Hawaii: A Diver's Paradise

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Hawaii is everywhere. It's in our clothing design, on television, part of our culture ... but mostly it's in our dreams. When the idea of a tropical paradise comes up, the first place that comes to the world's collective imagination of island perfection is Hawaii. Waterfalls here seem to seek out only the loveliest cliffs and hillsides to cascade down. The rainforests are lush with greens, unique flora and fauna and everything that exudes exotic-ness but always seems inviting – like the kind of place you could take a family stroll. There are impenetrable red-rock canyons, silk-sand beaches that stretch off to the horizon, steaming volcanos that flow hot and red into the sea and fields of freshly-hardened, black lava that look like a sunburnt moonscape. There's also something inspiring about a culture where flip-fl ops, T-shirts and shorts are daily attire. Hawaii offers a vast realm of discovery and exploration. And then there is the sea ...

The ocean defines Hawaii for most visitors, especially divers. It's a place where the chaos of evolution has taken bold steps to enthrall and surprise even the most well-traveled bubbleblower. A place where massive schools of spinner dolphins, green sea turtles, manta rays, reef sharks and whales share space with tiger morays, rockmovers and endemic fish whose one imperative while evolving seems to have been to become the most colorfully and interestingly designed species in the sea. And it's common to see most of these distinctive creatures on a single dive.

Off these shores are a lifetime of deep-blue adventures. What's even more remarkable about Hawaii is that although it's such an integral part of our tropical island consciousness, it's the most remote chain of islands on earth. Its closest neighbors are more than 1,000 miles from Hawaii's idyllic shores. It's literally in the middle of nowhere, an accidental sprinkle of volcanic treasure smack in the center of the vast field of the Pacific Ocean.

The islands of Hawaii exist in that rare realm of Polynesian perfection that will always leave you yearning for more.

Gathering Place
Scarcely a person alive cannot conjure an image of Waikiki, Pearl Harbor, hula or the famous waves of the North Shore. Oahu has made a deep impression on the world. It has a little bit of everything. For divers, though, Oahu means wrecks. The most famous of these is the legendary Mahi, which resides at 95 feet on a sandy seafloor off the Waianae coast. This one-time cable-layer has become the gathering place for the area's marine life. Spotted eagle rays school around the mast, large aggregations of blue-striped snapper come so thick they literally block the view of the wreck, and pennant butterfly fish flit and flow among the shadows. There's a resident moray that lives in the cable spooling mechanism at the bow. And all kinds of passing pelagics visit the wreck, including tiger sharks and green sea turtles. Closer to the cosmopolitan shores of Waikiki, you'll find two intriguing wrecks, the YO-257 and a WWII Corsair. The transformation of the YO-257 from machine of war to reef has been startling. It has become inundated with soft corals and marine life. The Corsair, a result of pilot error (he ran out of gas on the way back to the airstrip), makes a unique experience for the logbook. It still makes for a great photo op, with the hordes of butterfly fish that pour over the wreck. It should not be missed while in Oahu. Wrecks aren't the only undersea attraction off Oahu. If you're interested in seeing Hawaii's singular variety of endemic species (almost 30 percent of everything you see is unique to Hawaii!) there's only one place to go: Hanauma Bay. It is perhaps the world's most famous snorkeling beach. This lovely caldera is strikingly beautiful and literally packed with marine life (the result of food pellets offered by the tourists). There's also a spectacular collection of volcanic caverns, home to stonefish, sharks and turtles. For a funky addition to your logbook, head off to the sharky site called the Electric Plant. For something that will cause your thrill vein to tingle, head to the surfer's enclave of Haleiwa on the North Shore. Here, you'll head out into open water, jump in a cage and be surrounded by dozens of sharks – Galapagos, bull, oceanic whitetip and dusky, all vying for your attention. At the end of the day, head down to Waikiki for a beachside Mai Tai. The tiki torches light up the busy waterfront and the sound of the waves, whose lives began thousands of miles away, will lull you into a dream state.

The Big Island
The ancestral home of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, the Big Island teems with life. It also has 12 of the world's 16 climate zones within its boundaries, so every corner and turn of this island is unique. This diversity has seeped into the waters that surround its shores. A virtual dive town, Kailua-Kona, on the island's western shore, is crowded with dive flags – and for good reason. Just offshore, incredibly clear water harbors a wild variety of underwater experiences.

From January through March, pods of humpback whales come to give birth off these shores, their songs providing an enchanting soundtrack to every dive adventure. In the open water within sight of shore, pilot whales are frequently seen, often followed by oceanic whitetip sharks. Huge aggregations of dolphins fill the waters, making surface intervals spectacular with their aerial acrobatics.

Close to shore, the dive sites that dot the area have become world-famous. At Garden Eel Cove, massive manta rays come in at night to feed on tiny krill and other organisms attracted to lights set on the sea floor. It's a world-class site, with an experience straight from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. City of Refuge and Turtle Pinnacle attract green sea turtles by the dozens to their cleaning stations, and after a good cleaning these turtles will often pull themselves ashore for a nap.

The lava substrate has riddled the shoreline with underwater caverns and arches in which you'll find nurse sharks, legions of squirrelfish and every kind of ray of light imaginable. Sequestered in the nooks and crannies of the dive sites, you'll find brightly colored frogfish, dragon, zebra, whitemouth and yellowmargin morays, and fluttering extravagances of endemic milletseed butterfly fish. There's even an extremely photogenic wreck, the Naked Lady, right in the Kona harbor.

For a thrilling treat, head out at night for an open water drift dive. You'll hook onto a floating downline and encounter some of the most otherworldly inhabitants of the sea. Larval marine creatures along with deep- water denizens come up to the surface at night to feed and get eaten. Almost every speck you'll see is alive and, upon close inspection, more alien-like than anything else you're ever likely to see in the sea.

Spectacular diving also can be had along the mostly uninhabited Kohala Coast, just  northwest of Kona, famous for its pristine hard coral gardens and lava formations, massive turtles and abundance of whitetip reef sharks, as well as its blissful lack of crowds.

Published: 25 Sep 2007 | Last Updated: 1 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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