KONA, HAWAII - August/September, 2005

(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

Mantas and whale sharks and dolphins, oh my!!! That’s the short version of our trip to Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Our group consisted of Vick Thomas & Elisabeth Sykes, Susan Oder, Sandra Nichols, Ceci Alleguez, Linda Waterman, Kevin Brooks, and John Morgan. The trip was led by Reef Seekers co-owner Ken Kurtis (author of this report) and it was my second trip to Kona.

Last time I was there (in August Kof 2003), I was land-based. But this time our floating home was the Kona Aggressor II, an 80’x28’ catamaran specifically geared to diving. One advantage to being water-based is that we could easily get in more dives since the boat has a compressor on board and we didn’t have to return people to their hotels. Plus we had a much greater range of movement since we didn’t have to return to the Kona Harbor at the end of each day.

The Kona Aggressor II is functional but was not laid out as well as other Aggressors we been on. The boat carries 14 divers. There are five “deluxe” staterooms (their designation - two divers per room) on the main deck that all face into the salon/dining area. There’s one quad cabin for four divers on the second deck.

One of the comments from those in the doubles was that, especially later in the evening when someone was in the salon talking or watching a video, it could easily be heard in the rooms. Not a big deal but a minor annoyance. The deluxe rooms, which all have their own head, seemed a bit smaller than comparable rooms on the Palau and Tahiti Aggressors. And storage space was cramped as there was limited drawer space. Fortunately, since the lower bunk was a double, the inner half of that was used for storage space for some divers when there was a diver in each of the bunks. Couples had the option of using the upper bunk for storage when both people were sleeping in the lower double bunk.

The quad was a tight fit, to say the least. (I was reminded of an old vaudeville joke: “The room was so small you had to go outside to change your mind.”) Apparently, it used to be a crew cabin that was converted so they could accommodate more passengers. To say there’s not a lot of room is generous. There are two bunk beds (upper and lower - at right angles), ample storage space (two half-closets and seven drawers), a head/shower inside, and even a TV. But it would have been impossible for all four of us to be standing and moving about at the same time given that distance between one set of beds and the parallel sink/counter/drawers was only about two-and-a-half feet wide and maybe eight feet long. Luckily, all four in this cabin were pretty considerate of each other and we made it work. But if you book into this cabin, don’t plan on spending too much non-sleeping time in the cabin, because it simply won’t be comfortable.

The rear half of the second deck is the hanging-out area. It’s got lots of space with a bar counter (with built-in bar stools and covered) that also serves as a drink-dispensing area and a great place to lay out between-dive snacks. The deck also has a small table and chairs, four chaise lounges, and even a hot tub. This area was roomy and could easily accommodate all 14 divers.

In true Aggressor tradition, the plan to is dive/east/sleep. We’d do five dives each day and were well-fed in between. Breakfast started no later than 6:30AM with a Continental spread and then a hot meal (a variety of eggs, pancakes, sausages, bacon, etc.) was available by 7AM. First dive of the day was usually around 8AM, followed by a snack, second dive at 10:30(ish), lunch at noon, third dive at 2PM, followed by the mid-afternoon snack, a late-afternoon dive at 4:30PM, dinner around 6PM, and the night dive around 7:45PM.

Food was very good and plentiful. (My two personal favorites were the ribs and the meatloaf but everyone raved about the food each day.) Lunches always started with soup and dinners always started with salad. You’d come in and sit down at one of two dining tables and then when you were ready for the main course, you got up to hit the main counter All the meals are served buffet style so you take whatever you like. When you were done, your plate was cleared and dessert was set in front of you. There’s a dry-erase board that posts what it is that’s you’re being offered. And the boat rule is: Don’t bus your own plates!!! There were always crew people assigned to table duty who would take our plate when we were done and playful scold us when we tried to help) and even would slyly refold your napkin when you weren’t looking so you always came back to a tidy place.

Another nice touch was that for every dinner there was one crew person at each table eating with the guests, and that duty rotated nightly. It was a nice break for them and a nice touch to put them and us in closer contact and on a more social level than just DMs-to-passengers.

And we need to point out early on that the crew was fabulous. If you needed something, they went and got it for you. If something was broken and needing fixing they did their best to repair it. If you had a question, they answered it. And they were able to rotate the dive and deck duties around so that they all got in at least one dive each day. There’s no doubt the Aggressor crews are known worldwide for providing exemplary service to the passengers and the Kona crew more than passed muster in that regard.

We also benefited from very good dive conditions. Most days were sunny and pleasantly warm (on a few afternoons it clouded up - but no rain) and the visibility was quite good. Many times, especially in the morning, vis was in excess of 100’. There were a couple of afternoons &/or spots were it dropped, but never below 50’ or so. The water was also a few degrees warmer than when I’d been two years earlier. We saw water temps that were generally 83-84º. I was quite comfortable in my 3mm Pinnacle Breaker but some people dove in lycras and others dove in shorties.

On the Kona Aggressor II, all the diving is done from the boat itself and a spacious water-level dive platform. Tanks are all aluminum 80s that were pretty consistently filled to 3000psi. Each dive is preceded by a detailed dive briefing using a dry-erase board (as do most major operations nowadays) to give you a layout of the site and show you what animals to expect to see and where to (hopefully) see them. All dives are guided but there’s no strict requirement that you stay with the guide. They do ask for a 110’ depth limit but didn’t really place any limit on maximum bottom time as long as you weren’t going into deco (I did a night dive that was 90 minutes long - more on that later).

The main dive deck gets a bit crowded with 14 divers suiting up and two crew people diving as well. Each diver has his/her own locker for mask, snorkel, booties, and stuff like that (wetsuits are hung on a rack and fins live down on the dive platform) but it got pretty snug when everyone was trying to maneuver. We got into a rhythm where four or five of us would simply wait off to the side and let the others go first. Made it a bit more pleasant and less-crowded for all concerned.

The general plan each day was to do the two morning dives at a site, then make a move during lunch to a second site where we’d do the two afternoon dives and the night dive. I’m not sure why they did this (and in all fairness, I have to confess that I didn’t ask) because it certainly seemed a bit limiting since some of the sites weren’t always worth multiple dives. Part of the reason could be that they are limited in the number of moorings they have down capable of holding a boat the size of the Aggressor. If that’s the case, they need to install more moorings. Part of the reason might be that they just don’t want to do multiple moves in a day or move long distances. If that’s the case, they may need to re-think that to provide more diversity.

As it was, we only dove 11 different sites (they list 28 different sites on their website) for 25 dives total over the course of 5½ days (and one of those was out of their norm in response to a specific request from me). In contrast, when we were in Indonesia this past June, we did 23 different sites over the course of 25 dives in 7½ days of diving. Some Kona sites are definitely worth two dives. And I’m all for doing a late-afternoon dive in the same spot you’re going to do your night dive. But it seemed to me that being a bit more liberal in our movements would have given us a greater variety of sites.

And that brings up something else important to understand about Kona diving. There is a certain sameness to it given the harshness of the environment. Geographically, Hawaii is remote and isolated. That means that it’s really tough for species to migrate there. So Hawaii has a number of endemic species along with species that have somehow survived an open ocean migration. The second thing to note is that because the islands are formed on a lava base, there’s very little nutrient run-off from the land and that’s going to affect what you see underwater.

With all that in mind, what you will find is a landscape that’s pretty much made up of low-profile hardy corals and rock. Bottom line: If you’re looking for pretty scenery, soft corals, and multi-hued reefs, you’ve 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.

Kona is definitely critter-based diving. In other words, if you see certain critters that were on your target list for a specific dive, you had a pretty good dive. But if you didn’t see those critters, then the dive might have been less than fulfilling. However, there’s plenty of good stuff to be found lurking amongst the corals, cracks, and crevices of the Kona reef. You’ve got to do a little work at times to find it.

The first thing you’ll notice is an abundance of yellow. This is due not only to the pale yellow color of most of the corals, but also to the incredible number of brightly colored Yellow Tangs that flit about everywhere, Forceps and Longnose Butterflies (they look somewhat alike), Raccoon Butterflies, Fourspot Butterflies, Threadfin Butterflies, Lined Butterflies, Teardrop Butterflies, Pyramid Butterflies . . . did I mention that there are lots of Butterflyfish species in Kona????

The other thing we noticed a lot of were Hawkfish. Generally it was either the Blacksided Hawkfish (including a juvy or intermediate version) or the Arceye Hawkfish (in a variety of colors) and both were abundant. Other species in large numbers included Moorish Idols and Pennant Bannerfish (also yellow), and eels everywhere. They were mostly Whitemouthed Morays but we also saw Dwarf Morays, Undulated Morays, and even a Viper Moray.

As mentioned earlier, an advantage of being on a boat is that you have a much greater range since you don’t have to return to your starting point at the end of ever diving day. This meant that we could explore sites further south along the Kona Coast, well out of the range of the day boats in Kona. And we definitely noticed an improvement in the quality of the sites as we headed south.

The other advantage of motoring around is that we’d occasionally pick up dolphins either on the bow or in the wake of the boat. They’d give us a show for a while, some just riding along, others leaping into the air, and that’s always special.

Probably the most spectacular site was a place called NeverNeverLand, whose physical highlight is a large volcanic rock (Ule Rock) that rises out of the water like a lava-encrusted missile. But the underwater terrain was spectacular. There’s an outer wall with a canyon that comes in and almost cuts in in half. It was here that we saw Tinker’s Butterflies, Hawaiian Lionfish known as Turkeyfish, Teardrop Butterflies, a Gold-Laced Nudibranch, a Frogfish, nesting Sergeant Majors, and a whole lot more. We even spotted a manta ray cruising by and a Eagle Ray. This was a spot that was definitely worth multiple dives.

The other place that sticks out is called Amphitheater. One of the attractions here is not so much the fish you’ll find but the physical layout of the place as it is laced with lava tubes. The place gets its name from a bowl-like area in the middle of the reef which is accessed by swimming under a lava archway. But the highlight is when you go just a bit further north and enter a very long lava tube where you can see (once your eyes adjust) some openings in the top that let in natural light and the exit a hundred feet away. You can easily navigate the length of the tube, pop out onto the reef shallows, and then come back over the top of the mooring.

And then there was the Whale Shark . . .

This sighting was a fluke for a number of reasons. One of the other divers on the boat had a non-life-threatening medical problem that required us to return to Kona so she could be transferred to the Kona hospital. It was on the 3-hour run back in that we spotted the Whale Shark.

I walked out of the wheelhouse on the second deck and just happened to glance down when I spotted the animal (probably 10-12 feet long) at the surface, no more than fifteen feet away from the boat. I shouted, “Whale Shark!!!” The captain shouted, “What?!?!?!” I repeated “Whale Shark!!! Behind us about 50 yards now, right in the wake.” We made a lazy circle back and there it was, right on the surface. As we slowed to idle, the animal approached the boat, circled around us and let us have a really good look (even to the point where we could see the remoras on its head). But soon it was time to get back underway. The whole encounter cost us no more than 15 minutes time but gave everyone a lifetime memory.

And having to run back to Kona also gave us a unique opportunity to dive a site that the Aggressor rarely does. And that’s the Wreck of the Naked Lady.

The story behind the wreck is rather interesting: Apparently the boat showed up in the Kona Harbor one day with a man and woman aboard. The man quickly left the boat and disappeared. The woman stayed on board and was frequently spotted wandering around the deck - stark naked - and apparently talking and muttering to herself. After a few days, someone went out to see if she was okay. The story varies depending on who tells it, but essentially she seemed a little off-kilter, was screaming at her would-be-benefactor, and pulled out a flare gun. What’s generally not in dispute is that, while naked, she then fired the flare gun through the hull of the boat and the thing sank. Thus, “The Wreck of the Naked Lady.” (She survived and was treated at the local hospital.)

The reason to dive this wreck is for fish life, not the wreck itself, as it’s fairly small and uninteresting. It’s deep as well, sitting around 110’ and only rising another 10-15’ off the bottom. So it’s a short dive and, since the wreck lies at the mouth of the Kona Harbor, it’s a live-boat dive since you can’t drop anchor. But there is a line from the wreck to a buoy that lies twenty feet beneath the surface, and the Aggressor crew then tied another marker from that buoy to the surface so descent was not a problem.

In fact, as soon as we started our descent, you could see the outline of the wreck on the white sand below. Scouring the area for creatures, we ran into a Redspotted Sandperch right away, encounter a large school of snappers that inhabit the bow of the wreck, a Blacklip Butterfly (only one I saw on the trip), Bicolor Anthias (mixed in with the Snapper school), and others. On the way up, we discovered Wire Gobies living on the permanent float line (there’s no wire coral there so they make due with what they’ve got), one of whom was quite content to jump onto our LP inflator hose while we did our safety stop. (Yes, we put him back before we ascended.)

So overall, the diving in Kona can be good. Or it can be not-so-good depending on what creatures happen to pass your way while underwater. However, there is one aspect of diving in Kona that makes it not only incredibly special, but also if there was nothing else to see would make the trip worth while. And that’s the incredible interaction you can get with manta rays feeding at night. As one of our trip members said, “I’ll remember this and be thinking about the experience daily until the day I die.” And boy, did we get mantas!!!

Generally you figure you’ll get them on the “official” Manta Night Dive spot at Garden Eel Cove near the Kona Airport. That was our choice for the first night dive of the trip (which also means if we got skunked - which happens occasionally - we could give it another shot later in the week). It’s obviously a popular spot and the local dive operators try to rotate amongst themselves so everyone’s not going every single night. I’ve heard horror stories of over 100 divers in the water at the same time vying for the attention of the mantas. But we had very good fortune as it was just us and two other small boats (a total of perhaps 20 divers all together).

The mantas are there to feed on plankton and the plankton are attracted to light. So the general plan is that you enter the water, form a circle as a group (there’s a designated spot for this), point your lights straight up to attract plankton . . . and wait. Sometimes the wait is short, sometimes the wait is long, and on rare occasions the wait is fruitless. But wait was productive. And it was really only as long as it took us to swim from the Aggressor mooring to the designated spot.

We entered the water after the other divers so they were already in position when we arrived. And a manta - Big Bertha, one of the largest of the Kona mantas with a wingspan of 16 feet - was already swooping through the beams of light with her mouth wide open and her cephalic lobes forming a scoop as she feasted on the planktonic soup.

I’m always amazed at how adept the mantas have become at maneuvering through the divers. It must be an acquired skill because they are able to glide literally inches over your head without making any contact. (And Rule #1 on the Manta Night Dive is that the divers do not attempt to touch the mantas or initiate any contact.) It’s incredible to watch this 2000-pound animal come gliding in, taking aim at plankton, yet still aware of where her wingtips are to the point that she’ll flick them over someone’s snorkel while not breaking her rhythm. And this ballet goes on continuously. The manta does banks, turns, somersaults, barrel rolls, and every other maneuver you can think of to come back in for another pass. It’s beautiful, graceful, and awe-inspiring.

But eventually it had to end. So after almost an hour we made out way back to the Aggressor for our safety stop. But little did we know that in the darkness, we were being followed. And when we got back to the boat, much to our delight, here came Bertha once again appearing out of the gloom and still hungry enough to keep feeding. It was like getting a second Manta Ray night Dive. Even the crew that was on the boat could see the show.

Best of all, because we were only in 19 feet of water so we had oodles of bottom time. And on a personal level, I was especially jazzed as my fellow divers ran low on air and had to ascend to the boat, because after a while it was just Bertha and me in the water. Nothing like having you own personal Manta Night Dive with this enormous creature for 15 minutes. And when it was just the two of us, you could really see her slowing down and taking aim of where my light was and calculating when she should swoop up so as to be able to eat but not to collide. It was truly an incredible experience. Normally I’d say unique, too, except for what was to follow.

The next evening we were at Rob’s Reef south of Kona when the cry of “Manta!!” rang out. Sure enough, there was yet another manta right under the stern of the boat, already feeding on the plankton attracted by the boat lights. (It was Vicky Ray this time. Mantas are easily and reliably identified by their belly markings. There are 90 Kona mantas named and identified through the www.mantapacific.org website.) So we jumped in and had a repeat of the previous evening. And if that wasn’t enough, a dolphin came by and joined in the fray for about 15 minutes, darting back and forth through the lights and generally staying out of the manta’s way. What a treat!

The following night (catching a pattern here???) . . . we were still further south at Okoe Bay. As I wrote in my personal dive log: “Well, this wasn’t supposed to be a Manta Night Dive but . . . who are we to argue with a large manta? Best of all, I had her all to myself again. Definitely not as adept as the other mantas as we had a couple of collisions. But really amazing. She would come in really low, almost scraping the bottom, and then veer up and over my head (or into it) at the last minute. And the amount of the plankton in the water was incredible. Towards the end, almost couldn’t see 10 feet for the plankton.” This is why I’m not using the word “unique” to describe the previous manta-and-me encounter. But incredibly special.

In fact, we’d become so jaded about the mantas at this point (this one was Roxanne) that the rest of the group had actually gone off for a “regular” night dive and left me alone with Roxanne for a good half hour. Once again, I had my own personal manta night dive. And it was interesting to see the difference between Roxanne and the more-experienced Big Bertha. Roxanne, who’s smaller (probably 8-10’) and presumed to be younger was definitely clumsier than Bertha. We had a couple of collisions (nothing like having a manta wing smack you in the head) and she would at times move more slowly and deliberately than Bertha. But this was still a world-class dive experience to say the least.

The next day, we were down at NeverNeverLand and had a daytime sighting of an unidentified pelagic manta. They’re thought to be a bit more transient but we couldn’t get a ID. That evening was the first one where we didn’t have a manta appear under the boat.

But the next night, to the crew’s cry of “I don’t believe this!!” we once again had a manta happily munching away under our stern. This time it was Shadow, a 10-foot male, doing the honors. He spent most of the time right under the back of the boat (they pull up the ladders so the manta won’t collide with them) and he slapped the surface with his wings, frequently did backflips that put his exposed belly out of the water, and just generally gave us quite a show, let alone helped seal up memories that will last a lifetime.

So we probably had manta encounters that went beyond even what our wildest fantasies might have been. And the manta experience in Kona certainly elevates the diving there to the level of you’ve-got-to-go-do-this. On top of that, the care and attentiveness of the Kona Aggressor II crew, the relative ease of getting there from LA, and a host of other factors make this a trip that we’ll look forward to doing again in the future.

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