Land Down Under

Hawai‘i’s best dive sites can be rough, dangerous, difficult—and totally worth it
Story by Hunter Haskins. Photos by David Fleetham.

Right around Wednesday, when I get a typical case of midweek adventure-lust, I’ll wander into Aaron’s Dive Shop in Kailua to see what’s up for the weekend. Apart from
the usual fare on the menu, there’s a night dive for nudibranchs at the Sea Tiger, a wreck off Waikīkī.

My friends at Aaron’s (old-salt dive masters and fellow instructors) are goofy for these colorful sea slugs, and we use specialized dive lights and mask filters that work with ultraviolet light to turn a ho-hum reef into a psychedelic dreamland. You might not believe it, but we have to work hard to remain interested in recreational diving in Hawai‘i.

A diver peers through a coral-encrusted hole in the reef at Mōkōlea, an islet in Kailua bay, O‘ahu. Because of Hawai‘i's often rough seas and colder water temperatures, coral development here isn't on par with that of popular dive destinations in the South Pacific or Caribbean, but close examination reveals worlds of diversity.

On O‘ahu the Sea Tiger is a repeat offender in my dive log and a victim of its own popularity. It’s a fully intact freighter a mile off Waikīkī and perhaps the perfect wreck, with its keel right at the limit of recreational diving (130 feet). It seems like my social media feed is filled with my dive buddies’ pictures of that same giant honu, endless nudibranchs or the two whitetip reef sharks that hang out in the hold. Every other charter boat on O‘ahu seems to compete for the moorings on the bow and stern, and the next dive is usually a shallow, picked-over reef that seems embarrassingly 
close to shore.

I speak from experience. My dive career spans the Caribbean and large chunks of Southeast Asia, and Hawai‘i’s reefs are, to me, comparatively underwhelming. No soft corals or fans. Diversity is relatively low (but with plenty of unique endemic species). Conditions can be challenging even for experienced divers when the surf and current pick up. It can get pretty cold down there. But Hawai‘i diving is still amazing and unique—if you put in the effort. My mission is to find something more than the usual safe, sane and convenient sites that dot Hawai‘i’s coastlines. It’s time to test local knowledge and charter captains’ seamanship to find those paths unfinned and reefs unswum.

Some of the more interesting and off-the-beaten-path dives are tough to reach even by boat, like this sea cave on the back side of Mokumanu, an islet off Kāne‘ohe. When the tradewinds are up and swells running, launching at these locales can become impossible.

On O‘ahu the Sea Tiger is a repeat offender in my dive log and a victim of its own popularity. It’s a fully intact freighter a mile off Waikīkī and perhaps the perfect wreck, with its keel right at the limit of recreational diving (130 feet). It seems like my social media feed is filled with my dive buddies’ pictures of that same giant honu, endless nudibranchs or the two whitetip reef sharks that hang out in the hold. Every other charter boat on O‘ahu seems to compete for the moorings on the bow and stern, and the next dive is usually a shallow, picked-over reef that seems embarrassingly
close to shore.

To get off of the established charter dive merry-go-round on O‘ahu, you have to work for it. That means a shore dive: suiting up roadside, huffing down to the ocean, jumping in, getting out and huffing back to your car in dire need of hydration. Dive shops will happily give you directions to their top ten, like Shark’s Cove, Electric Beach, Hālona Blowhole, Dragon’s Nostrils and, my favorite, China Walls. The last three are varsity—the hike in and out is more like rock climbing.

The cure for the common dive is a buddy with a boat. And your best friend in the world is a guy with a badass boat. That’s Mike Elhoff, the mad civil engineer, who has me on speed dial when he wants to go out someplace weird. I’m usually game because I’ve short-circuited my self-preservation instinct. Mike doesn’t drive through waves; he surfs them. On a blustery December morning, we blast past China Walls on our way out of Hawai‘i Kai and sprint along the Kaiwi coast of O‘ahu much faster than we should. “It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” mutters Elhoff, piloting his former Coast Guard “fast boat,” which has seats mounted on shock absorbers that in today’s conditions pay major dividends.

While Hawai‘i is known for pleasant weather year-round, it’s not necessarily a year-round dive destination. Large swells effectively shut down half the viable near shore dive sites during the winter.

The destination is Mokumanu, a magical dive site off of Kāne‘ohe’s Mōkapu peninsula. On the rare calm day, Mokumanu is ideal for spearfishing and snorkeling. Colorful reef fish mingle with aggressive pelagics, including resident hammerhead sharks. Mokumanu is a rare treat for scuba divers: Due to its location, swells from the north, south and the usual tradewinds effectively turn the waters surrounding the sheer, two-hundred-foot walls into a murderous washing machine.

We’re trying to access a sea cave that tunnels so deep into the rock that Elhoff will need a spotlight to navigate. Cut to me looking forlorn on the bow, as stronger-than-usual tradewind swells are pushing directly into the cave. “It looks doable,” Elhoff shouts over the roar of the wind and the motors. “It’s suicidal,” I moan. Being a pin in a bowling alley would be safer. Like more than half of my Mokumanu cave attempts, hockey pads and Kevlar helmets would be needed to survive this dive. Despite the swell, Elhoff expertly backs into the cave deep enough to stay out of the rain.

Such disappointments are par for the Hawai‘i diving course, particularly on the windward shores, where strong winds, ripping currents and big swells rule. Our consolation prize on the way back to Hawai‘i Kai is a seldom visited micro-islet called Mōkōlea, a.k.a. “Birdshit Rock.” Visible from Kailua beach, the guano-streaked rockpile is a very long upwind kayak trip to a spot that no regular dive charters visit. It’s more of a reference point for kite surfers, who are conspicuously absent; the wind is too strong even for them today.

Like most remote dive sites, it’s rumored to be shark-haunted. As I splash in with faint trepidation, I find the shark warning is false (today) and that the pay-off is worth the risk. Making an orbit of the island, Elhoff and I find fields of diverse, surprisingly healthy coral that I rarely see on O‘ahu. Tower coral mushrooms from the seafloor, a broad swath of endemic fish cruise the reef and I even spot a rare patch of soft, tan octocoral.

As a more remote dive spot, Mōkōlea is home to fields of diverse, healthy coral rarely seen in other areas off O‘ahu. Reefs closer to shore tend to be more susceptible to damage from human traffic and pollutants common in runoff.

The failed Mokumanu expedition pokes a small hole in the reputation of Hawai‘i as a year-round dive destination. North and west swells effectively shut down half of the viable nearshore dive sites during the winter. On almost any winter’s day you can get to the Sea Tiger, but the inner islands of Maui, Lāna‘i, Moloka‘i and Kaho‘olawe are your best bet in winter, as they create a kind of cradle of calm seas sheltered from the swells. I hail Maui Dive Shop with a variation on “What is your most hard-to-reach charter, and can you put me on it?” The consensus is Cathedrals I and II on the east side of Lāna‘i, accessed via comfy, long-range boats. I sign up for one each on different days, and my dive master has a well-polished dive site briefing.

After an hour-plus ride across the channel, I’m splashing in atop the main structure of Cathedral II, the size of a barn. The name is apt. Great arches and buttresses reach up from about forty-five feet, forming the twenty-foot-high interior, spacious and bright enough to read my gauges without a light. A chandelier of rare black coral is the main attraction. Festooned with gobies and sea horses, this slow-growing coral is almost unheard of above 150 feet. The dive master says it’s probably two hundred years old. The shallow depth and unconfined spaces make this dive so welcoming I’d bring along my landlubber nephew. Air bubbles from the dozen or so other divers collect in little divots on the ceiling, looking like pools of liquid mercury. The reef surrounding and atop the cathedral, far from any sources of coral-killing runoff, looks healthy.

A school of bluestripe snapper sweep over the reef at Cathedral II. These brightly colored, omnivorous fish were introduced to the Islands in the 1950s for recreational and commercial food fishing.

Back on the boat, fellow diver Kevin McAfee and I chat over sandwiches, waiting for the residual nitrogen in our bodies to slowly dissipate. Turns out he is a former US Marine (like me) who got out when I was a toddler. Admirably, he has been diving the inner islands ever since. McAfee is also a Maui County firefighter and underwater search-and-rescue instructor. “You look kinda half-crazy,” he says. “Come with me.” I follow. He seems like the real deal.

While the other divers swim north to a well-known reef, we kick south … a long way. I’m about to call the Coast Guard when McAfee tells me to descend. Below seems like just another ridge of coral, no different from the eight we just swam over. “This is called Catacombs,” he says before he sinks. I follow, making the connection—Cathedrals, then Catacombs—this is going to get spooky.

We pick along the coral ridge at about thirty feet until McAfee suddenly dis-appears, a puff of silt my only clue to his location. I follow him into a cave he’s slowly finning through, a lava tube made long ago and only recently (geologically speaking) becoming an underwater cave network. Cathedrals this is not. The catacombs twist and turn, just big enough for large blokes like us. Menpachi (big-eye squirrel fish) hover in the nooks like red torches along the way. Even salty McAfee gets turned around in here and sometimes has to backtrack. The floor is silty with the remains of perished shellfish, and I try not to think of the resident beast that calls this tomb home.

Undersea pinnacles such as Monolith off Lāna‘i are appealing dive spots because they attract swarms of reef fish like bluestripe snapper and these kīkākapu (raccoon butterflyfish).

Finally there is craggy sunlight ahead, but the surprises aren’t over. Once free of the cave, McAfee points to a patch of yellowish coral. Then touches it. Touching coral can kill it, so there’s a global no-touch rule in diving. But the coral he touches yields. Octocoral again, but on this side of Lāna‘i it is splattered on the seafloor like so much pancake batter.

We are the first in and last out for that dive, and once dried off, I tell McAfee of my quest to dive the far-out places, well off the charter circuit. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” he says, echoing the Captain Quint character from Jaws. “I’ll see if Jayhawk is available.”

To get beyond the usual charter sites, you need something like Jayhawk. This fifty-foot luxury cruiser is a fast-moving adventure platform with enough amenities and toys to support both a sunset dinner catered by Merriman’s and a three-day fishing/diving jag at the same time. It has only the essentials, like a gyroscopic stabilizer, compressor to fill scuba tanks and enough electronics to befuddle an astronaut. One of its owners, Brian Graham, is also an owner of Ocean Vodka, so the fridge is, uh, well stocked. This is a far cry from my hostel-hopping dive trips to Southeast Asia.

We blast out of Lahaina Harbor, passing Cathedrals, Catacombs and other respect-able sites like Knob Hill, Sergeant Major, Sergeant Minor and Monolith. We round the southern point of Lāna‘i and make our way up the rarely visited west side, dotted with spitting caves and hidden beaches. Captain Steve Andrews is watching the sonar to get us to an underwater cliff that drops from thirty to ninety feet near a disused barge dock where ships were once loaded with the pineapple crop from Lāna‘i. This place is seldom visited, even by the adventurous clients of Jayhawk, but I suspend my gratitude when McAfee gives the dive brief.

A diver shines light on big-eyed shoulderbar soldierfish in the Catacombs off Lāna‘i. The long, narrow corridors of the aptly-named Catacombs caves are the flooded remains of former lava tubes.

Where there are no moorings, dives get weird. “This is a paradrop,” McAfee says like the retired recon Marine he is. A rare gale from the north has Captain Steve maneuvering furiously to stay over the site his sonar says is there. “No time to sit and fiddle with your gear on the surface. We have about a minute for all of us to jump in, dive down and hope the current doesn’t blow us off the site.” This is my kind of dive, I think. “If anything goes wrong,” McAfee cautions, “save the cameras, then come back for survivors.”

Descending along the underwater cliff, I turn to check on my other dive buddy, McAfee’s 14-year-old son, Finn. He gives me a lazy OK signal, and we sink deeper on the ledge. Judging from the subsurface body language, the McAfees are equal parts excited about and familiar with this remote site. Kevin points his dive light at a rare banded angelfish, a spiny lobster and strings of delicate wire coral reaching out like antennae. Wire coral doesn’t survive long at well-trafficked dive sites due to well-meaning but clumsy neophyte divers. The McAfees and I glide past them with a wide, reverent berth.

A diver hovers near a sponge encrusted ledge at Dave’s Maze, a challenging dive off the westside of Lāna‘i, where divers can descend to a lower ledge ninety feet below the surface.

McAfee gets bored and realizes both Finn and I both have a half-tank’s worth of compressed air, so he heads toward Dave’s Maze. Whoever the eponymous Dave is, he could well be a permanent resident here—this site is more claustrophobia-inducing and technically challenging than Mokumanu or Catacombs or anything else I have experienced in Hawai‘i. A careless fin flick from Kevin blasts silt into my waterspace, disorienting me for a frightening moment. Luckily the site is so shallow that we use very little air (for you non-divers, because of the increased pressure, the deeper you go, the more air you use). Behind me, Finn looks content, having cornered a fat pufferfish.

Bathed in daylight again, we drift to the Jacks, an artificial breakwater of jumbled concrete and steel structures that look a lot like a pile of jacks, the kind kids played with during recess in the days before smart-phones (so I’m told). Some twenty feet in diameter, they’re an eyesore on the surface, but below they are festooned with more coral than anywhere I’ve seen on O‘ahu. The current sweeps us away before we can explore further, so I pop my surface marker buoy to signal Jayhawk to pick us up.

The last dive of the day on Jayhawk is a contrast to the consolation reefs of O‘ahu. Captain Steve calls it Tidepools, but the dive is much more interesting than its name suggests. Anchored on a deep, sandy bottom, Jayhawk is dwarfed by the four-hundred-foot cliffs pocked with the burial caves of ancient ali‘i (chiefs). Unlike the shallow tidepools I have explored on O‘ahu, these Lāna‘i-kine tidepools are connected to the open ocean by large, cathedral-like tunnels. We explore; I spot rare slipper and spiny lobsters in neighboring grottos. The coral looks as abundant and healthy as anything I saw at Mōkōlea off Kailua.

Remote spots like Tidepools are perfect places to get up close with marine life that’s rare elsewhere in Hawai‘i, like these endemic āholehole (juvenile flagtail fish) that follow in shallow waters.

Thus comes the reluctant return to Jayhawk, abundant oxygen and gravity. Once high and dry, Kevin looks a bit more morose than I. He tells me, “That was 30 percent of the coral I saw here in the ’80s.” That’s depressing, but it still makes this a healthy reef and evidence supporting my theory that the more remote the site, the healthier the coral.

By that reasoning, secret sites around the forbidden island of Ni‘ihau must live up to the hype as bucket-list destinations. Kaula Rock (twenty miles south of Ni‘ihau) and the isolated atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands must be even better, right? Thinking like this gives me a reason to keep my dive gear up to date, even though I’m a little burned out on the usual weekend diving fare.

Reefs aside, there is always some wonderful wildlife drifting by—literally—like the dead sperm whale washed up off Waikīkī last January, which attracted a menagerie of sharks. I didn’t go with my idiot buddies to swim with fat sharks (such dives are hazardous to my marriage), but there are saner wildlife encounters, like sinking down to the top fifty feet of a five-thousand-foot water column at midnight to see what strange nocturnal creatures drift by. That’s the infamous “black water” dive off Hawai‘i Island, which is an insane chaser to the popular manta ray night dive. So, while Hawai‘i doesn’t have the world’s best reefs a leisurely shore dive away from a beachside resort, like some places in the Caribbean or South Pacific, the off-grid Hawai‘i dive adventures pay spectacular dividends—if you’re willing to work
for them. HH