A tropical escape where dive tanks are as requisite an adornment as leis, what keeps divers flocking to the Big Island is its five marine-life-conservation districts — twice as many as any other Hawaiian Island. Most of the action happens on the lee side, Kona, known for some of the best conditions in the world, with visibility (averaging 50 to 100 feet) and diversity (more than 650 species, 35 percent of which are endemic) to match.
Hit the Big Island January through March, when pods of humpbacks congregate to give birth off the verdant shores. Their song is an otherworldly tune that will haunt you as you move along the lush reefs.
In addition to its mind-blowing ocean offerings, the island has a laid-back, dive-oriented vibe that permeates the social fabric. A host of waterside hotels cater to divers, including Kona Village Resort, which now sports a new boat and a school of underwater scooters to keep up with the action. If you want to be taken for a local, forego chemical mask defoggers and instead simply pluck a leaf of the naupaka plant, a low-lying coastal shrub. Gently crush it and rub it inside your mask and voila, an organic mask-defogger. After climbing back on land, boat captains and divemasters hit Harbor House at Honokohau, where they knock back a few icy-cold Kona brews, chow down on fresh ahi poke and swap tales. And to sate the hunger only a thrilling dive can generate, islanders flock to the fresh seafood and live music at the new Blue Dragon, “like the name of one of our favorite nudibranchs,” notes Rebekah Kaufmann, co-owner of Kohala Divers.
Big Island diving is so ubiquitous that even the night life is found underwater. In addition to the best evening ticket in town — the manta-ray night dive, where these enormous creatures bend and float in an elaborate dance — divers are all about Pelagic Magic. The Big Island is the only one in the chain (and one of only a handful of places in the world) where you can drive a boat just 20 minutes from shore before jumping into 9,000-foot-deep pitch-black waters as hundreds of deep-water rising organisms light up like Christmas trees in shades of electric pink, purple and blue. “Pelagic is still what I dream about,” sighs Matthew D’Avella of Jacks Diving Locker, who has thousands of dives under his weight belt. “I guess that wouldn’t make my wife very happy.” — Nicole Alper
Need to Know
Travel Tip: Hawaii can be expensive in the high season. A more affordable option for divers is a vacation rental in the Puako and Kohala area (visit www.vrbo.com/vacation-rentals/usa/hawaii).
When to Go: The Big Island is a year-round destination; for a chance to hear humpback whales while diving, visit December to April. January and February can be a bit rough on the West Side (Kohala Coast to Kona).
Getting There: United Airlines operates the most daily flights to Kona International Airport (KOA). Check with your carrier to see if they charge extra baggage fees, or rent gear when you get to the Big Island. Hiring a rental car is the best way to get around.
Dive Conditions: Water temperatures are generally in the mid-70s, with visibility ranging from 75 to 150 feet (clearer in the winter months).
Price Tag: The newly refurbished Mauna Kea Beach Hotel (www.maunakearesort.com) is offering a free-night promotion through Dec. 22. Rooms start at $360 per night based on a five-night stay, and it’s only a 15-minute drive from Kohala Divers. A more budget-friendly option is the newly refurbished King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel (from $179 per night, www.konabeachhotel.com) with great shore diving. The manta-ray dive with Kona Honu Divers is $95; daily two-tank dive with Kohala Divers is $129.