Seeking Action-Packed Diving in Hawaii
Disclaimer: This article was published in our August, 2023 print issue, before the devastating fires engulfed West Maui. To learn more about how the fires affected the dive community and what you can do to help visit "Maui, the Aftermath: Stories of Loss, Grief and Community."
“One , Two, Three , Whee!”
As soon as my feet hit the landing skid, my body recoils. I peer at the water 30 feet below, a rippling torrent stirred by the helicopter blades beating above my head. After a scenic tour of Waikiki from the air, our pilot, Doug, had positioned the helicopter into the wind with iconic Diamond Head peak visible in the distance. Moments ago, I’d put on a brave face as I watched Kristin battle her nerves and fling herself from the doors-off chopper. Now it’s my turn, and my facade is crumbling.
This isn’t my first—or even second—time jumping from a perfectly good aircraft, so I wasn’t expecting the nerves. But the chop on the water’s surface looks tiny from my vantage point and I suddenly feel naked in my 5 mm wetsuit. Clammy toes clutch desperately at the neoprene inside my booties, and my tongue feels like a dried-up slug cowering between my molars. “I’m a little nervous,” I yell over the thunderous blades. “You’ll be great!” Trident Adventures owner Steve Kaplan shouts back.
Related Reading: 7 Epic Surface Interval Adventures for Liveaboard Divers
Courtesy Trident Adventures
Steve, Kristin, Ariella and pilot Doug pose before the jump
Trident Adventures promises the “ultimate adventure”—and the Oahu dive center isn’t about to disappoint. The team of former Navy SEAL divers and stuntmen at the shop are undeniably hardcore, and these days they bring the rigors and adrenaline-fueled spirit of military service to everyday civilians looking for a thrill with a smorgasbord of hair-raising activities: everything from sharpshooting and hand-to-hand combat to skydiving and jumping out of a helicopter into the sea below. While most visitors come for Hawaii’s laid back vibe, sandy beaches and picturesque sunsets, Scuba Diving editor Kristin Paterakis and I are more drawn to its wild side, and Trident is the perfect jumping-off point for our 12-day island-hopping adventure, which will take us to Kauai next, then Maui.
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The Atlantis XIV submarine slinks by.
“Ready? One! Two! Three! Jump!” Steve’s encouragement is enough to convince me to cross my arms and legs, and leap with an ecstatic shriek that follows me all the way down. As soon as I hit the water my wetsuit brings me right back up to the surface, where a safety diver is waiting to tow me to the boat stationed nearby. I lie back and bask in the glow of my own courage. “Once you start conquering fears, it’s addictive,” Steve says. “That mentality starts bleeding into all aspects of your life.”
Kristin and I are still glowing from the rush as we zip over to the dive site within minutes. The adjacent YO-257 and San Pedro wrecks lie less than 2 miles off Waikiki and swimming distance from each other at 100 and 85 feet, respectively. Speedy diver propulsion vehicles take us to the line of portholes on one side of YO-257, where a lazy turtle haloed by a cloud of yellow tang is resting. Metal cables and rebar erupt from the lower decks of San Pedro like innards spewing from a corpse, and several cut-outs allow for internal exploration at different depths. As I head to the line for a safety stop, a large white object comes out of the blue and into focus. A submarine?! I had somehow missed this vital piece of information on the dive briefing. The Atlantis XIV, a stealthy passenger sub, slides by us unnervingly close. I stare into the mirrored windows in disbelief. Inside, many pairs of eyes gaze back.
Exploring the San Pedro wreck off Oahu.
Long Haul To Paradise
Our gear barely has time to dry before we’re whisked back out to sea the next day, this time by Dive Oahu, aboard the operator’s sleek 46-foot Newton. Their brand-new, top-of-the-line Scubapro sets are a far cry from the crusty, faded rental gear I’ve used elsewhere on past trips.
I WATCHED KRISTIN BATTLE HER NERVES AND FLING HERSELF FROM THE DOORS-OFF CHOPPER.
A curious turtle approaches the YO-257.
Our morning begins at two of Oahu’s most sought-after sites: Ewa Pinnacles and the Nashua Navy tug. “It’s a signature trip for us,” says Dive Oahu owner Brian Benton, and one of the shop’s eight daily excursions. The 28-minute journey is considered far. Other wrecks in the area are just a few minutes out, but I was grateful for the extra time to take in the views of Honolulu Harbor and the glowing rainbow behind us. At Ewa Pinnacles, a rugose reef with sporadic large spires erupting from the rubble and sand, Brian leads us to an overhang. Pointing up, I follow his gaze to a golden carpet of cup coral painting a sunrise across the underside of the rock.
Yellow cup coral covers an overhang
We spend a short surface interval rehydrating before dropping in on the Navy tug. The wreck was sunk in 2012, and I am skeptical of the amount of marine life to be seen, but when we reach the deck at 65 feet I am pleasantly surprised. Branching and mounding corals sprout from every opening and divot, and schools of blueline snapper engulf the steel, moving like molasses. Sponges ooze across the metal. I fin to the front of the wreck and sink toward the sand to look up. Towering over me, the ship’s pleated hull resembles the characteristic ventral grooves that line a humpback whale’s throat. Back on the boat, Brian sees my joy at witnessing such an impressive structure covered in healthy coral. “Everyone says ‘Kona, Kona, Kona…’ Kona is amazing, but there’s a lot of [human] traffic there. Oahu is a bit of a hidden gem,” he says.
The wreck of the Nashua Navy tug is an active U.S. Navy training site
Our adventure with Dive Oahu doesn’t end underwater. Surfing at Waikiki Beach is the finale to a full day of salty fun. My memories of past surfing attempts in cold water consist of violent wipeouts, bloodshot eyes and the sting of sinuses flushed raw. As I take my spot on a practice board laid out on the beach with my cohort of other learners, I steel myself for the same pounding. After a bit of sand-paddling and pop-up practice, we drag our longboards to the water and paddle out.
My surf instructor, Loni, looks the part: deep tan, bleach-blonde topknot and tattoos crawling down his neck and around his arms and chest. “C’mere mama,” he calls across the surface of the water, snatching the nose of my board and turning me perpendicular to an oncoming wave. He pushes me into the chest-high waves, cheering me on with gusto as I faceplant several times.
Our surf instructor, Loni, briefs us before we set out to catch some waves.
Finally, I manage to get my feet beneath me and stand, my elation growing with each second I manage to stay upright on the board. For the first time in my life, I am actually surfing and not just falling. “Last wave, mama!” Loni calls. I watch Kristin pop up and glide toward the beach, arms outstretched like wings, and then follow suit, this time without Loni’s help.
Kristin and I cheer each other on, and under the sparkling sun, life is good. I watch Loni catch waves with a natural ease that suggests a lifelong commitment. “Why do you want to be out here teaching noob tourists how to surf all day?” I ask him, puzzled. “Some people come here and all they want to do is surf. And I like making people happy,” he tells me. Simple.
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“SOME PEOPLE COME HERE AND ALL THEY WANT TO DO IS SURF. AND I LIKE MAKING PEOPLE HAPPY."
The dramatic layering of Lehua Rock
The author prepares for some topside surf practice before her lesson.
A 45-minute flight lands us within a dense jungle on one of the wettest places on Earth. It feels like a different planet than bustling Honolulu. We check in with Seasport Divers in Poipu and board a van to Kukuiula Harbor. Feral chickens cluck around our feet as we make our way to our chariot—the 48-foot Anela Kai. As the sun crawls over the horizon we embark on the season’s inaugural journey to Niihau—the “Forbidden Island,” so named for its exclusivity.
Thirty-five miles off the coast of Kauai, it is considered by many the best diving in Hawaii. The privately owned island is closed to all visitors— barring those with a special invite and the approximately 200 native Hawaiians who call it home. But we are riding in through a bit of a loophole—we won’t be stepping foot on land. From May through September, the two-and-a-half-hour ride is doable, but after that window closes, the seas become rough and unpassable.
The geometric layered rock of Niihau Island makes for a dramatic backdrop to the advanced diving site. Wildlife such as sandbar sharks and endemic Hawaiian monk seals are found here.
We approach the island via a narrow channel that separates Niihau from the tiny, crescent-shaped Lehua islet to the north. Lehua is an advanced diver’s dream—layers of tiramisuesque volcanic rock, impossibly steep sides that plunge more than 300 feet into the abyss, and pristine water filled with sharks, Hawaiian monk seals and colorful reef fishes. The layers that characterize the above-water features continue on below, where incredible tuff—solidified volcanic ash—formations surround us on all sides. Bright sponges, bryozoans and wirey whip corals cover the strata, creating a soft mosaic stretched across the rugged seascape.
The author diving through the stunning underwater landscape of Niihau.
True to its name, the site Vertical Awareness requires just that. The deep pinnacle is composed of completely vertical walls, and not a ledge in sight. But my normally impeccable buoyancy control is thrown into disarray when a steady surge washes us down 15 feet toward the depths, before swooping us up to the top of the pinnacle at 40 feet once more.
The water is so powerful. It is pointless to fight it, so we ride the flow and equalize religiously. Circling the pinnacle brings new wonders with each turn. First, a sandbar shark and trevally jacks; then turtles, triggerfish, and dense schools of butterflyfish and damselfish! On our final rotation, an endemic— and endangered—Hawaiian monk seal approaches to investigate Kristin’s camera rig, posing for some close-up shots before swooshing away.
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At the site Arches, jagged peaks reach toward the surface. We weave through the pinnacles and massive arches and come to a cavern cut deep into the surrounding wall with an absurd rectangular opening that looks almost too perfect to be natural.
We follow our group of six through a passage where several large boulders lean against each other, creating a space large enough to squeeze through. The surge grows stronger as the water fights its way through the tight space and I’m pulled into a room pierced with light beams from above—a tiny sanctuary, a refuge from the force. As we soak up the last few minutes of bliss in this layered undersea labyrinth, I hear the low moaning of a humpback whale song somewhere in the distance. I have never seen a humpback underwater, and the call fills me with hope that today might be the day. I swivel around to stare through the glassy water, willing a whale form to appear, but… Nothing.
A sandbar shark cruises by the stunning underwater scenery at Niihau Island.
Back on the boat, as the engines roar to life, ready to push us back toward Kauai after three notable dives, a monk seal pokes its face out of the ocean to see us off. And then, not ones to leave me hanging, the humpbacks that sang earlier sidle up to the boat. “I can see the barnacles on his nose!” our divemaster, Erica, squeals during their final appearance. It’s not an underwater sighting, but it’s enough to make me giddy. At the end of a full day underwater, the roomy deck of Anela Kai is covered with happy divers napping in the sun. After three days on Kauai, we pack our wet gear for our final destination: Maui.
Hawaiian monk seals are endemic to Hawaii, they are currently listed as endangered species by the IUCN Red List.
By The Sea Shore
Will Plozay, a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer at Maui Diving Scuba & Snorkel Center, is gearing up for dive number 6,000-something at the back of the shop van, parked in a nondescript pullout off Honoapiilani Highway. In his 20 years as a diver, he has never ventured out of Hawaiian waters, which makes him a super expert on all the nooks and crannies of the coastline. “You can pretty much dive here 365 days a year, unless there’s a hurricane,” he says. Maui is known for its shore diving, and after a week of boat excursions we are ready to stretch our legs and put in some work. We enlist the guidance of Maui Diving to explore two of the most popular sites—Mala Pier and Honalua Bay.
A green sea turtle soaks up some shallow rays
Above water, Mala Pier is a crumbling skeleton, but below the surface it supports an incredible amount of biodiversity. The pier was built in 1922 only to be demolished by Hurricane Iniki in 1992, leaving pilings and slabs of cement strewn about. The rubble creates a playground with many levels, swim-throughs and diversions. Not an inch is left unoccupied by marine life.
Maui Diving co-owner Steven Pickering, my freediving friend Wren, and I kick out along the remains of the pier as the tide is coming in. Underwater, the shallow site gleams with life: bright and abundant corals, water thick with fish, and turtles everywhere. My head snaps in every direction trying to take it all in.
A wave of silvery milkfish shoots across the reef, startling a pale goatfish that was busy probing the sand with quivering barbels. Corals of every kind grow anywhere they can: atop wood, metal and dead coral, in endless living blankets. In the brilliant morning light I take a long, satisfying breath of compressed air and feel at peace. After so much activity the past week, it feels glorious to relax and enjoy the scenery.
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Ariella and Will climb out of a lesser-known site
On our last diving day, Will gives us one last dose of adventure by taking us off the beaten path to a secret spot that he dives with friends. We scramble down a steep goat trail to our entry point—a flat volcanic ledge covered in a thick brick-colored mud. We time our entry with the waves and slip into a shallow pool, pulling ourselves across the rubble. After navigating around a minefield of large rocks we find a narrow opening to the protected reef that allows us to escape the surf zone.
Will leads us through a maze of lava tubes that carve deep grooves into the shallow reef. Patches of color stain the rocks: The vibrant greens, magentas, pinks and yellows pop in the sun. We zigzag our way through swimthroughs and narrow passages, past green turtles, whitetip reef sharks and inquisitive Caribbean spiny lobsters huddled upside-down beneath a ledge, until our time underwater is up.
“ARE YOU GOING TO LOOK FEAR IN THE FACE AND CONQUER IT, OR ARE YOU GOING TO LET IT REDUCE YOUR LIFE?”
Yellowstripe goatfish crowd under a ledge.
I pull myself out by stepping up the natural staircase formed by the rock. My legs protest the returning gravity and I wonder how Kristin will fare, lugging her 25-pound camera rig in addition to the weight of her gear. She emerges through the foam of an oncoming wave with a huge smile despite her straining biceps. The beauty of the dive has made us temporarily forget that we’ll have to climb up what we previously scrambled down.
The topside ruins of Mala Pier contrast with the abundant life below.
On the plane home the next day my body aches. I have knots in my back from fighting surge and hiking in heavy gear, sloshing seawater in my left ear, and dry eyes from wind whipping my face on long boat rides. But my itch for adventure has been scratched in the most satisfying way. In a place with such varied diving opportunities, saying yes to the unknown required a little bit of courage, but it led us to find joy in unexpected places. “If you believe that something good is going to happen and you overcome your fears, you will have a completely different outlook and experience in life,” Steve told me before my jump from the helicopter. “Are you going to look fear in the face and conquer it, or are you going to let it reduce your life?”
NEED TO KNOW
Water Temps Mid-70s to low 80s
Viz 30 to 100-plus feet
What to Wear 3 or 5 mm wetsuit
PADI Dive Shops
Maui Diving Scuba & Snorkel Center