Hawaiin Encounters

By Al Hornsby

As we slide along a smooth sea in our big inflatable toward Oahu's northwest tip, the shoreline that slips by is a mix of new and old Hawaii. There are stretches with a few scattered hotels and lovely homes nestled right against the beach, but much of the rest is undeveloped. Here on the dry side of Oahu, the rugged peaks, black volcanic rock thinly covered with sun-parched scrub, remind me very much of the Marquesas Islands, far to the south. I cannot help but think the ancient Polynesians who discovered Hawaii after a long canoe voyage from those same Marquesan isles thought the same thing.

As we pull into Yokohama Bay, a pod of Spinner Dolphins we had hoped to see is there on cue. There are about ten in the group, frolicking in the quiet, protected water. Spinners typically head out to open ocean each morning to feed, then return late afternoons and nights to a quiet bay. Victor pulls the Zodiac close, and I slip quietly into the water, with mask, fins and snorkel. The water is clear, with a 45-foot-deep sand bottom.

As they often do, the dolphins tease me, coming just to the limit of vision, giving me a brief glimpse, then disappearing again. After swimming slowly for a while, looking up occasionally to spot them as they rise in unison to breathe at the surface, I locate them and increase my speed to stay with them. They seem to object less to my moving closer as I match their pace. Coming near, I follow them to the bottom, admiring their lovely bodies, black above with white-streaked sides. All are tightly packed together, except for one, who seems to act as sentry. He comes close and looks me over, then moves back to his place just behind the pod.

From then on, they allow me to swim with them, just a few feet away.

My trips to the surface are quick as I try to maintain their pace and get back down to take pictures. All the while, I'm transfixed by their incredible grace as they move so effortlessly through the warm water, twisting and turning about each other, sharing social mannerisms that seem so familiar, mannerisms expressed through touch, eye contact and sound.

As we head home later in the day, another pod joins us, riding the bow. We put on our masks and slip in, hanging on ropes on the inflatable's sides, easing back into the pod. The Spinners are all around us now, energetically coming close, then streaking ahead. In the midst of the pack, drafting at the dorsal fin of his mother, is a tiny calf, less than two feet long. It's already an accomplished swimmer; it glides and frolics, a tiny rocket whose exuberance just won*t be contained.

On one side, blue water that extends away to the distant horizon, on the other, craggy green peaks, their heights covered in billowing clouds; Kauai's beauty makes its presence known wherever I look. My reverie is broken as someone says, 'Al, you do want to go diving, don't you? We're here.'

We slip into the cool water at one of Kauai's most popular sites, Sheraton Caverns. Formations left over from the island's volcanic past, the string of large caverns and underwater ridges stretch across the shallow bottom. Dark lava rock is decorated here and there with small coral heads, and in the caverns themselves, the walls, under a light or strobe flash, glow with splashes of red, orange and yellow from the encrusting sponges.

Like other dive spots in Kauai, there are a number of unusual, endemic species of fish that we may see here, so we are constantly looking about. Our patience is rewarded by a pair of unusual Saddleback Butterflyfish and shortly thereafter by a Bandit Angelfish, one of the island's more special creatures. As we move into a large cavern, things become still in the dim light. It becomes one of those thoughtful moments underwater when we're reminded of just how remarkable it is to be privy to an environment so alien and beautiful.

As we move along over the piles of surge-rounded stones that cover the cavern's floor, we come across a large Green Turtle, slumbering peacefully in a nook in the rock wall. We move close and study it for many minutes, noting the arching curve of its intricately patterned shell, the smooth leathery skin lying in soft folds around its neck. If it is aware of our presence, it doesn't let us know. We depart quietly, careful not to disturb its gentle turtle dreams.

The curving scythe of black lava rock that rises before us knifes through the cobalt water, its edge still sharp despite the eons since it thrust its way upward off Maui's western coastline. Molokini is half of a crater, reaching 160 feet into the quiet, early morning sky. We are awed as we float in the still water at its base.

The water is very clear here, with visibility certainly exceeding 100 feet, as we descend toward the 50 foot deep bottom of the spot called Aquarium. Fish of many types are everywhere, and in our first few moments we see schools of Bluestripe Snappers, Moorish Idols and Longnose Butterflyfish. Before we even reach the white sand that covers swatches of the coral floor below us, we see several huge shapes winging toward us from the distance. As Mantas here so often do, they seem attracted to us. Whether friendly or simply curious, I guess we'll never know.

Jennifer swims close to one large Manta, and I move ahead of them to position a shot.

For some reason, the Manta isn't interested in Jennifer today, and it leaves her behind, coming straight to me. Perhaps I look like something stranger than the Manta has seen before. I have twin strobes extending outward on each side, on arms over three feet long. Though this six-foot wingspan is no match for the Manta's ten, I guess I am the next biggest thing around.

She comes closer and closer, until she must rotate a large, brown eye to keep me in view. Though I'm practically too close for a picture, even with the ultra-wide 13mm lens I'm using, as she turns away, I am rewarded with one shot of Manta spilling out of the frame. Its white underbelly goes translucent in my flash, giving the skin a pale pink cast I've never seen before. I grin as I realize the treat Maui has already given me, and it's only 8:00 am on day one.

Off Hawaii's Kona Coast, the dive sites come one after another, with names like Turtle Pinnacles and Lava Dome. Most are quite near the rocky shoreline, in shallow water that drops off steeply to the depths. At any of them, the water is very clear and blue, sparkling under a bright sun in a cloudless sky.

Today, the creatures are everywhere and Mike, our guide, is a wonder at finding them. There are turtles lying about a coral prominence to have their shells picked clean by schools of surgeon and butterflyfish. We watch one for a while. The turtle doesn't seem to mind at all that we are there. It rests on the bottom, as if half asleep. The fish are a complete, one-stop cleaning crew with the butterflies taking care of parasites and the surgeons grazing on the green algae coating the turtle's shell.

When we glance up, Mike has found a Day Octopus. It sits perched on his hand, seemingly without a care in the world. I've the distinct impression that this little fella has met divers before. Our group enjoys it for a while as shutters click and strobes flash, then it's placed gently back into its lair. Later we learn the secret for finding octopuses in Hawaii: goatfish, though usually found in schools, will go off alone to follow an octopus, hoping to scarf up jackal-like the leftovers of the eight-armer's meal. Spot a jittery goatfish hanging around the front of a crevice and the chances are good there's an octopus inside.

When we move into a lava tube cavern, we find a nice surprise: a beautiful Spanish Dancer, a nudibranch more than six inches long, its undulating vermillion body edged with frilly, white lace. Victoria, on her first U/W modeling assignment for Skin Diver, is fascinated as the Dancer settles gently onto her hand. I begin to fire off frame after frame.

A special thanks to Outrigger Hotels, Aquatic Lifestyles, Aaron's Dive Shop, Dolphin Excursions, Ocean Concepts Scuba, Fathom Five Pro Divers, Lahaina Divers, Mike Severns' Dive Shop, Eco-Adventures and Kona Coast Divers for assisting us on our recent Hawaii expeditions.