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Hawaii underwater.

Hawaii underwater

From snorkeling to scuba, here's how to get started, where to go, and whom you might meet

Palm-lined beaches, balmy nights, and flowing volcanoes are characteristic images of Hawaii. But now increasing numbers of visitors are discovering another of the islands' natural wonders--the color-spangled undersea realm, with its vivid and endlessly intriguing residents. Underwater tourism is booming. With 70 dive stores and more than a hundred snorkel and dive boats in operation, and with countless beaches and coves to explore, visitors have more ways than ever to enter Hawaii's waters. Some arrive through excursions specializing in underwater adventures. But most are ordinary travelers, adding an unforgettable new dimension to a family vacation. These eight pages introduce you to what's distinctive about Hawaiian waters and suggest ways to explore--from simple snorkeling, which a mature child can learn in an hour, to skin and scuba diving, to the latest development, snuba or scorkeling. We also present some of the marine creatures you're likely to meet and offer environmental and safety tips. Finally, we lead you to some of the best undersea spots off Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai. For underwater Lanai possibilities.

Hawaii undersea: volcanic forms, tropical fish, grand pelagic voyagers

Lying between 19 [degrees] and 22 [degrees] north of the equator, at the fringe of the warm-water coral belt, Hawaiian waters might at first disappoint divers familiar with more grandly evolved reefs of warmer waters. But this string of volcanic islands has its own beauty: underwater lava tubes and arches create stark landscapes that are coated with some 40 species of corals. Underwater caverns, when pierced by the sun's rays, glow like submerged cathedrals lit through quivering glass. The biggest draw, for beginners and experts alike, is the state's 420 species of tropical reef fish, 25 percent of them found nowhere but here. As your eyes grow accustomed to life in the coral kingdoms, you'll also begin to recognize intriguing families of invertebrates and, along the ocean's floor, some 1,000 shell species. Or maybe you'll encounter pelagic creatures--wanderers of the open sea. More than one snorkeler has returned from a first outing awed by a swim with a school of gentle dolphins. Mind-boggling, but also possible, are meetings with the sea's largest fish--a 50-foot whale shark (relax: it eats plankton). Between December and April, you might even hear the haunting song of a humpback whale.

Take time to listen, look, feel

Raised on Jacques Cousteau, we think we know what the ocean is like. But to take your first look as you enter this foreign realm for yourself can be awesome--even unsettling. Dream-like, this universe slows your movements, magnifies what you see and hear (is that crackling noise really the sound of shrimp? restless gravel?). It affects what you feel (water layers now warm, now cool), even what you smell and taste. Floating quietly over a reef, watch the transactions of life on a coral head. You might see a moray eel pause while a tiny wrasse cleans off its parasites; or you could watch a pair of butterflyfish swim in sync, as though linked by strings. Bring a light (for rent at dive shops) to peek into crevices and under ledges where skinny-legged shrimp and red squirrelfish hide. And on night dives, meet the ocean's late shift. Like jack rabbits frozen by car headlights, fish are transfixed by a beam--a boon for diving photographers.

What do you need to get started?

"People are always amazed at how simple it is," says an experienced Maui instructor. "If you can swim, you can snorkel." You can rent everything you'll need. All dive stores and many beach concessions offer mask-snorkel-fins packages ($5 to $15 a day). Scuba gear (for certified divers only) runs $25 to $50. Underwater camera rentals average $20; new disposable ones good to 12 feet cost $20 to $25. Photographs above illustrate gear developed in the last decade to make snorkeling more comfortable and scuba diving safer. Major dive improvements are spare regulators (so you don't have to share your mouthpiece in an emergency) and the buoyancy control (BC) vest. Between February and August, Hawaii's water temperatures range from 72 [degrees] to 80 [degrees] (average is 75 [degrees]). That's cool enough that scuba divers need wet suits--included in most packages. Snorkelers may want to wear a heavy T-shirt for warmth and sun protection. Or try one of the new lycra "skins" (with vest, gloves, booties). Rubber-soled booties fit in fins to protect feet from coral and sharp rocks. Beginning snorkelers and weak swimmers should wear flotation vests or belts (provided on snorkel tours). And bring waterproof sunblock!

Four ways to go: snorkel, skin-dive, scuba-dive, or--are you ready?--snuba

Snorkeling. All you need are a mask (silicone is more comfortable than rubber; find one that makes an airtight seal when you inhale), a snorkel (pick one with a comfortable mouthpiece), and fins (not too tight). You simply float face-down and breathe--slowly, like Darth Vader, to pull fresh air into the snorkel, and avoid inhaling water that might splash into it. Some resorts offer free lessons. Snorkel boats routinely offer instruction ($25 to $35). But most people try it on their own. Each year a few snorkelers drown because they panic when snorkels or masks fill with water. Stay in shallow water until you've mastered use of your gear.

Skin diving. A snorkeler views marine life while floating atop the water. When you take a deep breath and kick down for a closer look at what's below, it's called skin diving. (You can't do this while wearing an inflated vest.)

Scuba diving. The most sophisticated way to explore underwater is to carry a tank of compressed air on your back, connected to your mouth via a regulator. You don't have to be a great swimmer. But breathing compressed air introduces physiological and equipment complexities that require training. Scuba divers must be certified by passing written and practical tests proving competence in water. An exception is the "introductory" or "resort" dive, for which no prior experience is needed. You learn how to clear a mask, use a regulator, and manage a heavy tank (with your vest properly inflated, you're weightless in the water--but awkward as an elephant seal on ground). Then you try a shallow (no more than 30-foot) dive. Most resorts and dive shops offer this for $50 to $120. To get certified for diving, three- to five-day courses cost $175 to $500, including equipment rental. For certified divers, the most popular Hawaii packages are half-day boat dives (about $65 to $90, including two tanks of air). Some focus on certain interests, such as turtles, wrecks, caverns, or colorful fish. Ask how much attention you'll get (beginners need more), how deep you'll dive, and how much experience your guide's had (veterans often know more about local marine life).

Snorkel-scuba. A hybrid of snorkeling and scuba diving came to the Islands in 1988. Marketed as "snuba" or "scorkeling," it allows you to explore underwater with an air source but without gear to carry. A 20-foot air line links you and a buddy to an air tank on a raft above you. No prior experience is needed. Supervised tours, which cost about $50 per person, are offered on all four main islands.

Boat tours. Boats go to the sites with the calmest, clearest snorkel or dive conditions on any given day. Most of the best diving and some of the best snorkeling is accessible only by boat. All operators must be insured, and Island dive experts assured us they are qualified. Still, you may wish to ask for a reference for an operator from a dive store near your home; or inquire at your hotel's activity desk (but remember that they get commissions for recommendations); or interview several from the listings in the yellow pages (look under Boats, Divers, Skin or Scuba Divers, Snorkeling). Boats carry 6 to 150, and range from inflatables and Boston whalers to catamarans and large steel-hulled party boats. Before choosing an operator, ask about the size of the group, how long you can be in the water, what you're likely to see, and the student-teacher ratio. If you're new to the sport and need a lot of personal attention, say so. Smaller boats tend to offer more of that, larger ones more amenities (toilets, shade).

A word to the wise and wary

Serious injuries are rare on guided outings. More at risk are novice snorkelers unaware of local current, weather, and wave conditions. Hawaii's waves and currents generally carry more power than Mainland waters. Basic rules: never snorkel or dive alone, and never enter unfamiliar water without consulting a local dive store or lifeguard for conditions that day. If the water is turbulent, or if you don't see anyone else snorkeling, don't go in. Even if the surface is calm, there may be rip currents you can't see. None of Hawaii's marine animals is normally aggressive. But coral and lava can cut (see a doctor at any sign of infection); eels will bite if threatened; and the spines of sea urchins, the darts of cone shells, and the stings of a Portuguese man-of-war are all painful. It's best not to handle anything you're not familiar with. What about sharks? In the past 10 years, some 23 shark "incidents" were documented throughout the Hawaiian islands. In the seven fatal cases, the victims probably drowned before sharks arrived. Most incidents involve tiger sharks; a great white shark attack hasn't been confirmed here since the 1960s. What if you see a shark? Experts advise that you just stay calm, keep your eye on it, and move gently (no thrashing around) back to boat or shore.

Respecting and protecting marine life

The growing popularity of underwater exploration has raised new environmental issues.

Overfishing. Concerned about signs of overfishing on many reefs, the state is asking for more wardens to enforce fishing codes. Within the next decade, it hopes to create more underwater preserves, places where fishing is restricted and nothing may be taken. (Existing preserves are marked with an asterisk on map.)

Reef damage. Local corals grow slowly; it takes a century for a reef to recover from heavy damage. But fragile reefs are suffering damage from many sources including the anchors of dive and snorkel boats at popular sites (such as Molokini Crater, off Maui)--as well as from divers and snorkelers who unwittingly step on coral heads, or break them off as souvenirs. To curb anchor damage, dive operators, in cooperation with state agencies, are installing mooring buoys at much-used sites. And last year the state passed a law making it illegal to take or harm coral.

Harassing marine life. The temptation for divers in a boat to chase a pod of dolphins in order to swim with them is almost overwhelming, as is the urge to touch or even ride a green sea turtle. But federal law protects dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and monk seals from harassment--described by Gene Nitta of the National Marine Fisheries Services as "causing an animal to change its course or leave its location." Chasing, touching, or riding violates federal law. Authorities will prosecute and fine.

Fish feeding. Many divers and snorkelers are tempted to feed the fish--bringing a mass of them into close range. Professionals disagree on whether or not this is harmful. No laws forbid it, and fish food is sold at dive stores and some popular snorkeling sites. Critics note that divers can be injured if the food bonanza attracts bigger prey, that feeding upsets marine life's natural behavior patterns, and that feeding makes tame fish more vulnerable to anglers. Best source for staying in touch with these and related Hawaii underwater issues is The Ocean Recreation Council of Hawaii (TORCH), Box 1809, Kailua 96734. Membership with quarterly newsletter costs $25.

The opportunities, island by island

We interviewed Hawaii marine biologists and dive operators to come up with a list of near-shore snorkeling sites that, conditions permitting, are safe and rewarding for beginners and intermediates. Nine of the sites listed offer on-site gear rental or food concession. When you're ready to go, get a local update. Unless noted, all telephone numbers are area code 808.

Kauai: rewarding but challenging waters

Oldest and northernmost of the populated islands, Kauai has rougher, less predictable weather, and often murky water. Its north shore may be one of the most Its north shore may be one of the most underrated dive spots in the islands, with topography reminiscent of Micronesia's. But winter winds and huge waves make this area accessible only between about June and October. Off the south shore, you can explore underwater on calm days year-round. And ancient reefs create a half-dozen sites, within brief boat trips of south-shore harbours and resorts, that are good much of the year. Rent gear, arrange lessons, and check local conditions at dive shops in the Koloa-Poipu area or in Kapaa. For the very experienced, waters off Niihau, a rugged 18-mile boat ride, offer maybe the Island's most pristine diving--and home for the endangered monk seal. 1. Tunnels Beach is safe mainly in summer. Green jagged cliffs provide a dramatic setting for snorkeling near shore (where there's a vivid assortment of reef fish), before the bottom drops abruptly into an underwater canyon. Beginners should hug the shoreline; try in front of the white house. Watch out for boats. "Scorkeling" tours run in summer ($49); 826-9069. From Hanalei, take State 560 west 6 miles (1 mile beyond Charo's restaurant), then turn right on a sandy road, park, and ford a stream to the beach. 2. Ke'e. The small beach (setting for The Thorn Birds), with gently sloping sandy bottom, is calm, protected, excellent for beginners--but advisable in summer only. Stay inside the protected lagoon, and beware dangerous high surf. Rest rooms, showers. It's in Haena State Park, at the end of State 560. 3. Beach House Beach. This excellent novice site offers the best snorkeling along protected shallow, rocky spots nearest Beach House Restaurant. From Koloa, go south 2 miles on State 530, then west (right) about 1/2 mile on the road to Spouting Horn. "Scorkeling" tours ($49); 742-9912. 4. Poipu Beach Park, a popular cove that's excellent for first-timers, adjoins resorts with equipment rentals, snorkel tours, food. Enter the water to the right of the point jutting into the sea. Coral is reviving here after the 1982 hurricane. You'll see lots of tame reef fishes. From Poipu Road, turn right on Hoowili Road to the park, which also has a lifeguard, showers, rest rooms, picnic tables. "Scorkeling." See listings 1 and 3.

Boats. Dive and snorkel boat trips depart from Port Allen and Kukuiula Harbor. From Hanalei Bay, a handful of northshore boat excursion companies include snorkeling (beginners welcome; instruction included) as part of 2- to 6-hour tours of the Na Pali Coast. Winter through spring, whale-watching cruises from Nawiliwili include snorkeling.

Oahu: a good place for beginners

Snorkeling and beginner dives usually occur along the north shore in summer, the south shore in winter. Ten popular dive sites surround the island; some have volcanic caverns, others artificial reefs of sunken ships and airplanes. The island is best known for Hanauma Bay State Underwater Park (7 on map), swimmable all year, which has been mobbed by up to 10,000 visitors a day. Buses serve nearly every beach on Oahu; for a schedule, call 531-1611. (Take bus 22 to Hanauma.) 5. Pupukea Beach Park. Three Tables and Shark's Cove, located on either side of a fire station, are both popular summer snorkeling and scuba diving sites. Shark's Cove is known for its underwater landscape of lava pinnacles and a network of caverns. Water near shore is 15 to 30 feet deep. Rest rooms, showers. From Haleiwa, drive 6 miles northeast on Kamehameha Highway (State 83). 6. Waikiki Marine Life Conservation District, Hawaii's newest underwater preserve (1988), is starting to attract more marine life. At the Diamond Head end of Waikiki, it extends for 1/2 mile from end of Kapahulu Avenue south to the War Memorial Natatorium. Enter from steps near the Natatorium, or from Queen's Surf Beach in front of the pavilion. Waters can be choppy and murky in summer. 7. Hanauma Bay State Underwater Park has a palm-lined sandy beach bordering a breached crater in a circular bay whose reefs, once overfished, now astonish visitors with the variety and numbers of fish they support. At our press time, officials were considering ways to modify visitor access and thus better preserve the area. Fish feeding may be banned, or limited to authorized food (no more bread, peas, processed cheese, chocolate cake). Rest rooms, snorkel-gear and food concessions. The park is 9 miles east of Waikiki on State 72.

Snuba. Join Snuba of Oahu (922-7762) at Waikiki Beach, Hanauma Bay, and elsewhere.

Boats. Popular snorkel cruise destinations inaccessible by land include Rainbow Reef near Diamond Head, and Kaneohe Bay. Departures to those and other sites are mainly from Koko Marina, Kewalo Basin, Keehi Marine Center, Waianae, Haleiwa and Heeia Kea boat harbors. North Bay Boat Club near Heeia Kea offers the only kayak and motorboat rentals to transport yourself 2 miles over water to the reef; 239-5711.

Maui: the most boat options

Most year-round beach snorkeling is along the west coast. Maui is Hawaii's dive- and snorkel-boat capital, with at least 50 boats a day heading to off-island destinations, including underwater preserves at Molokini Crater and Lanai. A 30-minute ride from Kihei or a 1 1/2-hour trip from Lahaina, Molokini features clear water and swarms of tame milletseed butterflyfish. Lanai has miles of the richest and best reefs around, visited by green sea turtles. January through March, you're almost certain to see whales on your crossing. 8. Honolua-Mokuleia Bay Marine Life Conservation District. Two bays offer good summer snorkeling. Northermost is Honolua, with magnificent coral growth, lots of butterflyfish, and other reef fishes; a 1/4-mile trail leads from the clifftop to the water. Mokuleia (locals call it Slaughterhouse Beach) is 1/2 mile south; a steep 200-yard trail to the bay begins at sign. At both, the best snorkeling is along the sides of bay. One popular snorkel tour is along the rocks and reef on the west side of Honolua Bay, rounding the rocky point, with a rest on Mokuleia Beach before returning. 9. Kapalua Bay is small and protected--another good place for beginners, with a fair variety of coral, wrasses, triggerfish, surgeonfish. Kapalua Bay Hotel has a beach shack renting snorkel gear. 10. Black Rock at Kaanapali Beach, in front of the Sheraton Maui Hotel, was a favorite diving spot for ancient Hawaiian royalty, and now swarms with snorkelers and introductory and night divers. It's mostly lava, with some coral, and a fairly steep drop to about 40 feet. Snorkel and dive gear rentals. Park at Whalers Village in Kaanapali. 11. Olowalu, between mile markers 14 and 15 on State 30 (6 miles south of Lahaina), has a large reef parallel to shore. The inner reef is shallow, the water often murky but usually gentle enough for children. The outer reef, 50 to 100 yards from shore, has many fishes, large coral heads, turtles. Lots of Hawaiian families come here weekends. You can get a hot lunch (but no rentals) at Olowalu Market (marker 15). 12. Ulua Beach is fine for snorkeling and introductory dives. You can park in a lot at Wailea, between Stouffer Wailea Beach Hotel and Maui Inter-Continental Wailea (shoreline access marker 107). Enter water from the sand, and swim where the rocks are, in 3- to 20-foot water. You may see foot-long puffer fish, schools of goatfish, reef fish, shrimp (look under ledges). Rentals; $25 reef tours daily at 10 for snorkelers; 879-9969 or 879-1558.

Snorkel. Snorkel Maui: author and marine biologist Ann Fielding leads groups of 2 to 8 of any experience level on half-day shoreline outings ($35); 572-8437.

Snuba. From Lahaina, Captain Nemo's (667-5555) offers beach dives; Hawaiian Reef Divers (667-7647) has afternoon boat trips; Four Wind Catamaran (879-8188) goes to Molokini Crater. Also, call Snuba of Hawaii (874-1001).

Boats. About 60 percent of the boats depart from Lahaina Harbor, 30 percent from Maalaea, and a dozen, usually "sixpack" powerboats, from Kihei. The rest depart from Kaanapali Beach resorts. Sign up through dive stores or resort activity desks.

Hawaii: dramatic volcanic topography

Known for its rugged coastline and steep drops, the Big Island offers dramatic diving, primarily along its 85-mile western coastline, which is strewn with lava flows, submerged caves, coral reefs, and more than 40 regularly used diving sites. Most of this exposure is sheltered from the trade winds by Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes; the coast is nearly all lava, so there's little soil runoff to muddy visibility. However, there's little protection from the southerly Kona winds, and there are few sandy beaches. The northern Kohala coast is likely to be sunny all day, while south from Kailua-Kona, in the rain shadow of the volcanoes, afternoons can cloud up. Either direction, beach diving will be best in the mornings before water gets choppy. Much of the island's best snorkeling--including Kealakekua Bay State Underwater Park--is accessible only by boat. Near the site where Captain James Cook was killed in 1779, the park is filled with spectacular coral and marine life. 13. Lapakahi State Historical Park. A restored 600-year-old fishing village gives visitors an idea how Hawaiians once lived along this remote shore. At the foot of the village, a rocky shoreline leads to nearshore waters with excellent clarity and diverse marine life; water is safer in summer. Some say its variety of corals rivals Kealakekua Bay's. Never venture beyond Koaie Cove; currents are dangerous. On Highway 270, 12.1 miles north of Kawaihae. 14. Spencer Beach Park and 15. Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area have white-sand beaches with pleasant snorkeling by lava outcrops (south at Spencer, north at Hapuna). Both are off State 19, 1 and 3 miles south of Kawaihae, respectively. Both have rest rooms. Hapuna has showers, cabins, and lawns with coconut trees; its waters are dangerous in high surf. 16. Anaehoomalu Bay has a good beginners' area--a large, calm pocket of coral off a grand crescent of white-sand beach. Aerial photographs at the Ocean Sports beach shack can help you locate best coral heads, 1/2 mile from shore (water is still only 10 feet deep). Rent snorkel gear, rafts, even wave skis for paddling out to better coral. To reserve for snuba, call Ocean Sports at 885-5555. On State 19 about 25 miles north of Kailua-Kona, follow signs to the Royal Waikoloan. Enter south of the hotel. 17. Kahaluu Beach Park, a popular family area, has rest rooms, showers, picnic pavilions, and snorkel-gear and snack concessions. Snuba Big Island can equip you for snuba (326-5444). Protected by a fringing reef, fish here are numerous and tame; turtles are seen. Beginners should stay at the south end of the park. The outer edge of the bowl has better corals and fish, but sometimes a dangerous rip current. Go 5 miles south of town on Alii Drive. 18. Honaunau Bay, just north of Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park (Place of Refuge), has magnificent snorkeling when waters aren't surging. A spectacular underwater garden immediately offshore from the public boat ramp is home to diverse marine life. Different corals abound with fish in 3- to 10-foot waters. Note that the beach in front of the park, historically a place of refuge and grounds of a royal residence, is considered sacred; do not enter the water from there. From Kailua-Kona, drive about 21 miles south on State 11 (Mamalohoa Highway), then right (west) on State 160 about 3 miles. The road immediately north of the park leads to the boat-ramp access. 19. Richardson Ocean Center, in Leleiwi Beach Park, offers the best snorkeling near Hilo. In the bay's northeastern corner, near an interpretive center, many fish and other marine creatures inhabit the shallow water. The park is 5 miles east of Hilo on Kalanianaole Street.

Snuba. See listings 16 and 17.

Boats. Many boats head to Kealakekua and elsewhere in early morning (7 or 8) from Kailua-Kona, or 6 miles south, from Keauhou pier. Other boats operate daily from Kohala coast resorts to the north.

"Live-aboard" boats. For a "live-aboard" diving vacation, write or call Live Dive Hawaii, Box 2097, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii 96745; (800) 344-5662. A luxurious, 110-foot, 14-passenger cruiser offers private baths, a hot tub, video entertainment, catered meals. Cost is $1,595 a week. Another outfit, Sun Seeker, runs a 53-foot yacht for up to six passengers; cost is $250 per person per night (two-night minimum); Box 2442, Kailua-Kona 96745; 322-6774.

PHOTO : It's four steps into ocean world off Waikiki. Boats take snorkelers and divers to explore

PHOTO : best areas

PHOTO : In shallows, youngster masters the use of snorkel and mask

PHOTO : Visions of lemon-colored butterflyfish fill diver's mask. More than 20 species of this

PHOTO : fish abound in Hawaii's waters

PHOTO : Powerful flippers propel sea turtle past scuba

PHOTO : diver off Big Island's northwest shore (any quick motion by diver would have spooked him);

PHOTO : touching the creature is illegal

PHOTO : Pool is scuba classroom at Maui's Plantation Inn. Students learn to breathe through a

PHOTO : regulator and clear any water out of both mask and regulator

PHOTO : Snuba group gets started on sandy shore of Oahu's Hanauma Bay (7 on map). Inflatable rafts

PHOTO : will carry air tanks, freeing divers to swim unencumbered

PHOTO : Rent gear to suit any ambition from beach shack at Maui's Black Rock (10 on map). Options

PHOTO : range from rafts with viewing windows to scuba gear

PHOTO : Boat from Maui transports scuba divers to Molokini Crater, famous for its vivid colonies

PHOTO : of butterflyfish

PHOTO : Overcrowding by sun worshipers may cause officials to impose limits, new this spring, on

PHOTO : Oahu's Hanauma Bay

PHOTO : In shallow water, snorkelers at Kahaluu Beach Park (17) photograph fish

An Underwater Guide to Hawaii, by Ann Fielding and Ed Robinson (University of Hawaii Press, 1987; $15), is a good primer to Hawaii's underwater life.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on snorkeler's gallery: creatures you're likely to see in Hawaiian waters
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Date:Apr 1, 1990
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