Hawaiian Rapture

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.