KONA, HAWAII (BIG ISLAND) - AUGUST, 2003

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One of the first things to understand when you dive anywhere in Hawaii is that (1) the place is pretty remote, and (2) Lava forms the basis of everything.

This brings up a couple of notable things. The first is that the remoteness means that itís really tough for species to migrate there. So Hawaii has a number of endemic species (meaning theyíre only found in that area), along with species that have somehow survived an open ocean migration. The second thing to remember is that because of the lava base, thereís very little nutrient run-off from the land and thatís going to affect what you see underwater.

With all that in mind, what you will find is a landscape that pretty much made up of low-profile, hardy corals . . . and rock. Bottom line: If youíre looking for pretty scenery, soft corals, and multi-hued reefs, youíve come to the wrong place. But if the sight of fish can make you happy, then Hawaii, and specifically the Kona coast, might fit the bill.

Iíd been diving Hawaii only once before, in Maui. I remember that the underwater terrain was fairly unspectacular but that I was amazed by the number of turtles that we ran into. Iíd always heard that Kona represented some of the best Hawaiian diving, so I was eager to explore and see what the Big Island had to offer.

Getting there is pretty easy. We went LA-Honolulu-Kona and thereís also a non-stop LA-Kona flight (which is what we were able to take on the return). Pick up a rental car at the airport, and youíre ready to go.

Landing in Kona is a trip because it really does look like youíre landing on the surface of the moon, and reminds you of why NASA trained the Apollo astronauts in Kona for their moon expeditions. Even more amazing is that when you go around to the eastern windward side of the island (Konaís on the leeward western side), you go from an arid desert to a lush tropical rainforest.

The Big Island also features Volcano National Park and even though itís not diving, is a must-see. We had just missed by a couple of days a major breakout (when the lava REALLY starts flowing) but it was still interesting. Not only can you drive around the Kilauea caldera, but the highlight is going down Chain of Craters Road (itís a 20-mile drive . . . one-way) and seeing the current lava flow. Some of the lava flowed across the road and hardened some time ago, but you drive and park, and then hike out (it took us 30 minutes) over very rough terrain to the edge of the current flow. The heat is simply amazing and youíll see little breaks of red-hot lava flows along the edge. You can get right up to it but youíd better be careful not to slip and fall since the lava is 2100ļF and it would hurt quite a bit to stick your hand or foot in it. But the volcanoes were a great way to spend our first day.

We did our diving with Jackís Diving Locker right in the heart of Kona, a semi-sleepy town of 10,000 locals and probably an equal number of tourists. Jackís is not only one of the premiere Kona dive operators, but also features good friend and Reef Seekers alum Keller Laros, who ended up being our guide on the Manta Night Dive (more on that later).

Jackís runs a number of boats each day, both basic and advanced, and offers either 2- or 3-tank dives. Their boats are nothing fancy but comfortable, generally take anywhere from 6-16 divers, and they feed you between each dive. (And if you donít finish lunch, you canít have a cookie.) Dives are generally guided, but if you want to slip off on your own, thatís not a problem. They ask for a depth limit of 100í and a time limit of one hour but those arenít rigorously enforced (and I mean that in a good way).

In my opinion, itís the fish you see that will make or break a dive. The terrain simply isnít all that exciting or pretty. In fact, one site generally tends to look pretty much like another. That doesnít mean you canít have a good dive but it does mean that your fish encounters are the make/break factor on the dives. But you can get some pretty interesting fish, if you know what youíre looking for.

On our very first dive, the quarry were Tinkerís butterflies, which is a fish rarely seen in shallow waters so we had to go to 100í to spot them. But once we got down there, we saw them right away, generally in pairs, and perhaps six overall. the nice thing about them (as the pictures will attest) is that theyíre curious and once they get comfortable with the fact that noisy bubble-blowers are there, they cruise in for a closer look at you, which gives you a closer look at them.

But there were a couple of dives where the fish life wasnít so hot and my notes have comments like "Reef not too impressive" and "Not scenic enough for wide angle." However, we did see a lot of cool things.

One of the cooler ones (and yes, Iíll get to the mantas in a moment) was a squadron of Eagle rays that buzzed through us at Kaiwa Drift. They kept their distance, but we all got a good look at them and marveled at their grace. We even got a second peek on a dive three days later when we descended the anchor line to find a lone eagle ray hunting for food in the sand.

Absent those visitors, the overall impression is yellow, as in Yellow tangs, a species of surgeonfish. There are tens of thousands of them and they cover every single reef, darting about, eyeing the divers, and going about their merry way. In addition to them, we spotted Chevron tangs (REALLY hard to photo because theyíre continually darting about), Goldring surgeonfish, Convict tangs, and Orange-band and Orange-spine surgeonfish (two different species). There were also tons of hawkfish around, mainly Blackside and Arc-Eye, though I also spotted a Redbar tucked back in a hole.

In addition to all of that, we spotted (at various times) . . . eels of every variety; a couple of Flame angels (REALLY colorful . . . and flaming!!!); Razorfish; Reticulated, Teardrop, Longnose, Foreceps, Fourspot, Lemon, Pebbled, Ornate, Pyramid, Pennant, Raccoon, and Threadfin butterflies; triggerfish; trumpetfish; octopi; and even a couple of leaf scorpion fish.

A really fascinating dive, and our best turtle encounters, occurred at a site called Turtle Pinnacle, so named because turtles come in and sit still while dozens of yellow tangs and other fish clean their shells and skin of parasites and debris. And itís really amazing to just sit there and watch the fish in action while the turtle just relaxes with the knowledge that heís getting the marine equivalent of an auto detailing.

But the highlight of the trip was certainly the night dive we did with the Manta rays. Jackís dives with the mantas regularly each week (as do all the other shops in Kona - they stagger the sked) and we chose Friday night. The old manta spot was the Kona Surf Hotel but since it closed down the new spot is Eel Cove. We happened to luck out as there were only two other boats there (another shopís charter and a six-pack, plus us) so there were only about 20 divers in the water. However, be aware that on some nights, theyíve had close to 100 divers there when four or five boats show up.

We started with a late-afternoon in the spot. Very nice and pleasant, gave us a feel for the area, and one of the rays (Stevie Ray) showed up at the end of our dive. Hopefully this was to be a good sign.

The gambit here is that the rays are feeding on plankton the evening. Just before sunset, the boats set out powerful lights, pointed straight up, to attract a column of plankton. A short while later, the divers follow and settle to the bottom to surround the beam, dive lights also pointing straight up into the black water. Hopefully all of this attracts enough plankton that the mantas will come swooping in from the gloom and start feeding.

To insure the success of the dive and to protect the mantas, there are a few simple rules: (1) No touching of the mantas. (2) Stay on the bottom. (3) Keep your lights facing up. (4) keep movement to an absolute minimum. (And kudos to all the divers for following these rules.)

When the signal was given to gear up and go, my buddy and I were the first ones in the water and the first ones to settle into place. However, I was rather dismayed to look up and noticed that we had a ton of fish circling in our lights, but there didnít seem to be any plankton as the water was clear as gin. Uh-oh.

But . . . after 10 minutes of thinking we were going to get skunked, our first graceful visitor appeared. Then a second, And then a third. (Keller swears he saw a fourth but that ray didnít stick around too long.) For the next 40 minutes, these gentle beasts would swoop in and out and out of the beam of light, scooping up plankton with their cephalic lobes and huge mouths, and gracefully turning and dipping and avoiding colliding not only with the divers, but also with each other. (Actually, there was one near manta-to-manta collision but they both pulled up at the last moment and went belly-to-belly like two rednecks showing off.) And keep in mind while youíre envisioning this in your mindís eye, that these are animals with a 10-16 foot wingspan, weighing perhaps as much as 2000 pounds, but deftly gliding through the water as a leaf gets blown by the wind.

Probably the most amazing aspect of this dive is that the mantas will literally glide inches above your head. And they are absolutely adept at giving a flick of a wing or a twist of the body at the last second to avoid contact with the divers. Which also means that you get numerous instances where the manta is coming straight at you, mouth open, and you are literally looking down a gaping maw and out through the rayís open gill slits. Even after I was out of film (WAAAAY too early in the dive), it was amazing just to sit there and watch the spectacle. And after about an hour, the air is running low, the mantas have had their fill, and the dive is over. But the memories will linger.

The Kona Manta Night Dive is truly an amazing experience and if youíre ever on the Big Island, even if itís not for diving, you owe it to yourself to do this dive. (They can accommodate snorkelers too, so itís a unique experience for non-divers as well.) This will definitely make it into your logbook as a "Top 10" dive.

Overall, the Kona diving was good but not spectacular. As I said earlier, the quality of the dive was dependent upon what you saw. If you were a good fish spotter, you had a high percentage of good dives. If youíre were not, then you didnít. But Konaís definitely a place worth visiting and a spot you should put on your wish list.


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