Visions of Hawaii

A local's perspective

Magma from the hotspot that created the Hawaiian Islands erupts as
molten lava, pouring into the ocean and continuing to enlarge
the island of Hawaii as well as starting the formation of a new
island deep undersea.
Hawaii's underwater world is a bit like a Stieg Larsson novel. At first glance it appears to be a mildly boring, barren landscape of black lava rock with sparse coral cover and relatively few species of marine life, most of which flee from divers because of lessons learned from excessive spearfishing and aquarium trade collecting. But as you turn the pages and look deeper inside the book, new layers of mystery and intrigue reveal themselves, and you begin to learn the fascinating stories behind the characters and the intricate relationships between them. Hawaii does not have DayGlo soft corals, anemonefish, pygmy sea horses, mimic octopuses or many of the other marine celebrities found in other popular exotic dive destinations. However, much of what Hawaii has can be found nowhere else in the universe.

Pygmy sharks and other deep-sea creatures sometimes rise to the surface at night.
Hawaii's sea horses are much stranger than pygmy sea horses. Like any good mystery novel character, they are best observed in the dark of night. Any sea horse is a bit of an oddity, with its curled tail that clearly evolved over millennia for the sole purpose of gripping tight to sea grass or whip corals to camouflage itself in shallow water. What to make, then, of a sea horse that lives in the open ocean, in water thousands of feet deep, where there is nothing to grip and nowhere to hide? The Hawaiian sea horse is but one of many seemingly extra-galactic creatures that normally lie well-hidden from human eyes at depths of 1,000 feet or more but rise up near the surface at night.
One of two specialty night dives, unique to my hometown of Kona, takes divers a few miles offshore, within the calm lee of Hawaii Island's mountains, to float over the abyssal depths to which our steep volcanic terrain plunges. Videos of crazy encounters with bizarre denizens of the deep are regularly posted to YouTube under the moniker Pelagic MagicSM.

Kona’s signature “Manta Madness” night dive can feature up to three
dozen feeding rays.

But if Pelagic MagicSM isn't enough, Kona's other signature night dive is "Manta Madness." In a scene reminiscent of a UFO-worshiping cult from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, divers gather in a circle, kneel on the bottom and point their lights upward.The light beams attract plankton, which, in turn, attract up to three dozen manta rays. The manta rays flit about in the center of the circle like a swarm of giant tuxedo-clad butterflies, doing barrel rolls to help funnel the plankton into their wide-open mouths. The important word to remember is "Duck!" as the mantas have right-of-way. If you pop up at the wrong moment, you are likely to get knocked down again.

The dazzling courtship display of the male flame wrasse can be seen only
in Hawaii.
In splendid isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, farther from neighboring land masses than nearly any other patch of terra firma, the Hawaiian Islands have evolved the world's highest proportion of endemic species, life forms found nowhere else on earth. On land, this uniqueness is flamboyantly demonstrated by exotic forest birds such as the i'iwi, with its scarlet feathers and long, curved bill, as well as by a quirky array of native insects, from the happy-face spider to the world's only predatory caterpillars. In Hawaiian waters, about a quarter of all fish species are unique to the islands. Some, such as the lemon-colored milletseed butterflyfish, may swim right up to your faceplate, but many of the more interesting ones must be sought out. One of the most dazzling among those that play hard-to-get is the flame wrasse. Only in Hawaii can you see the amazing display the male of this species uses to woo his harem of females. To this day, no one has seen the culmination of this courtship. The time and circumstances of actual spawning remain a mystery.

Tinker’s butterflyfish were once thought to be endemic to Hawaii.
Some fish, such as Tinker's butterflyfish, may be found elsewhere, but they are best observed in Hawaii. Yellow tangs occur at a few other locations, but only in Hawaii do they form large schools at sites closed to fish collecting and flow across the reef like yellow rivers. Bigeye scad are common worldwide in the tropics and subtropics, but, as far as I know, it's only in Hawaii that they become an attraction for divers by bunching into tight, shape-shifting schools at specific locations. Local art photographer Wayne Levin recently published a book of his often-abstract photos of schools of akule, as the fish are known locally.

For marine invertebrates, the rate of endemism is only slightly less. About one in five species is unique to Hawaii. The study of Hawaiian reef critters, however, is in its infancy, and there is a large backlog of species waiting to be described. There is only one scientifically described species of nudibranch in the genus Eubranchus in Hawaii, and at least seven unnamed species are waiting for scientific identification. In the genus Cuthona, there are five named and 21 unnamed species. With sharp eyes it would not be that hard to get a species named after you here. An endemic species of squat lobster was discovered in 2010 less than 10 miles from my house. The impossibly cute blue-lipped, red-headed, neon-haired critter was named after Debra Newbery, who first sighted it last year at a popular Kona dive site.

The endemic Hawaiian monk seal is one of the rarest and most endangered
marine mammals in the world.
Hawaii has but two species of endemic mammals: a tiny, cryptic hoary bat and the Hawaiian monk seal – one of two surviving species of an ancient lineage. The Caribbean monk seal was last seen in 1952, the Mediterranean monk seal is hovering at the edge of oblivion, and the Hawaiian monk seal currently numbers around 1,100 and is declining at the rate of 4 percent per year. Despite its rarity, divers are getting more frequent glimpses of this evolutionary ghost as the population shifts from the remote, uninhabited northwest Hawaiian Islands toward the main Hawaiian Islands, where there has been a greater availability of food in recent years. Adorable though they are, it is important that divers resist the temptation to hug, feed, pursue or play with them. Even the most innocent interaction with humans is likely to initiate a chain of increasing contact with people that usually leads to the animal's death or removal.

Spinner dolphins come into shallow bays to rest and socialize by day.
Small cetaceans, including spinner dolphins, are represented in Hawaii by genetically distinct populations or subspecies that may differ in appearance from populations found elsewhere. I find our spinner dolphins, with their two-toned pattern, much more beautiful than the solid gray spinners of the eastern Pacific.

Hawaii’s insular population of false killer whales has declined drastically
in recent years.
Spinners feed offshore at night and come into shallow bays to rest and socialize during the day. This period of rest is critical to their well-being, so measures are being taken to prevent disturbance in the rest zones, but divers are occasionally treated to passes by inquisitive dolphins as they travel to and from their resting areas. Our genetically unique population of false killer whales, which are large members of the dolphin family, will likely be added to the endangered species list soon.

Green sea turtles are also represented in Hawaii by a genetically unique population that differs somewhat in appearance from those elsewhere in the Pacific. In many locations, sea turtles have symbiotic relationships with fish that pick parasites from their skin and graze algae off their shells, but only in Hawaii can you see a green turtle covered with a cloak of yellow tangs like a Hawaiian chief wearing a traditional yellow feather cape. The abundance of juvenile green turtles may be one factor that attracts tiger sharks to the mouth of the small boat harbor in Kona.

Green turtles rely on the services of surgeonfish such as these tangs
to keep their shells clean and shiny by grazing away unwanted algae.
The Honokohau harbor entrance is one of the few places where you have very good odds of sighting a tiger shark without the use of chum or bait (especially at dawn or dusk). The cleaning of fish by boats in and near the harbor may play a role in attracting sharks to the area. Likewise, the dumping of bait from commercial crab traps at an area off the north shore of the island of Oahu is a major factor in ensuring the abundance of Galapagos and sandbar sharks at the site used by snorkel cage operators working from the port of Haleiwa. This is perhaps the world's best opportunity for viewing these two species up-close and personal while remaining completely safe.

For another shark experience, the Oahu shark-cage snorkel occurs in blue oceanic water, with no bottom visible, and it is only a 20-minute boat ride from the boat dock. You can enjoy your morning adventure of a lifetime and still be back in time for a hearty breakfast at a world-class restaurant (and perhaps catch a glimpse of the U.S. president ordering a "shave ice" from the stand on the corner). If you really search, it's possible to sign up for a dive that includes a long boat ride, but most are about 10-15 minutes. Since the wind almost always blows from one direction, and all the islands have high mountains to block both the wind and rain-bearing clouds, dive businesses populate the lee sides of the islands, ensuring your boat ride is likely to be smooth, dry and pleasant. Dive centers like Kona and Lahaina boast more than 300 days a year of calm and sunny weather.

If a short boat ride across a flat sea of deep blue water still isn't your cup of tea, you can dispense with the boat entirely — except during periods of high surf. Hawaii state laws not only make all beaches public property but also require that public access be preserved. Excellent dive sites are only a short walk from the parking lot and a short swim from the beach entry. Within a stone's throw of the shoreline you can find whitetip reef sharks resting in caves (please do not harass them — these are usually pregnant females), turtle cleaning stations, lava arches encrusted with golden cup corals, multihued reef fish or psychedelic nudibranchs, and you'll also have the possibility of a fly-by from a pod of dolphins, a monk seal or even a whale. From December to April, humpback whales conduct their amorous activities just offshore, and you can count on being serenaded by a whale love song on just about every dive.

Humpback whales provide surface-interval entertainment from December to

Whale sharks appear unpredictably, but they may hang out and play with
boats and swimmers for hours if no one grabs them.
Hawaii has one great liveaboard dive boat as well as several luxury yachts available for private multiday dive charters. For hard-core divers, these offer a great way to increase their diving while getting off the beaten path. Most people visiting Hawaii, however, do not want to miss the terrestrial attractions of what Mark Twain called "the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean."

Hawaii's rugged shoreline is punctuated by beaches of sand tinted in shades of black, white, pink, gold, red and even green. In winter, from these lovely beaches you can watch death-defying athletes ride mountains of water that channel the energy of distant tempests thousands of miles away into perfectly formed tubes with faces as tall as a six-story building. Turn around and you will see mountains cloaked in lush green rain forest. On Maui or the Big Island of Hawaii, you may see a cap of snow on the mountains. On the wet sides of the islands, spectacular waterfalls drape the steep ravines that have eroded into the mountains. The night sky can be breathtaking from anywhere in the islands, but the visitor center on Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island, with its 9,200-foot altitude and collection of programmable optical telescopes, offers arguably the best stargazing experience open to the public in the Americas. The Big Island also has Kilauea, one of the world's most accessible, actively erupting volcanoes. In recent years, lava has been pouring into the ocean more often than not, producing a visually stunning recreation of the birth of the islands.

Most visitors and residents, however, agree that the best part of the Hawaiian experience is not the amazing things you can see and do ashore or underwater, but an unseen and intangible atmosphere that surrounds you, whatever you are doing: the Hawaiian culture and attitude. It would take another entire article to try to explain that, but it is best summed up by one of the words the Hawaiian language has given to the world: aloha.


Strong, erratic currents make Oahu’s Corsair plane wreck a destination for advanced divers.

Hawaii may not have a reputation as a "wreck destination," but it has plenty of sunken metal, both historical and recent, to keep most "wreckies" busy for a week or more. Oahu is Hawaii's wreck capital, with a combination of war wrecks and artificial reefs. The most famous, of course, are the wrecks you can't dive: American warships and a Japanese submarine sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbor. But there's an excellent selection of wrecks in diveable depths that are not off-limits.

A Corsair plane wreck ended up on a sand bottom about 115 feet deep east of Waikiki when the pilot ran out of fuel during a training mission in 1948. The YO-257 fuel barge, San Pedro long-liner and YS-11 airplane, just west of Waikiki, can be visited on the same dive. The Sea Tiger (a cargo vessel seized for smuggling Chinese immigrants), Mahi (a former minesweeper/cable layer, noted for eagle ray sightings), LST wreck, Baby Barge and Beechcraft (Airplane Canyon) are additional wrecks off Oahu's south shore.

Maui's newest attraction is an SBC-2 Helldiver plane, ditched during a World War II training flight and discovered only last year in 50 feet of water in Maalaea Bay. Maui also has the St. Anthony wreck, the Carthaginian (a historic double-masted sailing vessel) and the remains of a pair of World War II tanks. Hawaii Island has the Naked Lady collapsed sailing yacht, the Predator landing craft and the wreck of a Beechcraft air tour plane. Lanai and Kauai do not have any known, diveable shipwrecks.

Special thanks to: Jack's Diving Locker, Underwater Adventures Hawaii, Big Island Divers, Kona Honu Divers, Kona Aggressor, Makena Coast Dive Charters, Dolphin Discoveries, Bubbles Below, Seasport Divers,, Dive Maui, Matthew D'Avella, Dana Richardson, Lisa Choquette, Deron Verbeck, Brett LeMaster, Dennis McCrea, Rene Umberger, David Kearnes, Wayne Levin, Bud & Shane Turpin, Cindi Baker, Lisa Diaz, and the many others who have helped the author over the years.

© Alert Diver — Spring 2011