfish. Zebra morays and large reef octopuses reside in the outskirts, and back near the mooring there’s almost always a frogfish, which is nearly impossible to find without Jimmy’s eyes.

On this dive we interrupted a bit of frogfish hanky-panky, and the big female was none too pleased. She huffed and stomped her pectoral fins, and the male did what males do when a woman feels scorned: It retreated … quickly. Schools of black durgon and orange-band surgeonfish roamed the volcanic hillocks, nibbling algae along the way. The site also provides asylum for passing turtles, which rest under the ledges. The entire lot was in residence, and all of us beat the zigzag path from critter to critter until we were satiated.

For our final dive of the day, we went on the hunt for whitetip sharks. Paul and Jimmy motored the Sunseeker close to the point at Kona Village. If so inclined, we could’ve swum to shore in a few easy strokes. Watt and Kendra hit the whitetip bonanza here, finding several resting under the many overhangs — they even had an nice encounter with a sea turtle. The site was lush with hard corals and thick with the tiny critters whose entire lives are played out in the space of a small closet.

From Primitive to Pampered
Although no one in their right mind would call a luxury yacht like the Sunseeker primitive, the diving along Hamakua certainly left a trail through our psyche. And like all boat trips, it’s nice to plant your feet, once again, on the unmoving Earth. It’s even better when the Earth you tread is connected to the black sand beach of the Kona Village Resort.

Each night, as if they also recognize the resort as a haven, sea turtles pull themselves up on the sand to sleep. And if sanctuary can be measured in the ability to cast away all cares, the turtles’ slumber stands as silent testament to the purity of this place. The turtles’ dreams remain unperturbed by couples passing by on their way to watch the sun set the evening sky afire before its descent into the invisible, which happens with great flourishes and lingering encores of orange, purple and yellow.

Once darkness fell and the tiki torches turned the resort into a romantic hideaway for  couples and privacy-seeking Hollywood elite, we all retreated to our breeze-filled hales (bungalows). I wondered if they could tell by looking at us that we’d just returned from an untamed adventure — that we’d seen a part of the planet no one had ever visited.

Swaying in the hammock at my hale, it struck me just how many journeys and adventures still exist in the world, especially on this Big Island that has never failed to surprise or entice. There’s something strange and lovely and shocking all at once to realize that we’d just been to a place that has summoned  many but has seldom accepted the investigations of divers; that we’d felt both rejection and acquiescence to its singular world.

Even more surprising was the realization that a place with such an ancient and unseen pulse exists within easy reach of the pampered confines of the Kona Village Resort, on an island that never fails to exceed expectations. This is when I realized I hadn’t been bewitched after all; I’d simply been lucky enough to come in the first place.

That night, as Paul and I sat on the sand and watched the sky fill to its brim with speckles of light, he lit the flame once more.

“We could go south, next time. Stay out for a while. Really see the place.”

“South?” I said.

“Yeah,” said Paul. “Here, lemme show you on the map. It’s like the badlands. You never know what will show up.”

Must Do

If you’re tired, stressed or simply spoiled, then you’ll want to beat a path to the Spa at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. Get a traditional Hawaiian lomilomi massage, a sacred technique passed down through generations.

Must Dive

1) Ulua Caverns (Kohala Coast)

2) Ledges (Kohala Coast)

3) The Arch (off Kona Village Resort)

4) Manta Night Dive (Kona Coast)

5) Turtle Pinnacle (Kona Coast)

Deco Stops: Hawaii
The Big Island exists in that rarefied state of complete excess. The island contains 12 distinct climate zones, so you should never lack for anything to do, no matter what your pleasure. Start with a sensual spa treatment at one of the world’s top stops for sybarites, the Spa at the Four Seasons on the Kohala Coast. Then take in all of the Big Island in on fell swoop with Blue Hawaiian Helicopter Tours; you’ll see Kilauea Caldera, which has been flowing lava since 1983. You can drive up to the caldera at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, too, and practically walk up to the 2,000°F molten rivers. While you’re in the area head to South Point, the southernmost point in the U.S., and see where ancient Polynesians from Tahiti first landed on Hawaii. Up the coast, stop off at the Place of Refuge; you’ll see basking sea turtles and fierce tiki statues at this sacred site. A drive up to the 13,679-foot peak of Mauna Loa will take you from the steamy coast to the frigid, snowcapped mountaintop in one day. Bring a coat. Back in Kailua-Kona, the hub of all things diving, go to Kona Coast Brewery to sample local ales and lagers. If you’re gonna shop, this is the place to do it — but if you’re into lush green and waterfalls, head to the other side of the island. A hike into Waipi’o Valley will have you feeling positively Jurassic — don’t miss the 300-foot Hi’ilawe Falls. Closer to Hilo you’ll find Kahuna Falls, Seven Sisters Falls and Akaka Falls, among others, all within easy walking distance of each other. For coffee lovers, a tour of the Kona Coffee Plantation is a must.

Destination Primer

WHAT TO WEAR: A 3/2 with dive skin in summer or 5 mm in winter

AVERAGE VIZ: 100+ feet

WHEN TO GO: Year-round off Kona and Kohala; days, weather permitting, Sept.-Nov. off Hamakua

Call Me Kona
There are a few rules that are immutable. Water flows downhill. Time and tide wait for no man. And eventually all divers make their way to the magic kingdom of Kona. Even though the nondiving world might call this youthful and fiery volcanic patch of geography the Big Island of Hawaii, anyone who’s ever dived here, or even donned a mask and taken a gander underwater, simply refers to this entire swath of land and sea as Kona. Hawaiian spiritual power, mana, flows through the waters off the Kona Coast and wraps itself around divers like an enchanted cloak. Divers come and come again because the place constantly exceeds itself and the dives all have that one element that keeps divers hungry: unpredictability. And more than 30 percent of everything you see you’ll only encounter here.

Many of my favorite days of diving have taken place off Kona. One memorable and quite typical day started off with a short hop on one of PADI 5-Star IDC Jack’s Diving Locker’s boats to the Naked Lady. There’s a real naked lady associated with this sailboat wreck, which sits right in Kona Harbor, but I’ll leave that tale to the divemasters. The wreck itself sits intact like a lonely outpost on the sand. Bluestripe snapper (ta’ape) and Moorish idols (kihi-kihi) roam the wreck in packs, and shrimp, 7-11 crabs and a snowflake moray eel (puhikapa) have found hideouts from which they warily peek out into a blue-veiled world. Like most of Kona, the water’s so clear you can look up from the seafloor at 110 feet and see the dive-boat captain leaning over the rail and drinking coffee.

Between dives, all boat captains can take you into Kona’s badlands, the deep void of the open ocean — but it’s nothing like a void. I’ve seen pods of pilot whales followed by oceanic whitetip sharks and aggregations of dolphins. Spinner dolphins will often display their SeaWorld-like high-flying antics. November through March, humpback whales migrate here with their  curious calves, and the ocean comes alive with their great leaps and haunting whalesong.

On this dive, dozens of pilot whales seemed on the move. We jumped into the water as they passed — there’s no real way to describe their graceful, unhurried movements. Out there in the bottomless sea, the shafts of sunlight speared down to an ineffable vanishing point and moved in erratic jolts as if passing through a prism rocking on the surface. The effect is unforgettable.

With the surface interval done, I moved over to PADI dive center Kona Honu Divers and ventured out to Turtle Pinnacle, a way station and cleaning depot for passing green sea turtles and hawksbill turtles (honu). Here, we all watched as yellow (lau’ipala) and convict (manini) tangs scoured the shells and skin of sea turtles, which clearly found the grooming blissful — they lined up for the pleasure.

That night, I indulged in one of my favorite dives in the world with PADI Gold Palm Kona Coast Divers: the manta night dive, which takes place in the otherwise nondescript Garden Eel Cove. The manta night dive is worth the flight from any lonely corner of the world.

Here, we gathered on the seafloor around a set of powerful lights pointing upward. The lights attracted zillions of tiny critters. In a scene straight from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we all watched in mouth-agape awe as massive manta rays (hahalua) plunged through the light, gulping huge mouthfuls of our manmade buffet. We counted eight that night.

Despite their size, their ballet was delicate and elegant. They swooped in, just brushing our heads. They came at me straight on, and got so close it looked as if I might get sucked into a massive maw. At the last millimeter, they arced upward and curled around for more. Each dive with these incredible creatures becomes an indelible and unforgettable memory. I can replay in my head almost every moment.

That’s Kona: an island of otherworldly lava landscapes, lush forests, snow-capped mountains and some of the most alluring and capricious underwater terrain on the planet.

Hamakua Me!
Want to try your luck diving the Hamakua Coast? Or just have the ultimate diving holiday along the Kohala Coast? Anyone with the time can follow the footsteps of our intrepid blue-water adventurers: The Sunseeker is available to anyone who wants to charter her. Paul Warren, the captain and co-owner, knows these waters intimately, cooks like a chef (especially with fresh-caught fish on the grill) and can tell stories until the cows come home. The lux Sunseeker itself has hosted a long list of Hollywood and business celebrities whose discerning tastes don’t need to be elaborated upon. Suffice it to say that the boat and the diving along this coast are superior treats.

For more information, go to www.divesail.com.

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.

© 2012 World Publications, LLC


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