Hawaiian Rapture

Casey Mahaney and Astrid Witte Mahaney

Above: A snorkeler flirts with Lined and Raccoon Butterflyfish. Inset right: Breathtaking Kealakekua Bay, Kona.

by Casey Mahaney and Astrid Witte Mahaney

Like little blessings from the fire goddess Pele, the hawaiian Islands stretch across the central Pacific from the Big Island to remote Midway Atoll. Each is a unique world of its own and our Dive Guide will lead you to encounters that range from the electribying to the sublime.

Big Island
The Kona Coast, stretching along the leeward side of The Big Island of Hawaii, is blessed with an awesome array of dive sites. Pristine coral reefs, house-friendly turtles, octopus, moray eels and an incredible parade of colorful and endemic species of fish. Lava tubes and overhangs cradle Spanish Dancers, Tiger Cowries and crimson reef lobsters, while careful observers may spot the Giant Frogfish, bizarre Crocodile Snake Eel or delicate Leaffish. There are even dive sites that boast turtle cleaning stations and nighttime manta feeding frenzies, all combined with some of the calmest water, best visibility and easiest to reach dive sites in the Pacific. What else can one ask for?

Well, maybe a little something extra. My husband and I certainly enjoy the 'regular' Hawaii. It has made our lives as dive instructors, underwater photographers and videographers fulfilling and enjoyable, but on our days off the job, we often seek out the extraordinary or the adventurous side of Hawaii diving. Some of our most exhilarating experiences have occurred several miles off the Kona Coast in the blue water of the open sea. It's an electrifying, awe-inspiring blue created by fathoms of the clearest water imaginable, interrupted only by dancing shafts of light piercing the ocean's surface. It is at once beautiful and dizzying, since there are no reference points for divers floating above this bottomless void. Once, while wearing only mask, snorkel and fins, I carefully kicked my way down to greet a pod of Pilot Whales we had spotted at the surface. They moved toward me, all in perfect synchronization. Soon one was directly below me, turning upside down, showing his grayish speckled belly and what appeared to be a wide grin on his face. A big bull followed. He dived deep, so deep I finally lost sight of him. Ignoring my presence, a mother whale and her baby trailed him, although apparently they stay shallower, since I could still make out their faint shadows. A few more whales passed, and then, taking me by surprise, I noticed an Oceanic Whitetip Shark tailing them. I had the opportunity to watch this sleek, powerful predator from much closer than I would have liked. I saw his long, rounded pectorals slicing through the water, his large mouth and tiny, cold eyes. He seemed to glance at me with only mild curiosity before disappearing into the endless blue, following the whales.

Later, when the sun was almost ready to slip behind the horizon, I dived down wearing full scuba. Taking my macro lens this time, I figured I would find something of interest, pelagic seahorses or nudibranchs, or other creatures that differ from those found on the reef. I slowly descended to about 50 feet, viewing the vast ocean, now a deep inky blue, mostly through the narrow viewfinder of my camera. Suddenly, my autofocus began to hunt, obviously confused with the subject. Looking up I noticed a dense school of perhaps a hundred Yellowfin Tuna speeding by. They began to zigzag back and forth, up and down. I saw the fear and panic in their eyes and realized they were being hunted. Remembering my prior encounter with the Oceanic Whitetip, I nervously turned around, only to face a magnificent Blue Marlin.

This Blue Marlin was literally sparkling with life, sequined in all shades of pink, blue, yellow, green, silver and gold, representing the colors of an entire tropical reef. He was pursuing his prey with such an intensity and aggressive speed, and yet with so much ease and confidence, it quickly became obvious that this was the true king of the ocean.

For Kona residents like us, Maui has always been a popular getaway. There are more entertainment choices than in Kona, but it's still quaint and free of the overcrowded feeling found in a big city. Over the years, we have done a lot of diving off Maui and its neighbor, Lanai, and there certainly are many great sites, but my favorite has always been the outside wall of Molokini Crater. The first time I descending down the sheer crater wall, I was instantly greeted by huge schools of Pennant Fish and large swirls of Raccoon Butterflyfish, which were in a bit of a frenzy, feeding on Sergeant Major eggs. The dramatic black wall is lavishly encrusted with red, orange and yellow sponges and several black coral trees. The area is patrolled by Whitetip Reef Sharks and Eagle Rays. Little gems such as rare Long-handed Lobsters, shiny cowries and colorful nudibranchs live in the many crevices of the wall.

Oceanic Whitetip
cruising off Midway.

An eight-armed
encounter off Oahu.

Famous Waikiki Beach
and Diamond Head.

At Reef's End, another gorgeous spot comprised of sponge-embellished lava slabs, there are large boulders and forests of huge Antler Coral trees, the latter swirling with the endemic White Spot Damsels. We have also been able to explore the entire outside wall of the ocean-breached crater, and it is always the effect of the steep drop-off that fascinates me most. The incredible feeling of flying through a bottomless universe, the anticipation of pelagic encounters in endlessly clear water, combined with the ability to maintain a comforting sense of direction and depth, offer an unparalleled blend of relaxation and adventure.

An inter-island visit to Oahu had always meant shopping, nightlife and great restaurants to me, until we finally decided to do some diving, too. It turned out Oahu offers by far the best wreck diving in Hawaii, with a marine life accumulation that is out of this world. Our first dive was on the Mahi, the 800-ton wreck of a former research vessel. Purposely sunk in 1982, the Mahi is considered Oahu's most popular site, and I soon discovered why. Descending to the sandy sea floor surrounding the wreck, we literally landed on a school of Eagle Rays, which we were later told are residents of the wreck. Awed by the immediate appearance of the Eagle Rays, it wasn't until minutes later that we discovered a rare Hawaiian Stingray right below them!

Finally making our way to the wreck, we found the massive hull of the Mahi alive with marine growth. Lacy Snowflake Coral adorned the portholes, while bright Orange Cup Corals (Tubastrea coccinea) graced the ceiling of the bridge and generously covered the masts and hull of the vessel. Penetrating the wreck, the beam of my flashlight revealed tight schools of squirrelfish, soldierfish and lobsters. In other compartments we found ourselves surrounded by swirls of Blue-stripe Snappers, butterflyfish and tangs, while huge Porcupine Puffers congregated around the masts, observing our exploration efforts from above.

Hawaii: Year-round (May through November:
best diving conditions, December through April: Visiting Humpback Whales)
Midway: May - September

Considered one of the most pleasant in the world. It is comfortable, balmy and warm year-round with north-easterly trade winds prevailing most of the year. Near the coast temperatures range from 68 degrees F to 83 degrees F, though temperatures at higher altitudes can be much cooler.

Midway Atoll experiences a more seasonal climate. Summer air temperatures are similar to the Hawaiian Islands, but winter temperatures can drop into the low 60s ( degrees F) with strong winds making it seem even colder. Water temperatures may reach 80 degrees F in August, but will drop to 65 degrees F in January.

The waters surrounding the islands are inviting year-round, averaging 74 degrees F. Water temperatures can get as warm as 80 degrees F in the summer months. The waters are generally calm year-round, but winter brings heavy surf and big swells on the north-facing beaches. Warning flags are posted to alert swimmers and surfers of beach conditions.

The currency in the Hawaiian Islands is the U.S. dollar.

Hawaii is five hours behind Eastern Standard Time.


Aaron's Dive Shop
(808) 262-2333

Aloha Dive Shop
(808) 395-5992

Breeze Hawaii Diving
(808) 326-4085

Hawaii Sea Adventures
(808) 487-7515

Reef Trekkers
(808) 943-0588

Waikiki Diving
(808) 922-2121

Ocean Concepts
(808) 677-7975

Capt. Bruce's Scuba Charters
(808) 373-3590

Surf N Sea
(808) 637-9887

Sunshine Scuba
(808) 593-8865

Windward Dive Center
(808) 263-2311

Aloha Dive Co.
(808) 325-5560

Dive Makai
(808) 329-2025

(808) 329-7116

Kohala Divers
(808) 882-7774

Kona Coast Divers
(808) 329-8802

Manta Ray Divers
(808) 325-1687

Planet Ocean Watersports
(808) 935-7277

Mauna Lani Sea
(808) 885-7883

Nautilus Dive
(808) 935-6939

Red Sail Sports
(800) 255-6425

Sea Paradise Scuba
(808) 322-2500

Jack's Diving Locker
(808) 329-7585

Trilogy Ocean Sports
(808) 661-4743

Blue Dolphin
(808) 245-8681

Dive Kauai
(808) 822-0452

Fathom Five
(808) 742-6991

Mana Divers
(808) 742-9849

Diver's Locker
(888) 511-2241

Wet & Wonderful
(808) 822-0211

B & B Scuba
(808) 875-2861

Scuba Shack
(808) 879-3483

Hawaiin Rafting Adventures
(808) 661-7333

Dive & Sea Center
(808) 874-1952

Dive Maui
(808) 667-2080

Maui Dreams
(808) 874-5332

Ed Robinson's Diving Adventures
(808) 879-3584

Kapalua Dive Co.
(808) 662-0872

Lahaina Divers
(808) 667-6280

Maui Dive Shop
(808) 879-3388

Maui Pleasure Divers
(808) 874-8611

Mike Severn's Dive Shop
(808) 879-6596

Provider Maui
(808) 875-4004

Hawaiin Islands
(808) 622-3483

Tropical Divers
(808) 669-6284

Midway Phoenix

Destination Midway

Later we visited the YO 257, the wreck of a former Navy oiler that was sunk in 1989 to create an artificial reef for the Atlantis submarine. Just off Waikiki Beach, the YO turned out to be another fantastic photographic dive, with marine life and wide-angle ops galore. Upon descending, we were immediately greeted by schools of friendly butterflyfish. So friendly, in fact, that it was difficult to get them far enough from our lenses to focus on them. Our guide pointed out moray eels, curious sea turtles and a giant frogfish that was more than willing to pose. Many species of vividly patterned nudibranchs were negotiating through landscapes of feather-like hydroids, encrusting sponges and corals.

With its lush jungles, mist-shrouded mountains and cascading waterfalls, Kauai differs greatly from the sunny Kona Coast, above, as well as below the surface. Dive sites here are generally more prone to weather conditions, with the sites near the dramatic Na Pali cliffs and neighboring Ni'ihau and Lehua offering enthralling adventure diving, as well as some unusual species.

We made our way to Lehua Rock, a Molokini-like submarine crater formation, off the northern tip of Ni'ihau. We had heard from fellow underwater photographers that this was a great area to find and photograph the endemic Yellow Anthias. After back-rolling into the dancing waves, we quickly discovered a spectacular seascape comprised of multiple lava formations that were created some five million years ago, when hot lava was streamed into the ocean. As the lava flow finally ceased, hollow tubes of all sizes were created. Some of them partially collapsed creating skylights or leaving archways. We briefly admired some of these dramatic natural structures before following the steep slope down to explore the deep for the elusive Yellow Anthias.

Unfortunately, our search remained unsuccessful, but when we worked our way back into the shallows, we thought we encountered what appeared to be a swift, yet grossly overweight mermaid. It turned out to be an endemic and highly endangered Monk Seal, a sight that has become rare in Hawaii. We learned later that at Ni'ihau and at some of Kauai's more remote beaches, Monk Seals are beginning to make a comeback, and underwater encounters are becoming more common.

Subject to deep oceanic currents and changing water temperatures, Midway's location, some 1,300 miles northwest of the Hawaiian Islands, but technically part of the island chain, has created an aquatic environment with marine life that is much larger and bolder than anywhere else in the world.

Dive sites at Midway feature dramatic underwater structures and highly unusual species such as the odd-looking Morwong, gigantic squirrelfish, lobsters, Dragon Morays, Knife Jaws and the rare, endemic Masked Angelfish. The Masked Angelfish is normally only found in depths far beyond the recreational dive limit. But at Midway, they are literally everywhere, even as shallow as 30 feet.

The last of the sun's rays drift off with the evening's breeze off Maui.
The last of the sun's rays drift off with the evening's breeze off Maui.

No matter the dive site, we almost always saw sharks, usually one or two, sometimes three at a time. Some of them approached us brazenly, while others kept their distance. However, one of the most interesting encounters occurred when Kent, our dive guide, accidentally dropped one of his fins overboard. The fin began floating off, and before we managed to retrieve it, we had three huge Galapagos Sharks circling around it, their dorsal fins slicing the surface. Catching on to our obvious excitement, Kent suggested we chum the water.


Hawaii (The Big Island)
Pelagics in blue water, pristine coral reefs and lava tubes. The island offers excellent diving conditions due to the vast lee the high mountains create. The majority of dive and snorkel operators are situated in the former fishing village of Kailua-Kona.

Molokini, turtle dives and lava caverns at Lanai. The relatively shallow channels separating the islands are a favorite for Humpback Whales, who come to give birth and nurture their calves. Sunny Kihei offers daily snorkel and dive boat departures for Molokini Crater. The opposite, windward side of Maui features Kahului Bay, the Aspen of windsurfing.

Wrecks, friendly fish and lava caverns. Famous Waikiki Beach offers hundreds of accommodation choices, and nearby Hanauma Bay attracts several hundred

snorklers daily. The best dive sites are gathered along the west and south coast.

Lava shelves, unusual fish species and ad-venture diving at Ni'ihau and Lehua Rock. Poipu Beach, along the drier south coast, is the launching point for dive travelers.

Sharks, mantas and rare endemic fish. Once conceived by the same volcanic forces that 20 million years later created the Hawaiian Islands, Midway was worn down by the elements until finally parts of the landmass became submerged. This allowed coral reefs to form, and eventually an atoll developed now consisting of Sand, Eastern and Spit Islands. The atoll was closed to the public when the U.S. Navy began to occupy Midway in 1943 and remained closed until 1997. Now, with the military gone, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the private Midway

That afternoon we anchored somewhere off a ledge near the blue water. Within seconds, we had a couple of sharks around us, and within minutes, close to a dozen. They were all Galapagos Sharks, ranging between five and ten feet in length. Hovering in blue water, we were being approached from all sides, and it was getting harder and harder to concentrate on the camera's view finder without constantly checking our backs. We finally retreated when the sharks started to nibble on our fins. Upon exiting, Kent let the rest of the fish carcass slip into the water and a frenzied ball of sharks fought over the bloody remains.

Watching the pack of sharks chase after the sinking carcass and eventually disappear into the great blue, I realized that diving any part of Hawaii can hardly be classified as normal. From the Big Island to its ancient and remote relative Midway Atoll, these waters offer a constant stream of surprises and supply divers with fantasies before they can even be imagined.