Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep - Page 2

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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."

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).

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.

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