Scuba Diving in Hawaii: The Full Dive Travel Review
ALOHA! Yes Aloha means hello, goodbye and love. But the word Aloha has another meaning too.
“Alo” is sharing and “ha” is the essence of life. The Hawaiian people once had the custom of putting their faces close to another person and breathing in “the essence of life”.
Although to a lesser degree than some of the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii generally has a “laid back” vibe and the “Aloha Spirit” seems alive and well. Most local residents appear happy and smile much of the time. Visitors to the Big Island would do well to adopt the smiles, the Aloha Spirit and adjust their clocks to “Island Time” while visiting.
Costs of Hawaii
Like most island nations, and due to the fact that most items need to be shipped in, the costs of many things are generally higher than it’s found on continents.
That said, the experienced traveler can find ways to cut the costs by seeking lodging with a kitchen and preparing some of their daily meals. Many vacation homes or condos are available for rent and some are reasonably priced.
Ask around to discover the restaurants where the locals eat and you’ll find excellent food and more reasonable prices. Farmer’s markets and roadside stands offer a varied assortment of fruit and produce at more reasonable rates.
The “Big Island” is called that for a reason and a rental car (or jeep) is a great idea if you want to see a large part or most of it. Car rentals prices are reasonable as long as one avoids the major holidays and activities.
History of Hawaii
The Hawaiian Islands are what is known from a geological perspective as a “hot spot”. The Earth’s mantle is thin enough in this region to allow the upwelling of lava from under the ocean’s floor.
The cooled lava has created a series basaltic land masses in the form of an island chain as the tectonic plate passes over this hot spot. The islands furthest to the north and west are the oldest and most eroded and the Big Island, called “Hawaii” is the youngest in the chain.
Hawaii is quite active volcanically and it’s a cool experience to walk on earth that is probably younger than you! There are eight habitable islands and scores of smaller islands and atolls in the chain.
The Hawaiian Islands were first apparently colonized by the Polynesian Peoples from the South Pacific using large double-hulled canoes prior to the 1500’s. (Brave explorers indeed!)
Captain Cook was given credit for being the first European to “discover” the islands in 1778 and named them the “Sandwich Islands”.
The Hawaiian people apparently invented the sport/art of surfing and the ocean was extremely important to their culture. The arrival of the missionaries temporarily ended surfing as topless people having fun in the water did not mesh well with the religious beliefs of the time.
Over the next 70 years several countries made a play to claim Hawaii. The Japanese bombed the U.S. Naval Base in Pearl Harbor in 1941 and some 14 years after the end of WWII. And in another apparent example of U.S. “manifest destiny”, the Hawaiian Islands were “annexed” by the U.S.A. in August of 1959.
Scuba Diving in Hawaii
So enough about the surface…let’s get to the diving!
Perform an internet search on the “The World’s Top Ten Dives” and undoubtedly the “Manta Ray Night Dive” off the coast of Kailua-Kona will be found somewhere in the middle of the top-ten. It truly is a spectacular dive and shouldn’t be missed if your travels take you to the Big Island.
The story of the evolution of the Manta Ray night dive that I’ve been told by the locals goes like this.
The Sheraton Hotel built a deck adjacent to the lounge and near a small harbor on their premises and added lighting to assist those using it at night. It was soon noticed that Manta Rays could be seen performing their upside-down barrel rolls in the relatively shallow waters just off the viewing deck.
The explanation for this was that plankton are, greatly attracted in huge numbers by the light and as Mantas are filter feeders, they followed the plankton. From here it was an obvious evolution for the entrepreneurs of the local dive industry to find a suitable spot for a night dive where Mantas had been seen. Then start “habituating” them to the increased plankton source via the placement of artificial light.
So, over the course of several years it appears to have worked very well! A half dozen or more dive boats show up every night (when the seas aren’t too large) and set up a sort of “camp-fire” ring of dive torches on the bottom on one or two locations to attract the mantas. On some nights there might be an excess of 20 mantas, some with wingspans of 15 feet or more.
Don’t worry about the fact that there could be 40 or more divers and the same number of snorkelers topside! For this dive, the more the better as each diver is equipped with their own torch and it just seems to make a larger feeding area.
Once you’ve done this dive, you’ll never forget the image of huge gaping mouths and the exposed gill-rakers. Or when, these graceful animals, glide inches over your head (or sometimes just skimming it if they “like” you!) and displacing enough water to keep you swaying about on the bottom like a gorgonian!
The Mantas will continue this graceful feeding dance doing slow, somersaults up towards the surface until the dive-master gives you a tap on the shoulder. Letting you know that the first person from your boat is low and air and the dive is ending.
Upon surfacing you can hear the excited chatter from dozens of divers in the area who have just had the dive of their life! It is worth mentioning, that big swells or other conditions might prevent the mantas from showing, but on most nights they appear, making for one fine show!
It is possible to dive the area near the Sheraton from shore thus saving the “entry fee”, but a good deal of planning and experience is needed to make that one come off and it will not be as easy as from a boat.
“Black Water Dive”
Another notable night dive from the Kona area is called the “Black Water” or “Pelagic Magic” dive. It can be easily coupled with the manta dive for an unforgettable night!
For this one, you head out in a boat about 3 miles offshore from the harbor where the depths exceed 3,000 feet. The boat drops 6 or 8 heavily weighted lines that are about 40’ of length from several different points on the boat. Then each diver hooks into one of these main-lines from a 10’ “tether” line attached to their BCD and over you go. The boat basically drifts with the current as each diver moves up and down the mainline pointing their torch off into the inky waters of the abyss
So if you’ve pictured this in your mind, you might think, “Well it sounds like they’re trolling the divers” and if you got that image, that pretty much describes it!
For the most part, everything you see will be fairly small. And almost everything you see will be equipped with bioluminescence characteristics. Reds, whites, greens, yellows and blues dance and shimmer around the edges of some of the most amazing organisms you’ve ever seen!
It is utterly amazing and fascinating to watch these strange looking juveniles from the deep as they make a huge migration every night to the surface waters to feed. Think twice before you do this dive as it isn’t for the faint of heart! (Speaking of which, I nearly fainted when the Divemaster grabbed me by the calf to show me a large Venus Girdle that was behind me!). Calm currents allow you to view the organisms for a longer period of time whereas a fast current will have these strange, creatures flying by like something from a Star-Trek episode!
Minimal current is definitely better for close examination of these strange ocean dwellers.
Boat diving in Hawaii
There are scores of different dive sites near to shore and many that are further away which generally equates to higher dive price. It may be worth doing the boat dive especially when the Humpback Whales are visiting! I was fortunate to have a cow and calf swim about 12 meters under my fins while I was at a depth of 30 meters!
The west coast of the Big Island has some pretty amazing underwater topography created from lava formations and lava-tubes and swim-through dives are plentiful. There are some really good dive charter companies in and around Kailua-Kona so choose your dive operator with care.
Shore diving in Hawaii
There are many opportunities for shore-diving the Big Island and for the more advanced divers and those on a budget. And the diving from shore is excellent!
Check with shore-diving Hawaii for details on shore diving locations and what to expect.
There a few dive sites on the east side of the island near Hilo that can be accessed from shore diving. You should expect the water temperature to be a little cooler on the east side and visibility can be diminished if the area has been receiving heavy rains.
If you do plan to shore dive, I highly recommend renting a jeep. Some of the roads into remote dive sites can be quite rough. Take it slow, and respect the locals in the fishing villages and prepare for some excellent diving from shore!
If you are new to shore diving you can read my guide to shore diving.
The UW environment of Hawaii
Hawaii has around 20 (known) species of reef fishes found nowhere else in the world. This makes sense as it’s a long ways to other land masses and coral reefs.
Most of the coral around the islands are “hard-coral” or “Stony” type. Mountainous Star Coral is plentiful and often looks like giant mushrooms and often of various colors of green, red, yellow purple or blue. This easily leads one to think they’ve entered some chapter of Alice & Wonderland!
Some areas have more sheet coral species. There are a few species of soft coral, but most are very small and not readily visible.
The fish life of Hawaii
Yellow Tang, Butterfly Fishes, Parrot Fishes Triggerfish, Needlefishes, Angle Fishes, Wrasse, Goatfish and Squirrelfish are very common as are green sea turtles (Honu in the Hawaiian language). Frogfish, Lionfish and Scorpion fish can also be seen by those with trained eyeballs. The State Fish Humuhumunukunukuapua’a isn’t as common, but when you see it, you’ll know it (but saying it is something else!). Spotted Eagle Rays abound and can often be found at “cleaning stations” attended by the Tangs.
But to really get the blood pumping, let’s don’t forget the Humpback Whales. They show up every year between December and March to breed and give birth.
From a boat it’s relatively easy to see them spout and breach.
The Humpbacks and some shark species are among the few species that travel the great distance to Hawaii. Even a mediocre dive (if there is such a thing) becomes extremely special when accompanied by the songs of the male Humpback!
If sport fishing appeals to you Hawaii has that as well. Mahi-mahi, Marlin species, Yellowfin Tuna and my personal favorite from a culinary aspect, Whaoo (called Ono on the Islands) frequent the tropical waters of Hawaii.
Diving Temperatures in Hawaii
Low 70’s in the winter and upper 70’s to 80 ºF (21-26 ºC) in the summer so a 3 mm wetsuit is my personal preference in the winter and a 1 mm dive shirt suffices in the summer months.
When to go
Year-round with a note that some large swells can come in from the North Pacific in the wintertime which add a definite challenge to diving.
The high season is around Christmas and during the winter months when escaping the cold and snow sounds like a great idea, but hotel prices are higher during this time.
Also, the Iron Man Final is held each year on the Big Island during the month of October. So if you plan to visit during October, book ahead as hotels in the Kailua-Kona area generally fill up during this event. You might have a change of getting fit for diving.
Traveling between Islands
From the Big Island, a flight is the only choice to neighboring islands. Hawaiian Airlines is currently the only service, but there is rumor that this may be changing and most locals are eager for the end of the monopoly. There is one ferry from Maui to Molokai.
To sum it up, the diving in Hawaii is spectacular! If you can plan a trip to the islands, you won’t be disappointed!
Dive and Live Aloha!