I can't wipe the grin from my face. I've got a death grip on the seat handles of a 30-foot rigid inflatable boat, specially built for U.S. Navy Seals, as we're busting through huge ocean swells and taking air at 40 knots, rocketing alongside Maui's rugged and remote North Shore. The coastline is a breathtaking scene of dense, verdant jungle tumbling over dramatic seaside cliffs. In fact, our boat captain tells us, what we're seeing was used for the opening shots of the film Jurassic Park.
When we get to the dive site, just before I giant stride into the swell, I notice a sign on the boat's exit gate that gives me pause. It reads: "Abandon hope all ye who exit here."
With its notoriously big waves, Maui's North Shore has been taboo for divers, but heavenly for surfers. Inaccessibility, rough sea conditions and huge ocean swells often breaking into some of the world's biggest waves have conspired to keep divers away. Every year, winds in the North Pacific generate ocean swells that roll for thousands of miles, uncontested, until colliding with the north coasts of the Hawaiian Islands. These swells roll up the uniquely shaped seafloor off Maui's Peahi Point, creating waves that can reach up to 80 feet. The conditions are so potentially treacherous that North Shore Explorers--the only dive operator in this area--outfits divers with a personal locator beacon that, once triggered, transmits the diver's position to a signal receiver on the boat's console. Diving here is not for the meek and is best suited for medium to advanced, physically fit divers.
For those who dare, though, Maui's North Shore represents a new paradigm of frontier adventure diving.
At Puka Maui, we descend as the surge gently rocks us. Rock ledges stepped to over 100 feet with huge boulders are scattered along the substrate. Skittish schools of sergeant majors, surgeonfish and angelfish not used to divers shyly retreat. Swirling schools of butterflyfish scour the bottom, feeding on sergeant major egg nests. Despite the constant pounding from surf and surge, a surprising amount of soft coral and invertebrate life clings to the rock reef. We come across a huge sleeping turtle at a cave entrance that rises up and bolts after spotting us.
Later, we swim up into a ravine undercut with dark chasms and lava tubes, reaching deep into the reef. Massive black coral trees--a rare sight these days in Hawaii--cling to the chasm wall at 40 feet. Farther up the ravine, a massive rock arch rises from the bottom, spanning the ravine. Above us, boiling surge roils over the rocks, creating a spectacular surface scene that looks like a swirl of foaming thunder clouds pinwheeling across a liquid blue sky. Back on the surface, a squall greets us with gusting winds and blowing spray. I can see the boat off in the distance, and I punch the button on my sending unit and watch with relief as the boat heads directly toward us for pickup.
Diving at another site, Critter Cove, so named for the diversity of unusual life found here, is more tranquil. Shortly after dropping in, our guide spots a pair of whiskered boarfish tucked in a crevice. It's a fish endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, but rarely seen in Maui's waters. In fact, our fish ID guide confirms only a handful of sightings. The same crevice reveals another rare endemic--a banded angelfish swimming with the whiskered boarfish. A marine biologist on our boat later tells us there have never been reported sightings of the two species together. Making such discoveries is just one perk of exploratory diving--another is getting the honor of naming new dive sites. "We're discovering new dive sites everyday," says Todd Winn, of North Shore Explorers, "and we let the divers decide what to name the new sites we find."
As we surface, enormous waves are suddenly breaking behind us, sounding like a freight train bearing down hard. Wind-generated spray is blowing off the crests in huge, white roiling plumes. Several more sets of waves roll past us, as we sit awestruck at Mother Nature's power and beauty. "Go Boldly" is the slogan our dive operator uses. And with the chance to discover and name new sites, the encounters with rarely seen animals, the challenge of the roaring waves--and of course, the thrill rides getting to the sites--those two words clearly capture the exciting diving here.
Wailuku, on Maui's North Shore is approximately a 25-mile, 40-minute drive from Lahaina. Go southeast on the Honoapiilani Highway (Route 30), then turn right on Kuikahi Drive, left on Waiale Road, left on Hookahi Street, then left on Alua Street. North Shore Explorers is located at 786 Alua St., in Wailuku.
Peak diving on Maui's North Shore is from March to October, when ocean swells are minimal and visibility can exceed 150 feet. In other months, ocean swells and river runoff can cause visibility to drop to as low as 40 feet. Water temperatures range from 72 to 76 degrees.
northshoreexplorers.com, or call (808) 757-0011 for more information.North Shore Explorers is currently the only dive outfit operating from Maui's North Shore. Visit