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Divers Guide to Hawaii

By Brooke Morton | Updated On May 14, 2019
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Divers Guide to Hawaii

hawaii green sea turtle

Green sea turtles are encountered throughout the ­islands on nearly every dive.

Shane Myers Photography/

Good to Know

Language: Officially, both English and Hawaiian

Currency: U.S. dollar

Signature Dish: Poke, aka diced raw fish, typically tuna, with onions, soy sauce and sea salt. It’s commonly served with rice and seaweed salad.

Signature Topside Activity: Hike Haleakala Crater on Maui in time to watch the sunrise. Do make a reservation because the national park limits the number of vehicles entering the park daily from 3 to 7 a.m.

Main Airport: Each of Hawaii’s seven main islands has its own airport. The Big Island is serviced by KOA, aka Kona International Airport at Keahole; Maui by OGG, or Kahului Airport; and Oahu by HNL, aka the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.

Water Temp/Visibility: The Pacific is generally a few degrees cooler than the Caribbean. Average water temperatures here are 71-74 degrees in winter, and 75-79 degrees in summer. Visibility is typically 60 feet or greater.

Travel Tip: Score the cheapest flights to Hawaii by traveling in January and February.

Between the craters and caverns, reefs and cleaning stations, manta night dives and black-water thrills, Hawaii delivers enough excitement for everyone, from snorkelers to advanced divers. Start with the 1,200 miles of coral reefs encircling the Hawaiian Islands. Then consider how progressive the state is in protecting marine resources, including a ban on all sunblocks that endanger reefs and legislation that protects turtles and sharks. Finally, add in the state’s aloha spirit, and you will understand why Hawaii earned the No. 1 ranking for best overall dive destination in the Pacific, Indian Ocean and Red Sea region.


Under Any Conditions

Dramatic physical forces shaped — and continue to shape — the islands that make up America’s 50th state. Take Hawaii Island, aka the Big Island.

“The Kona coast is sheltered by three large mountains, with two just shy of 14,000 feet and the third above 10,000 feet, so the topography lends itself to creating nearly perfect weather year-round on the southern coast, where we’re located,” says Teri Leicher, of Jack’s Diving Locker.


Spirit Animal

Hawaiians believe that green sea turtles, known locally as honu, are not just sightings that bring good luck, but also the physical manifestation of ancestors passed. Protected by federal and state laws, green sea turtles are everywhere. You don’t even need to get in the water for an encounter; simply walk any of the quieter beaches, especially those with wide swaths of cooled black lava, which the turtles prefer for sunbathing. Top beaches for sightings include Laniakea Beach on Oahu’s North Shore, Maluaka Beach on Maui and Kiholo Bay on the Big Island.


Working All the Anglers

“We do have a lot of frogfish — so many I forget about them because they’re just such a normal thing,” says Chrissy Bogdanovitch, a dive instructor with Jack’s Diving Locker.

She says that divers will find frogfish reliably on a number of Kona sites.

The three species they’ll see are the Commerson’s, aka the giant frogfish, as well as the reticulated and the sargassum.

Crawling with Life

In Hawaii, you’ll find the reefs and ­rubble patches crawling with nudibranchs, provided you know what to look for, or dive with guides well-versed in the who’s-who of nudis.

The white-margin nudibranch, with a ruffle of white encircling a creme-brulee-colored body, is a common find in most caverns and caves throughout Hawaii.

Then there’s the gold lace nudibranch, found only in Hawaii. Its backside appears as a constellation of raised white stars with a web of ­yellow connecting lines.

The long list also includes the Spanish dancer, bright red and typically a foot long, which is an easier find for newer divers. One of the other favorites, and only slightly less easy to spot, is the blue dragon nudibranch, bright blue with feathery winglike appendages and a long tail.

Out of This World

One of the most spectacular macro displays is the Pelagic Magic night dive. When divers drop into the black water, they’re met by a parade of zooplankton. So much of what rises to recreational dive depths has no common name, but a handful of critters do.

Like the Venus girdle. This wing-shaped animal displays a rainbow of light along its midsection and, like most of the finds on this dive, is drawn to light. Lobate ctenophore buzzes with white light, appearing as something from the movie Abyss, but on a much smaller scale. Still, in this black water with no reef for reference, it’s easy to lose yourself in the sights, forgetting size and scale, as you take it all in.


Life in the Shadows

Thanks to ancient lava flows long ago cooled into tunnels, arches, caves and caverns, Hawaii shows divers some of the world’s most unique underwater topography — and the divers who voted in the Readers Choice Awards know it, ranking Hawaii first among Pacific destinations for caverns, caves and grottoes.

You’ll be intrigued by the invertebrate life on the cave and cavern walls. There, you can witness rarities, such as the flameback coral shrimp, a spindly species painted fire-red down the back. Plus slipper lobsters, red lobsters and even the bullseye lobster, bright red — as if already steamed to eat — with legs like candy canes, striped white, with a bullseye smack on its cheek.

2019 Readers Choice Awards

  • 1st Place: Best Overall Dive Destination; Cavern, Cave and Grotto; Shore Diving; Beginner Diving
  • 3rd Place: Wreck Diving (Oahu)
  • 5th Place: Macro Life
  • Top 10, Best Dive Sites: Cathedrals, Lanai; Niihau Rock, Niihau
  • Top 10, Best Wall Dive: Molokini Crater Back Wall, Maui
  • Top 10, Best Wreck Dives: YO-257, Oahu; Sea Tiger, Oahu; Corsair, Oahu
  • Top 10, Best Shore Dives: Two-Step, Kailua-Kona, Big Island; Mala Wharf, Maui; Sharks Cove, Oahu; Tunnels Beach, Kauai; Three Tables, Oahu
  • Top 10, Best Unusual Dive Site: Manta ray night dive, Kailua-Kona, Big Island
  • Top 10, Best Night Dives: Manta night dive, Kailua-Kona, Big Island; black-water night diving/Pelagic Magic, Kailua-Kona, Big Island; Ulua Beach, Maui
  • Top 10, Best Animal Encounters: Manta rays, Kailua-Kona, Big Island; humpback whales, Maui; spinner dolphins, Kailua-Kona, Big Island
  • Top 10, Best Beaches: Ka’anapali Beach, Maui; Hanauma Bay, Oahu; Ke’e Beach, Kauai; Big Beach, Maui; Kauna’oa Bay, Kohala Coast, Big Island; Lanikai Beach, Oahu; Bellows Beach, Oahu