Saturday, November 28, 2009

Escape to Kona

I must have looked lost as I stood scanning the lava-rock shelf extending out into Honaunau Bay, wondering where was the two-step entrance to the water. It was a bit late in the day; I'd landed around noon and immediately pointed my rental car south, first to pick up tanks at Jack's Diving Locker, and then to drive to the Place of Refuge in time for at least one dive. A local haole was kind enough to show me where the entrance spot was and sure enough, it was a natural step into a small protected inlet area.

I picked a heading -- due west -- and kicked out across the shallow coral reef. It was bathed in sunlight and danced with hues of yellow, red, orange and white. Small butterfly fish and Moorish Idols darted in and out of the coral heads and I could see the bottom from the surface as far in any direction as I looked.

My heading took me straight to the bowl-shaped wall that dropped on about a 45˚ angle to a sand bottom at about 90 feet. I descended at the edge of the wall and eased down the incline to about 50 feet where I leveled off and headed south along the wall. Immediately I saw a crown of thorns star eating coral. Ornate Butterflys were everywhere, along with trigger fish, and many other types of butterflys.

I crossed a large underwater canyon extending back toward shore and saw another larger canyon further to the south west. On the other side of this canyon there was a magnificent cascade of plate coral, a massive buttress of coral slabs cascading from near the surface all the way to the bottom. This was my turn spot, but I lingered a bit just to take in the size and beauty of the structure as sunlight spangles animated the coral through the slight blue tint of the crystal clear water.

On the way back I took a detour across a set of coral heads into another branch of one of the canyons and found the "aloha" sculpture in the sand at about 20 feet. It is a bunch of cinder blocks arranged to spell "aloha" and had been one of the sights I'd come to see.

Exiting the water at Honaunau at low tide was a bit of a challenge, and I lost my emt shears from my waist webbing after taking off my rig in the water and dragging it ashore after I'd climbed out. So it goes.

The next day I had four boat dives planned; two in the morning and two at night. The first dive of the day was a return to Lone Tree Arch, which was the site of my first ever OW dive, a checkout dive that was part of my initial Scuba Diver cert with Lynn. It was nice to be able to see more of the site than just the rock bottom, and swimming through the arch was exciting and fun. On that dive we saw three octopus! and also a juvenile rock mover wrasse flitting about under a coral head.

At one point I felt cold, even with my 5mm jumpsuit, and found out later that what I'd felt was fresh water upwelling. Since Kona has no rivers, all the water that falls on that side of the island percolates down through the lava rock and comes up ofshore as spring water. You can actually see it shimmering in the water column.

The peak moment of the whole day was the night dive with the Mantas at Garden Eel Cove. When we got there a bit before sundown only the Aggressor was anchored at the site, but by the time we came up from our first dive there were many boats moored around the campfire area. In the fading light we saw a number of large white-mouthed eels extending from their holes.

The bottom of Garden Eel cove is a lot like any campfire pit area. Desolate, black, sandy and sooty. But at night, with the lights blazing in the pit and divers kneeling around the circular arena, the scene becomes otherworldly and surreal. Then the Mantas arrive.

Slowly their numbers increase as the plankton gathers in the beams of the many lights pointed up into the black water. A 12 foot manta picks you out and soars directly toward your head, a kind of underwater chicken game, but the manta veers upward at the last second, often grazing your hair as it scuds past you into an upward arc that brings it right back down in front of your light. The mantas do lazy loop-de-loops like that right in front of you, their eyes passing within a foot of your eyes and their massive open mouths scooping up plankton.

After about ten minutes we had 11 mantas looping and soaring in their underwater ballet about the campfire area. They seemed so numerous that all you could see was swooping white wings and huge maws forming an Escherian tapestry of underwater life.

The next day I took one of Jack's advanced three-tank charters, and this made for an extremely relaxing and rewarding day. We only had five divers, all of them extremely competent underwater, so you didn't have to keep one eye out for the next out of control person on a collision course with you.

The highlight of this day was the drift dive at LAX. There was a big current at the site and we had to drop twice just to get to the entrance to this wonderland. Once headed down-current we entered a series of lava tubes that reminded me of Palancar Caves. The underwater structure was amazing and covered with healthy coral and reef denizens. We saw a frog fish and a couple of leaf scorpionfish.

But the unbelievable part of the dive was when we emerged from a lava tube ina a canyon full of little snow flakes: juvenile plate coral. This coral growth appeared everywhere on the rock faces and valley floor of the canyon, and looked for all the world like twinkling lights or flakes of small crystal spread out as far as you could see. We moved carefully above the coral and swam through gaps into other canyons likewise covered with the tiny polyps. Our guide, Jim, said that there was nowhere he know of in the world that you could see such an expanse of juvenile plate coral like that. I felt truly lucky to have been able to be there.

My final day of diving put me in a group with guide Elaine Blank, who is the PADI course director at Jack's. She took us to Kaloko's Arch, another great spot with collapsed lava tubes and ta'ape schools hiding just under the overhangs. The fish would skitter away as you swam past and then return to resume their positions under the arch.

This small taste of the underwater world off the Kona coast just got me thinking, on the flight back home, of my next trip to these waters. I think the plan then will be to do more shore diving, and also do some diving up on the northern side of the west-facing coast.

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