|Lava from Kilauea Volcano flows into the sea, creating new land--and an underwater playground for divers.|
It took 15 minutes to stroll from tropical paradise to hellfire and brimstone. Less than a mile from a paved road, I was standing at the edge of creation, with boots planted on land that did not exist a month earlier. The black lava around me was crusted with brilliant yellow crystals of sulfur condensed from the foul-smelling belches of Pele, the fire goddess. Before my widened eyes, a spigot of red-orange lava pumped out of the open mouth of a lava tube directly into the Pacific Ocean below.
Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii Island, billed as the world's only drive-through volcano, is the only place on earth where you can, on most days, take a short hike and see the earth being turned inside out, with liquid rock flowing on the surface--sometimes so close to the trail that visitors roast marshmallows over the hot lava. Hawaii is also the only place where you can snorkel a coral reef in the morning, relax afterward in a natural volcanic hot bath, then go snowboarding in the afternoon.
Many divers think of Hawaii as a romantic vacation spot with great scenery, where diving is an afterthought. But Hawaii's underwater environment is as interesting as anything on land and offers many experiences that can be found nowhere else in the world. Here are seven underwater experiences that are rare nearly everywhere in the world except Hawaii.
1) Lava Formations
A rapidly moving lava flow cools and hardens at the surface, but continues to flow on the inside. When the flow is interrupted, the lava drains out, leaving a hollow tube. Over time, portions of the ceiling may collapse, leaving open skylights, or sometimes reducing the tube to an arch or series of arches.
There are other diveable volcanic islands in the world, but only Hawaii offers an underwater playground with such a great variety of volcanic structures. Around nearly every part of every island you can find soaring arches, mysterious caverns and tunnels. These formations often house unique collections of creatures of darkness that are found elsewhere only at night or not at all. There are several full-blown volcanic craters that are completely or partly under water.
Au Au Canyon, on the Big Island, is a nearly complete volcanic crater that lies entirely under water. It's easy to traverse the caldera during a dive, and often the water is so clear that you can see most of the rim from the surface. "Pukas"--holes in the steep crater walls--provide ideal habitat for critters, including the outrageous giant hairy yellow hermit crab.
Hanauma Bay is a volcanic crater on the coast of Oahu. A section of the outer wall has collapsed and opened to the sea, creating a lagoon that is perfect for coral growth and snorkeling. Protected as a marine park since 1967, it houses a dense assemblage of fearless tropicals. A fish population study found that the greatest biomass belongs to the spectacled parrotfish, a stunningly beautiful, psychedelically patterned fish found only in Hawaiian waters.
|Cage snorkeling with Galapagos sharks off Oahu.|
Molokini Crater, just off Maui, has one side of its rim jutting into the air, while the other rim has crumbled away, giving dive boats easy access to the interior. The "back side" of Molokini is one of the world's premier wall dives, with the outside wall dropping from 200 feet above sea level to 200 feet beneath water that is so clear you can sometimes see nearly all the way to the bottom. The inside of Molokini is one of the world's great shallow reef dives.
Lehua Rock, just off of the "Forbidden Island" of Niihau, beyond Kauai, is built like a miniature Molokini--one side of the crater above water and one side below. The diving around Lehua features several pinnacles and a sheer wall with a "keyhole" passageway. Lehua Rock is the only place in the world where sport divers have an excellent chance of encountering the Hawaiian monk seal, a highly endangered species found only in Hawaii.
Lava tubes and arches are common off the coast of every Hawaiian island. One part of the Kona Coast is known as Golden Arches for the numerous arches lined on the underside with orange cup corals. The cup corals usually open at night, but I once dived an arch on Kauai where the cup corals were extended by day, creating a golden floral portico that framed a school of brilliant yellow blue-lined snappers.
A number of lava tubes extend right up to the shoreline, or even continue underneath it. At Honaunau on the Big Island, The Crack ends in a skylight opening onshore, 40 yards from the water's edge. Divers can walk right to the opening, step down to a natural rock bench to gear up, slip into the water and swim out to the ocean through a tunnel illuminated by skylights.
Large lava tubes are often called caves, but most are really caverns, because light from the entrance is always visible. Oahu has The Cave, while the Big Island has Three Caves, and Maui has Five Caves, where turtles and sharks (reef whitetips) can often be found sleeping together. The Caverns on Kauai has more chambers than I could count, many of them with sleeping turtles. The Cathedral on Lanai is a similar multichambered complex.
2) Turtle Cleaning Stations
Green sea turtles are not restricted to Hawaii, but only in Hawaii can you sign up for a dive at a cleaning station where you can see turtles cloaked in living robes of yellow tang, and striped and gold-ring surgeonfish eagerly grazing on algae on the turtles' shells. "Turtle towns" are everywhere in the Hawaiian Islands, including such popular sites as Hale o' Honu on Kauai, Ahihi Bay on Maui, Turtle Canyon and Turtle Street on Oahu, and Turtle Towers on the Big Island.
3) Manta Night Dives
Manta rays occur worldwide, but only in Hawaii are there regularly scheduled night dives where mantas do feeding loops right over the heads of the divers. There are several locations on the Big Island where lights are used at night to attract the plankton that attracts mantas, the most popular being Keauhou Bay and Garden Eel Cove. The number of mantas varies greatly. During the summer of 2002, it was not unusual to find 20 or more mantas present at once. Kona Village Resort has a shoreside manta feeding station where guests don't even have to get wet to watch the graceful rays suck up plankton.
|Arches, tubes, tunnels and caverns formed by hardended lava can be found in the waters surrounding each of Hawaii's islands.|
4) Blue-Water Plankton Dives
Nearly 20 years ago, former Hawaii resident Christopher Newbert stunned the diving community with the release of the sumptuous coffee table book Within a Rainbowed Sea, which features images of bizarre planktonic creatures that rise to the surface waters around Hawaii at night. Most readers assume that these organisms are rare, but in fact many of them can be seen in Hawaii's offshore waters almost every night. Blue-water night dives are now available by request with several of the dive operations in Kona.
5) Shark Cage Snorkeling
Galapagos sharks and sandbar sharks are found in warm waters around the world, but only on the island of Oahu is there an operation that takes visitors out to snorkel with them from the safety of a cage. A 10-minute boat ride from Haleiwa Harbor gets you to a spot in clear blue offshore water where the sharks typically show up in a matter of minutes.
6) Endemic Species
On every dive in Hawaii, you are virtually guaranteed to see something that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world, because about one-fifth of Hawaii's marine invertebrates and a quarter of its fish are endemic species that occur only in the Hawaiian Islands. Some of these inhabit deep water, but there are at least 100 species of fish at diving depths. Some are quite common here, such as the beautiful yellow milletseed butterflyfish that often surround divers at popular sites.
7) Whale Songs
As a winter bonus, divers who visit from January to March are serenaded on almost every dive by the haunting songs of humpback whales. The whales sometimes also provide entertainment during the surface interval by breaching and cavorting. It doesn't get much better--anywhere.