Island Obsessions

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Kauai and Oahu, two of the most remote islands on Earth, exist in a deeply primitive part of our diver brains where our understanding of paradise and obsession meet.

Right now, my buddy Jeff and I are flying over the enchanting Na Pali coast of Kauai, Hawaii's garden isle. The helicopter guide's travelogue has been muted by the astonishingly breathtaking coastline of green-tinged spires and silky threads of thousand-foot waterfalls that sit perched atop a base of red volcanic rock lit afire by the early-morning light. We're hopelessly mired in the grip of the scene. I'd seen images of this renowned natural wonder a million times on television and on film — from Hawaii Five-O to Baywatch Hawaii to Blue Hawaii. But nothing prepares you for the real thing. It's simply overwhelming.

As the tour continues, we head inland, up impossibly green valleys, and hover over one waterfall after another, all fed by the wettest spot on Earth, Mount Waialeale, which receives an average of 460 inches of rain per year. Soon, we're skirting the misty edge of yet another ineffable garden valley, when below the helo a perfectly circular rainbow forms that frames a meandering river. As the helicopter slips over a ridge, we descend into the red world of Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and wend our way through its steep cliffs until we reach the famous falls from the opening scene of Jurassic Park. At about this time, the pilot's voice returns to our consciousness and we ease down, hardly able to feel the Earth beneath our feet. But it soon wouldn't matter, because the volcanic worlds upon which these islands have thrived have made the seas around Hawaii a wonderland of endemic fish and undersea playgrounds.

The Guarantee Gauntlet

"You're guaranteed to see sea turtles, lots of them. Big ones, too. Sheraton Caverns is crawling with them, and they know they're protected, so expect eyeball-to-eyeball encounters," the divemaster for PADI Dive Center Seasport Divers says.

Seldom does a dive briefing include the word guaranteed, but there it is, dangling out over the dive deck, daring anyone to defeat it or prove it wrong. Three turtles poke their heads out of the surface, as if on cue, take a breath and descend. There was no lingering after that. Everyone was in the water.

Besides turtles, I tell Jeff that we need to keep a sharp eye out for the humuhumu- nukunuku apua'a, which is the short name for Hawaii's state fish, a wildly decorated reef triggerfish, endemic only to Hawaii. Endemism has gone wild in these isolated island outposts. Some scientists estimate that up to 40 percent of all Hawaii's colorful undersea denizens are found only here. And while evolving, they've spent extra energy and attention on ornamentation. When we see hoards of lau-wiliwili (milletseed butterflyfish) roam over the reef, it's like an invasion of yellow confetti. Likewise, the pinktail triggerfish, the anela-I'a (Potter's angelfish) and the kapuhili (redfin butterflyfish) aren't difficult to spot framed up against the dark volcanic substrate. Turtles must love the tie-dyed company, since they're, as promised, everywhere.

Even before Jeff and I enter the maze of lava tubes that make up Sheraton Caverns, we've got green sea turtles for company. They're sleeping on ledges, rising up out of the light-shaft gloom to sneak a breath at the surface then descending again to tuck their heads into favorite dark corner to rest. With so many landing and taking off, it's like a busy airport. Several times, one (or two) appears right over my shoulder, inches away. We're a full 30 minutes into the dive before we start to notice the site's other inhabitants. Whitemouth morays wait in the shadowy swim-throughs, along with lobster and heaps of nudibranchs that, when out in full force, make this site a spectacular night dive, too.

With most of the diving centered on the south side of Kauai, especially around Poipu, we experienced a good helping of the island's top dives with Seasport Divers without having to move around or wait, since most dive sites are within 15 minutes or less of the harbor. These include places like Ice Box, Fast Lanes and General Store. Besides even more sea turtles, when exploring those sites we see a fair number of whitetip reef sharks, Spanish dancers, several kinds of butterflyfish, yellow-eyed surgeonfish and parrotfish, all in colors, shapes and designs you won't see anywhere else. Most of the sites are near the shore and feature some kind of lava tubes or lava formation with overhangs hiding creatures great and small. You should definitely bring a dive light and expect the unexpected.

One of the most wonderful things about diving off Kauai from January to April is the presence of humpback whales. During every one of our dives, the waters reverberate with a continual soundtrack of haunting whale song. If strapping on a tank and descending into a world less known than the moon doesn't ignite the inner explorer in you, then experiencing whale song will absolutely drive home just how remarkable it is to spend time in the sea as a diver. On some dives, even with sea turtles bumping us for attention, we just hovered over the reef and let the humpback's melodic family conversation wrap itself around us like a fleeting dream.

Reproduced with permission from Bonnier Corporation. All rights reserved.

Published: 25 Sep 2007 | Last Updated: 24 Sep 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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