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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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March 2000 Vol. 26, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Diving From the Kona Aggressor II

Live-aboard Diving in Polynesia, USA

from the March, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Divers:

I’m a fortunate diver who has had the chance to dive many of the world’s best venues. But I’m writing to tell you about an American destination that, if I relax my standards a tad, can produce some damn good diving: the big island of Hawaii. Here you’ll find tropical beaches and snow-topped 13,796' Mauna Kea. There’s both a desert-like dry side and verdant rainforest that gets 200" of rain each year, and even a brace of Polynesian culture. And, beneath the sea, there’s a range of endemic IndoPacific fish and exciting diving. Shut your eyes, then open them, and you’ll swear you’re in the South Pacific, not the north Pacific.

What? You have misgivings? Can it compare to, say, Fiji? Well, my week aboard the Kona Aggressor II with a lively bunch of world-traveled divers produced pleasure-filled and varied diving, though I missed what a guest the previous week had inscribed in the guest book: manta and spotted eagle rays, pilot whales, and a whale shark! Of course: “shoulda been here last week.”

Yet what’s impressive here is that you swim among 600 or so species of IndoPacific fish (not garden variety Caribbean critters), 176 of which you can’t see anywhere else, including the Hawaiian bigeye, lionfish, and hogfish. During my week in November I saw plenty of the local fish, including some pretty rare critters. To-wit: In search of a cleaning station, I followed my compass past pinnacles and over small valleys filled with lava rocks and corals. Kona Aggressor III was looking for a small spire with varieties of angel and butterflyfish surrounding it. I descended to the 86' bottom and there, in the distance, was the beautiful and elusive Tinker’s angelfish, appearing like a silver and black shimmering beacon from a distance, and a very busy cleaning station too! (This Copydeeper-water fish is so over-collected for the aquarium trade the dive site must remain you can see it, too.) As I headed up, I stopped at a pinnacle with a sociable green turtle, a common creature here, and enjoyed stunning pyramid butterflies flitting up and down the walls. Schools of anthias and other fish curled from the pinnacle lip like flower petals blowing in a wind. Accompanied by small morays and clouds of colorful small fish, I cranked my computer back into the green after a thoroughly engaging hour’s dive.

Most diving here takes place along the stark, rugged, and beautiful south Kona coast, a rocky, arid, sea- and wind-sheltered stretch of coastline. The craggy southwest shore is newly-spawned and constantly expanding due to the active volcanic activity. Since only the northernmost spots get dived by land-based boats, most sites reached by the Aggressor are pristine. In fact, the only evidence the sites had been dived at all were the moorings and one ancient, encrusted barbecue someone had jettisoned. (Capt. Monk swore it wasn’t him.) The characteristic lava slopes covered with rubble and hard corals were occasionally broken by underwater mesas that resembled an Arizona landscape. (Expect to find hard corals that aren’t particularly colorful or unique and little, if any, soft coral.) Sites were often punctuated by pinnacles and lava tubes filled with endemic inverts and interesting shadow-dwelling lionfish, squirrel- and cardinalfishes.

At Au’au Crater, I took a giant stride off the platform into 78°, gin-clear water. I swam over the drop-off, peering around for the hammerheads and rays that they told me cruised here (none, of course). Among jacks, parrotfish, and triggerfish, I headed toward the north wall of a v-shaped canyon. Near the shore, the canyon funneled up and inward and the walls were rich with bandit angelfish, lionfish, nudibranchs, cleaner and ghost shrimp, lobsters, octopus, and morays. Swimming across the boulder-strewn floor, I spotted yellowtail and rockmover wrasse, leaf, titan and devil scorpions, a crown-of-thorns starfish breakfasting on coral, and even a day octopus willing to pose. Enjoying the Technicolor denizens and playful Hawaiian spinner dolphins I saw several times, it was hard to imagine I was only a five-hour flight from home.

But yes: I wasn’t just close to home; I still had all the home comforts. No converted crew boat this Aggressor: built as a diving live-aboard in 1992, she is posh and comfortable. At 80', she easily accommodates its crew of five plus ten divers housed in five quiet, private staterooms, each with a lower queen and upper single berth, a bathroom, a large, scenery-drinking 3’ x 3’ window -- not a porthole -- and modest storage. The zealous crew kept the staterooms immaculate; everyone pitches in on this boat, and duties rotate. The walrus-mustachioed Capt. Monk Daniel doesn’t expect his crew to do anything he won’t, so he schlepped tanks, led dives, and scoured heads. It was a refreshing attitude, and the boat’s atmosphere was the better for it.

The staterooms are on both sides of the spacious salon and dining area, where they serve meals family-style at a long table. There’s also a slide-sorting light table and ample audio-video gear -- 8mm and VHS VCRs and monitor, CD player, even decibel-blasting surround-sound -- to make the pickiest audiophile happy. Although the media room lured many guests, I spent most of my evenings relaxing on deck or in the hot tub (kept at 98° to feel hot while avoiding problems from hot-water immersion after long dives), asking the media buffs to turn it down (they did).

The hot tub, a covered bar, and smoking area are up on the roomy deck, where one can find plenty of shade, comfortable chaise longues, and a BBQ grill. The spacious dive deck includes cavernous under-bench storage, an ice-filled tray with water bottles with divers’ names on them, warm towels waiting as you climb up the ladder, and small bins under the camera space to keep personal items dry and safe. The padded camera table is well-protected, with ample storage below. A dunk tank handy to each ladder is reserved for photo gear. Each diver is issued two 80 cf aluminum tanks; while you dive with one, they fill the other. Nitrox is a steep $10 a tank, or $175 for the week. (Content testers are provided, but double-check: one was not working properly.) At week’s end divers are charged the best rate for their use.

The Aggressor ran smoothly, though not as the proverbial well-oiled machine. The strict schedule we set out with soon lagged behind by half an hour or so. Capt. Monk, himself enthusiastic, full of humor, and dedicated to providing guests a good experience, outshone many of the crew. The assistant captain was just beginning his second week on the boat, and Katy, though great at guiding dives and finding critters, made herself scarce outside the water. I took a photo class with the pro, Mike, a one-time Australia resident who’d also had stints as a Navy Seal and a police detective. While Mike offered commentary, he wasn’t quite the colorful character his background suggested. His mind seemed elsewhere, and he was hard to pin down. He did no instruction dives and had no photo/video texts available (slim pickings for critter ID books, too).

Kona Aggressor IIThe entire crew divvies up the kitchen work, and even Captain Monk bussed tables and washed dishes. Chef Karen Burns (untrue to her last name) rules below decks. Inventive and adept, her humor is as warm and spicy as her dishes -- and as easy to take. Early birds can serve themselves coffee and toast upon rising; the dive day started with scrambled eggs and bacon, waffles with apple-pecan syrup and sausage, or French toast thick enough to insulate a house. Karen was a model of perpetual motion with a goodly dose of mother bird to boot; after dives she offered up buffalo wings, green munchies, quesadillas, cookies, or fresh chocolate brownies. Your ticket includes free soft drinks and beer (though hoisting a can of Coors or hard stuff means you’re a snorkeler for the rest of the day). Lunch started with hearty soup and salad, followed by potstickers or Reuben or toasted BLT sandwiches. Dinner was the main event: fresh mahi mahi caught from the fantail, pasta with mushrooms, zucchini and turkey sausage with sun-dried tomatoes, roast pork, steak, plus fresh vegetables and rolls -- all in all, plenty for hungry divers in a feeding frenzy. Desserts? Delicious bread pudding with rum sauce or banana cream pie had us salivating. As is too often the case on these craft, however, the dinner wines were something you’d expect to be served when Denny’s gets its license (all right, they’re not that bad, but if you’re an oenophile, I’d recommend shelling out an extra buck or two on the wine), and the “boutique” flavored coffees were hardly the quality high-octane stuff I crave, especially an annoyance given the fine Kona coffees harvested off nearby hillsides.

Divers have lots of choice here. Dive briefings are illustrated, though not excessively detailed, and guided dives are offered every dive. Crew members rotate giving briefings and leading dives. Solo divers have no worries, and sharp-eyed crew with a ready-to-launch inflatable stay alert in case anyone is challenged. Dive times are up to you -- mine ranged from 45 to 90 minutes -- but a 110' floor is enforced. Divers are asked to report depths and times on returning, but they don’t check computers (no one complained when I went a bit deeper on one dive). Two deeper dives are scheduled for the morning, and the boat does a three-point stable mooring for two afternoon dives and a night dive after dinner, an option foregone by most of my fellow guests. The trip’s only dud dives were off the Kona Surf Hotel, a badly abused area with modest life. While we’d hoped for mantas there, only snorkelers came to our lights. But divers can easily get up to 28 dives in the 5.5 dive days; I averaged 4 a day at a pace that felt relaxed.

We ended our diving at Turtle Pinnacles north of Kona, a popular destination that turned out to be one of my favorite dive spots worldwide. The viz is less than most Kona coast spots, a mere 50 - 75', but the pinnacles are spectacular: green turtles, some as big as your coffee table, gather to get cleaned by several species of tangs. You can approach quietly and get close; the turtles settle in natural depressions in the coral at 60' and go into a trance-like state as they get their shells scoured of algae by a kaleidoscope of yellow, grey, and blue surgeonfish. Their necks and flippers hang leisurely, and the look on their faces is purely “aaah, a little to the left… yes, that’s soooo good!” When you’re through gawking at turtles, macro subjects abound. I found plenty of colorful invertebrates in the pinnacles, rocks and coral, including nudibranchs, pipefish, and shrimp. There were also dwarf and stout morays, juvenile yellowtail coris, dragon wrasses, flame angels, resting turtles and more. I’ve seen nearly-football-sized Commerson’s frogfish hereabouts, so encrusted they looked like part of the landscape.

On our last dive day, we cruised back to the Kailua Bay Pier after two dives. The crew and Kona-based staff hosted a wine and cheese party on the sun deck overseen by the ship’s mascot, “Bosun,” a 3-foot-high, carved wooden brown bear with red fins, blue swim shorts, mask, and Nitrox tank, plus a few floral and shell leis. They cut us loose for dinner on our own (an Aggressor “tradition”), so we walked half a mile to the Chart House, with a gorgeous sunset and good, if expensive, dinner. On our return we gathered for a slide show with “best” photos from guests and some candid shots Mike had taken of us all during the week, ours to take home. As happens on live-aboards, our group had gotten to know each other well, and great camaraderie prevailed.

The Aggressor dives year-round and the diving’s equally good across the seasons, though there’s greater likelihood of seeing whale sharks and humpback whales in winter. It amazes me how many divers come back to Kona repeatedly. While they might see it as a nearby Polynesia, with visits to heiaus (traditional temple platforms), the royal Place of Refuge and petroglyph fields, and a full luau to experience the meaning of aloha, I suspect they’re really returning for excellent diving off a world-class, uncrowded live-aboard -- certainly better than ordinary Fiji diving, as good as good Fiji diving, and a hell of a lot easier to reach.

— L. J.

Kona Aggressor IIDiver’s Compass: Contact Kona Aggressor II at Live/Dive Pacific: phone 800-344-5662 or 808-329-8182; fax 808-329-2628; email; website All-inclusive one-week cruises (Sat.-Sat.) $1,895...Non-stop, 5- hour flights from L.A. or San Francisco often aggressively discounted. Aggressor van will meet and drop you at Kona-Keahole airport or town... Save 50% on lodging with your entertainment card or pick up land-package bargains off-season (roughly Easter- December excepting the Iron Man Triathlon in late October)... Nearest chamber in Honolulu, 6 sea-hours away... Air temps hover near 80° by day, 70° at night. Water highs near 80° August–October to low 70s... November-May 5mm of neoprene and a hood will help, 3mm is fine summers... C-cards checked, waivers required... Absolutely no spearfishing or collecting... A lift is available with advance notice, making the boat fully accessible to disabled divers (full five-star rating by the Handicapped Scuba Association)... E-6 done nightly, mounts available, Nikonos photo/video gear available for rental, good range of rental dive gear, some limited repairs possible... Aggressor fully equipped with oxygen, first-aid equipment, radio, cell phone. Water is unlimited -- 1,200 gallon-a-day watermaker. No da kine water or health pilikia (troubles) here, brah, you’re in the USA!

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