I’m floating in a blue void, 18 metres (60 feet) below the surfaceof the sea. Behind me, divers are busy exploring the expansive coral reef. But I am hanging silently, breathing lightly and intently listening. The songs of whales have me captivated. I can hear their deep grunts and plaintive moans. I listen here for a half-hour. I can hear the changes in the songs and calls. I look into the blue hoping a humpback will swim into view. They sound so close but they are probably miles away. This is a special ocean occurrence and I savour this dive and the moment.
It’s because of the whales that I am here at this time and at this destination. The district of Kona, on Hawaii’s Big Island, is home to the world’s largest known population of migrating and mating humpback whales for about four months every year. We had already seen a lot of surface action with whales coming very near to our Kona Aggressor yacht. The whales performed tail lobs, pectoral slaps and we even saw some spectacular breaches. When that many tonnes of marine mammal launches itself completely out of the sea, it is just a jaw-dropping experience. But I was about to learn that there is much more to this astounding region than humpbacks.
Hawaii’s Big Island, with snow at thetop of its highest peaks and warm waters in deep blue bays, is the largest and most volcanically active island in the state. Above the surface, the lava fields of this relatively young island can be seen easily from offshore. Rivers of molten lava have hardened into expansive black fields that run down the island’s many slopes and into the clear, blue sea.
The Big Island’s volcanic terrain continues under the sea where molten lava cools its steamy torrents in the tropical seawater. This geographic activty has created a diver’s wonderland. Lava tubes, huge coral heads, arches and vast craters, like the well-known Au Au Crater, create spectacular backdrops for underwater photography.
These waters hold many indigenous fish species, and a good part of the challenge and fun in Kona diving is to identify and digitally capture these critters. There are butterflyfishes and wrasses that are unique to Hawaii. Underwater photographers will also want to seek out less mobile subjects like Spanish dancers, leaffish and frogfish, or capture a postcard-quality image of sea turtles being cleaned by yellow tangs.
The standard Kona Aggressor II scuba itinerary is Saturday-to-Saturday with five and a half days of diving. One nice spot that we visited at the start of our trip was Rob’s Reef, where we saw, among many other things, dragon wrasse, gold-laced nudibranchs, numerous species of moray eels and a red-spotted sand perch. The next day we visited further south to the Maze, where a previously unknown yellow frogfish was discovered. But it was the afternoon that would turn out to be one of the trip’s highlights.
Manuka Bay was to be our afternoon dive site, which sits off a rocky lava flow and a nice state park beach, in the lee of the prevailing swell. Here, we found calm enjoyable conditions, but we weren’t the only mammals seeking shelter. A group of about 120 spinner dolphins joined us in the bay! Spinners are known – more so than most any other dolphin – for their aquabatic jumps from the sea. They leap, spin, twist, turn, and flip in mid-air. This large group of dolphins did not disappoint. They played until the sun went down and also swooped by in amorous schools to the delight of snorkellers.
For those of us who did don a tank, Manuka produced its usual fare of critters, including large red frogfish, a lazy spotted eagle ray that gave everyone a chance to see it up close, Latin snapping shrimp, an octopus and various eel species, including a stunning dragon moray eel.
For marine mammal-lovers, there is more to experience here than just Manuka Bay however. There are other dolphin snorkeling operations on Kona that can be fun and produce nice interactions with spinners and other species. The undersea topography of Kona also has a series of deep shelves that attract various whale and dolphin species, as well as rays and whale sharks.
In short, the Big Island is one of the best pelagic venues in the world. Seeing the dive sites of Kona by live-aboard affords the opportunity to get away from the sites near town to some pretty remote spots. For day trips, fast boats, like the one Wild Hawaii uses, are ideal for observing marine mammals far out to sea and getting to their habitat quickly. The beauty of diving here is the ease of photography and reef viewing, and the water is usually extremely clear. Kona is often explored during daytime dives but there are actually two night dives for which the area is most famous.
Kona After Dark
One of the region’s most well-known and bizarre dives is called Pelagic Magic. Your dive boat will take you far offshore for this one, where divers drift with the current. Artificial light illuminates some strange and amazing planktonic critters that are attracted to the glow. But these lights also bring larger marine life closer to shore, for a second dive that should not be missed.
Being the main tourist town in the area, much local development has taken place on old shoreline lava flows in Kona. For years, a hotel that was perched on the water’s edge had lights shining into the sea at night. About 20 years ago, Keller Laros (a.k.a. Manta Man) noticed that the lights attracted plankton, the favourite food of manta rays. He investigated further and soon realised that, sure enough, the mantas were feeding here at after dark, making for a truly amazing night dive.
The experience has progressed into something akin to an underwater rock concert, with the possibility for two dives – one in late afternoon and one at night. I went out with Keller, a charismatic advocate for manta protection and research, who is also one of the owners of Jack’s Diving Locker. First, divers explore the reef as the sun begins to fade, coming up from the dive to view a beautiful Hawaiian sunset. Divers and snorkellers then start to show up in big numbers. With plankton-attracting lights in hand, they descend into darkness. It is then the night life comes alive.
Huge manta rays, in numbers that range from 2 to 30, glide in from the darkness to feed. It’s an undersea lightshow as snorkellers shine their torches from above, while down below, the flashes from cameras sporadically illuminate huge rays as they gobble mouthfuls of plankton, just inches from divers. It is just wild.
But all is not well in the world of the mantas. Currently, thousands of manta rays are being slaughtered to supply a market for dried gill plates (or gill rakers) in Asia. Laros has established a foundation to help protect the world’s mantas. These night dives create funding to save mantas through education and are one of the Pacific’s most amazing sights.
At night, Kona is fun. It is full of eateries and rockin’ bars. The climate is normally very pleasant and shopping provides the finest in souvenirs from the ubiquitous T-shirt to some extremely nice marine art, like that featured in the Wyland Gallery. Overall, divers should love a visit to Kona. From whales to mantas, to eels and frogfish, the whole spectrum can be found here in the volcanic land of Aloha.
Taken from SDAA Issue 03/2012