Issue 10.2: April / May 2007

Diving Kaula

story by Rufus Kimura
photos by Sterling Kaya and David Fleetham

 

When I was ten, my father spent an afternoon at the flea market and came home with a scuba tank and an old double-hosed regulator. The next week, he bought a boat. And I, too young to dive, became his boatman.

Out at sea, my father would sit on the side of our inflatable Zodiac with mask and fins on. Then he would smile, turn on his air tank and splash noisily overboard. For the next forty-five minutes, I would fretfully watch the path of his rising air bubbles, panicking when the water got too rough to see them. At times, the anchor we had set off the boat would break loose, and the landmarks my father had shown me would begin to shift and change. I would imagine myself drifting for days, a young boy at the mercy of the sea, eventually marooned on some hostile shore.

I had a hammer for such occasions and with it, I would bang out a frenzied plea for help on the lower leg of the outboard engine. That staccato distress call, traveling underwater, would inevitably cause my father to resurface, still smiling. He would reassure me that I was not abandoned and that he would, of course, return from the deep. Still, I hated the separation and the ocean for diverting his attention from me and decided that there was only one thing to do: I had to join him.

By the time high school rolled around, I was cutting classes to spend days with my dad underwater. There was a vacant lot between our school and the boat harbor; its trees and dry brush provided excellent cover for eluding school security. By first recess, my father and I would be aboard the boat, loosening the mooring lines and heading out to sea. At times my mom cried, fearing I would never go away to college. But I did—to a school in Idaho, where, when I was homesick, I would sit at the bottom of the swimming pool and dream of warmer climates.

When my obligation to higher education—and my mom—was complete, I returned to the Pacific. The ocean was welcoming, and I explored it with a passion. I dove along the atoll walls of the Marshall Islands, hid in New Zealand's kelp forests, found blue ribbon eels in Indonesia, swam with sharks in Fiji's Southern Lau islands and floated through Tahitian reef passes at dusk, watching as giant tuna swam past. And I explored at home: On the Big Island, renowned for its miles of untouched coastline and finger coral beds full of fish. On Molokai, home to a wild backside protected by steep cliffs, filled with an aura of inaccessibility. On Kauai and Niihau, where the water is just cold and deep enough to hold certain species of fish usually seen only in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. I thought I had seen all of what Hawaii has to offer the diverÑuntil the call came about Kaula Rock.

"Where?" I said, not quite believing there could be a Hawaiian island I hadn't heard of. But there was. Is. Kaula is perhaps not quite an island in the fullest sense: It has no rivers, little vegetation, no natural harbor or landing and offers very little in the way of anchorage. But it is more than a rock. Some 550 feet tall, it sits atop an extensive underwater plateau surrounded by water hundreds of fathoms deep. A constant flow of nutrient-rich water wells up from the submarine shelf, and baitfish and marine life thrive there.


 

 

"The diving will be incredible," promised the friend who'd called. "Come with us." The expedition was being put together, in true Hawaii fashion, by a friend of a friend who knew a guy with a boat--a commercial fishing vessel, fifty-six feet long and capable of making month-long forays in search of fish. I jumped at the chance, and within the week, we had the boat gassed up, filled with ice and provisions and loaded with 133 scuba tanks. There were seven of us--with that number of tanks, we each had nineteen chances to see what secrets Kaula held.

As we motored north from Oahu, I learned more about the island. The unofficial gatekeeper to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Kaula is not just a marine wonderland. Up to 140,000 seabirds feed and nest there, too, making the most of Kaula's limited real estate. For years, the Navy thought that it had the perfect plan for the island: It declared Kaula off-limits, set up targets among the nesting seabirds and commenced aerial bombing.

Due to its remote location, the fate of Kaula was largely over-looked for years, even after the Navy surrendered its primary incendiary target, Kahoolawe. It wasn't until the US Department of Fish and Wildlife acknowledged that even "a practice bomb does not lend itself to a disciplined controlled take of [protected] birds, nests, or eggs" that the bombs stopped falling. The case for the ceasefire was also helped, inadvertently, by two pilots from the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga, who in 1965 missed Kaula altogether and dropped eight 250-pound bombs on Niihau. Today, after thirty years of target practice, Kaula remains strewn with unexploded ordnances, and even naturalists are wary of exploring the place.

But we were not there to hike, we were there to dive. It had taken us twenty-three hours to make the crossing from Honolulu to Kaula. Lumbering along aboard the SeaSpray, we had passed both Kauai and Niihau--the ocean currents at our stern had hurried us along. As we neared Kaula, the ocean floor changed dramatically. On the depth recorder, we watched as the shelf that surrounds Kaula popped into view. Within a minute, the water was 600 feet shallower, and the color screen was showing glowing red orbs that represented dense schools of large fish. Seabirds of every shape and size were zooming around above the schools, riding the thermals upward for a better view of the bounty below.


Kaula itself was grander than I had expected: At sea level, 550 feet towers high. The sides of Kaula dropped straight down, sheer and unapproachable; whatever coves or landings the island might have once had were long eroded away by the incessant ocean swells and howling winds--or perhaps by the bombs. Looking at Kaula was like looking at the core of an island, at what was left after any sign of habitability had been stripped away.

We anchored in its lee, but the wind wrapped right around to buffet our vessel. The footing was unstable and the deck occasionally awash as we worked to deploy our orange inflatable dive tender. Nicknamed the Brine Shrimp, it was designed to transport us closer to shore where we could explore the undersea base of Kaula. Once the Brine Shrimp was launched and saddled with an outboard engine, we loaded our scuba gear and made way for land. Aside from the captain, none of us had been to Kaula before. With a smile, I thought back to the phone call of a week ago. Until then I had not even known that the place existed. Now here I was, in the unknown.


 

 

There is a definite element of fear that accompanies that unknown. All of us on the trip were accomplished divers, comfortable in the water and on the ocean. But when the moment came to jump in, none of us volunteered. At that moment all the stories that had been circulated about packs of ravenous sharks were replayed in Technicolor. The opportunity for acceptable hesitation among men is, however, limited. After the initial stall, we all jumped in--none wanting to be the first but none willing to be the last.

We were just a boat length from shore and the water was already 100 feet deep. Kaula is a place of extremes, and the transitions in topography are anything but gradual: There are cliffs both above water and below. Descending the wall to Kaula's undersea base, we passed through multiple marine zones. At the surface, there were countless limpets and rock-boring urchins clinging in the tidal zone. Below that, starry-eyed parrotfish and pencil urchins shared space with pillow stars and silver shoals of baitfish. Deeper still, the fish grew larger, and in the gloom below, we could make out large shadowy shapes slipping around twenty-foot boulders. We continued to freefall, and within seconds landed on the reef--where one of the shadows turned out to be a quizzical monk seal. With a whiskered smile, it mocked our clumsy attempt at submersion, turning somersaults and accomplishing acrobatics that we could never hope to match. When it tired of performing, it mimed us, sitting upright and motionless, its mossy back a mottled patchwork of seaweed and shimmering fur.

Leaving the seal, we swam away from the wall of the island. My depth gauge showed 125 feet when a lone gray snapper showed up. It hovered above us, contemplating the odd, noisy creatures disturbing the customary music of the place: the whale songs and percussive clickety-clack of snapping shrimps. Hundreds of squirrel-fish peered out from their crevices in the rocks below, curious goggle-eyed onlookers assessing the intruders. They milled about and, when approached, darted back into the darkness.

And the sharks were there. Respecting our personal space, they patrolled the far perimeter of our group. It was hard to tell how many there were as they favored the edge of our field of vision: two, three, maybe more--they were fat, well-fed and uninterested in us. If anything, I had the impression they were waiting for us to leave so that they might restore the natural order of things. Obliging them, we made our way back towards the wall to begin our ascent. I was loath to leave but our air supply would let us stay only so long. As we hung mid-water doing our obligatory decompression stop, a massive school of giant trevally came blitzing in. Trevally are just under sharks on the predatory food chain. They have large mouths; broad, thick heads; wide tails built for speed and occasionally pass the 100-pound mark. Seen alone, they're impressive enough; in a school, they're amazing. Surrounded by so many at once, my body reverberated with their collective tail beat as the school changed direction. Then in an instant, they were gone, headed off to wreak havoc on any small fishes unfortunate enough to be caught unaware.


 

We surfaced next to the Brine Shrimp, awed by what we had seen, babbling about every detail. As we doffed our gear and scrambled aboard the tender, there was an unspoken urgency. This had been our first dive at Kaula, our initial foray into the unknown. Back on the long-liner, we had 126 scuba tanks still nestled in the hold. Divided evenly, that amounted to eighteen more chances each to see what wonders Kaula held. I could hardly wait.

Over the week, we explored all over Kaula. We came across giant trevally hiding in cathedral-like caves; fragile, long-finned anthias on the underside of ledges and a pack of angry gray sharks, thugs who showed their bravado by biting our anchor line. When the wind doubled in intensity and wild seas forced us back to the lee of Niihau, we dove the Lehua seamount just off the island. Like Kaula, it was loaded with fish.

I saw then what my father had realized years before: that the world is two-dimensional, that there is the world above water and the world below. I returned from that expedition with a love for the sea that was stronger than ever. These days, I'm training in a whole new way of diving: on a closed-circuit rebreather, a machine that recycles exhaled oxygen and allows divers to spend hours underwater and reach depths in excess of 300 feet. It is technical diving, more complex then regular scuba, but the sensation is dreamlike, and breathing is eerily similar to normal inhalation. The potential for undersea exploration is tenfold. For me, this is a new chapter in diving, an evolution, but the driving force is the same: The unknown, as my father so patiently showed me, is always calling. HH