Becoming a Believer
I never really wanted to go to Hawaii. I know divers' ears around the globe are stinging at the words rolling off my forked tongue and mobs are forming pitchforks and torches in hand to come set straight the heathen who would question the sanctity of its shores. But I always thought it would be too commercialized. After all, they hardly seem like the most remote islands in the world when they film Baywatch Hawaii there. I thought it would be hard to get to the natural, more beautiful core of the place. I was wrong.
It began one night at a bar – where all great ideas are born. My friend Andrew had been dying to get back to Maui, and since we are both afflicted with a constant case of itchy feet, he knew I wouldn't need much convincing. We have been friends for a long time and he's never let me down, so, despite my skepticism, I decided that I should trust him. It took about 15 minutes and half a Guinness. Before I knew it we were booking tickets.
I now find myself standing on top of the Haleakala volcano just before sunrise shivering under three layers of outerwear. I'm kicking myself for not believing him that it could be this cold in paradise – even at 10,023 ft above sea level. How stupid I'm feeling that I braved a 3:30 a.m. wakeup call to come freeze my butt off on a mountain only to bike – yes, bike – down it at first light. So I curse to myself as I climb to the rim of the crater to see what I can only describe as a moonscape open up before me.
I feel like I've just reached the top of the world and what lies below me is utterly foreign. I can imagine Neil Armstrong floating weightlessly across the rock to claim this piece of land in the name of exploration. It's one of those rare moments when you feel absolutely content with your life and the path you have chosen that has led you here – a moment when you cannot imagine anything more beautiful. Now the cold and the wind and the darkness don't bother me. And just as the sun reaches over the mountaintop, bringing the colors and textures of the landscape alive, an entire squadron of clouds creeps over the rim and across the crater floor, protecting the secrets that lie within. It's clear just long enough for me to stand on the highest rock I can find and peer out over the endless Pacific. The fog envelopes me as it races over the island as if its spirit is watching me – allowing me to see what it decides I am worthy of and hide what I'm not yet ready for. It keeps a lot from me this morning, but I'd like to think that I'll win its heart by the end of my journey.
But first Andrew and I head down the mountain toward the blue edges. Like most of the Hawaiian Islands, the land portion of Maui is a volcanic peak. About 500,000 years ago the island took its first breath, so everything under the surface has been brewing, battling and evolving in the relative isolation that 1,000 miles of open ocean and unfathomable amounts of time will allow. And there's no better welcome to the seascape than the pearly gates of Molokini Crater.
I secretly hope the Hawaiian spirits that inhabit the ocean will be more giving at the bottom of the mountain than the top.
The crescent-shaped remains of this dormant volcanic cone sit two and a half miles offshore like an austere citadel, whose only inhabitants are seabirds charged with guarding the world below. In the morning, boats full of divers and snorkelers leave from Maalaea Harbor, Lahaina and Kihei and head to Molokini on such straight paths that they look as if they are being pulled by hidden strings. On this morning, we join PADI resort Maui Dive Shop from Maalaea Harbor, and the closer we get to Molokini, the quieter the guests become. Even Andrew, who always seems to be in the middle of telling a story, stands hushed at the rail. When seen from the deck of a boat, Molokini feels like the last refuge between you and the enormity of the Pacific Ocean.
There are two realms off Molokini: The protected, flirty, fish-filled and relatively shallow inner portion that is shielded from the wide-open Pacific, and the wild and unpredictable Backwall. For much of the year, when the humpback whales arrive, the undersea experience is accompanied by haunting concertos. Feeling daring, we take on the Backwall first. Almost as soon as we round the corner and leave the protected inner waters, the wall drops away into a deep blue for more than 300 feet and the surface boils with the crashing of waves born, like Hawaii's original inhabitants, in the faraway south Pacific. We can feel and see every impact even at 80 feet, and the whalesong seems to hit the same curved wall as the riled-up water and splinter off in every direction. It's like hearing an orchestra warming up in a whirlwind.
Soon enough the current embraces us in its relentless grasp and we begin following a dictated course along the wall, fully at the mercy of the sea. The divemaster tells us we can see almost anything on this dive, if we're lucky. So we swivel our heads from the wall to the blue. We have to take in the scene in quick passes as we're swept past the wall, but longnose and teardrop butterflyfish, Moorish idols and whitetip sharks make their presence known in the 150-foot viz.
Reproduced with permission from Bonnier Corporation. All rights reserved.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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