For several years our family has spent Thanksgiving in Hawaii. We don't do it every year, but we like to get to Hawaii some time during the year and this has been what worked most years. We've spent time on Oahu, Maui, Kaui, and the Big Island. By far the most time has been spent on the Big Island, with Kaui being a distant second. I've only been scuba diving in Oahu, and the Big Island, since we haven't been back to the other islands since my certification.
Hawaii rates very highly on my list of dive spots I have been. Only Cozumel rates higher, and only just. So what do I like about it? In a word, the fish. Density of fish seems much higher here than in the Caribbean. Sure, the coral in the Carib is a lot more interesting, but when it gets down to it, I like the fish the best. I've seen some interesting specimens too. How about an 8 foot oceanic white tipped shark? Or a pair of manta rays cartwheeling in and out of a shaft of light at night? Moray eels are extremely numerous in Hawaii, as are the trumpetfish/coronetfish. The Carib will have more puffers, and better invertebrates, but California has them both beat for invertebrates.
Visibility in Hawaii is almost always fantastic. I remember my first dive in Oahu was on a Corsair fighter plane that sits by itself on a beautiful white sandy bottom in 106 feet of water. We could see it quite clearly from the surface without even getting into the water. Evidently this hapless pilot ran out of fuel on a training mission and had to ditch. From the surface, the plane looked about the size of a Volkswagen. Swim down to it and you will see just how big it really is.
A Corsair in Oahu...
Another time I remember diving near the Captain Cook village on the Big Island. This is some distance South compared to the normal spots near the airport. What a beautiful vista! You dive on a 45 degree slope that goes all the way up to the surface and down many thousands of feet to the ocean floor. With unlimited visibility it presents a fantastic panorama that is just intoxicating to stare at.
The Manta Ray dive I mention above is legendary. It used to be done near a hotel whose lights attracted the critters. They come to the light because the plankton they eat is attracted to light. For some reason, they eventually quit coming to this hotel, and for a couple of years divers would go out hoping for Manta Rays and be left with a fairly ordinary night dive. That can be a lot of fun too--boats from multiple operators would anchor there and each had a different color cyalume stick on their divers making for a real x-files vision as the various colors danced around the bottom. One year I did that dive I had a new light that had the wrong bulb in it. It was a nice Underwater Kinetics rechargable, but they had mistakenly put the movie light bulb in, which is much brighter, and consumes more power. I lit that thing off and thought a magnesium flare had exploded in my face--unbelievably bright. Unfortunately, as the man says in Bladerunner, "The light that burns very very bright burns very very fast." I had 15 minutes and then I spent the rest of the dive in darkness. It was actually quite fun watching the other divers, letting my eyes dark adapt, and playing with the bioluminescence.
But I digress. To attract these mantas, the dive shop sets up a shipping palette-sized platform on the bottom containing lights and batteries. This thing shines a shaft of light straight up. The divers array in a circle around this thing and shine their own lights straight up. Pretty soon the mantas show up. They swim back and forth through the lights, filtering plankton from the water. You can stay watching for quite a long time, because sitting on the bottom you aren't expending much energy and therefore your air consumption is good. We got a video of this event which is quite fun to watch.
The year prior to the manta ray dive we got to see an 8 foot oceanic white tip shark. What a magnificent and deadly creature! We were on our surface interval, between dives, and decided to head offshore to look for whales in deep water. Suddenly, we saw her, and cut the engines. She was curious and circled us. After waiting about 10 minutes, the dive master (Keller Laros) couldn't stand it any longer. He sang out at the top of his voice, "All right listen up! This is a real shark. It has real teeth. If you get in the water, you are on your own." And with that, he was over the side and snorkelling with the shark. A couple of others followed, and then the rest of the boat waited to see what would happen. Over time, as we saw the shark wasn't attacking, more got in. I was one of the last, and waited 15 minutes before deciding I was missing out on a great opportunity. A full 1/3 of the boat never did work up the courage to swim with the shark.
This is the shark we saw! Keller will sell you a nice print if desired.
She was a magnificent specimen, and had a small school of pilot fish and some tuna as escorts. It is unbelievable how little motion one of these animals needs in order to move quickly from here to there. I would expect that if I were 10 feet from the swim ladder and swimming hard that she could've easily gotten me before I had a chance to climb up the ladder. They are just that fast. We were fortunate to get the entire event on video like the manta ray dive.
Which brings me to my next thoughts about Hawaii--dive operators. We have used two: Jack's Dive Locker and Dive Makai. Both are excellent. Dive Makai is a little smaller operator, and they are one of the best operators I've encountered when it comes to knowledge of sea life. If you want to see some rare fish, and know what you saw, try them. I have seen the most hardcore underwater photographers going out with this operator. Thousands of dollars of camera gear were aboard on every trip.
I've done a lot more diving with Jack's. Somehow, it seems a little more laid back and less structured than Dive Makai. I like these guys for casual diving. Try their long distance excursion for the most excitement. They take you to places the other operators seldom seem to reach. We always ask to be with Keller Laros. The reason is simple. First, Keller is an awesome divemaster, and one of the most experienced members of the staff. Second, he is an awesome underwater videographer, and he always brings his camera. For a nominal fee you can get video of your dive. We always manage to find one dive where something really exciting happens and we have to have the video. It's an amazing luxury to have a world class (he has produced television specials) photographer chronicaling your dive!
If you can't get Keller, diving with Jack's is a bit more hit or miss. They are a larger operator, so have some less experienced folks as divemasters. Dive Makai will be much more consistent, as they are a small operator, basically a family run operation. Either operation is way ahead of most you'll encounter. Highly recommended.
Hawaiian Diving Links
Jack's Dive Locker: Our favorite dive operator in Hawaii. Kathy was certified by them.
Manta Pacific: Keller's underwater video company.
Dive Makai: Another very good operator. They recently changed hands, but some close diving friends say it continues to be excellent.
All material © 2001-2006, Robert W. Warfield.