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January 2002 Vol. 17, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Niihau and Lehua, Offshore Kauai

big fish diving from a day boat

from the January, 2002 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

An American land-based dive operation that dives with pelagic marine life is just about an oxymoron in the 21st century. However, if you can handle the more than two hour bone-jarring boat ride and a $250 tab for three tanks, you can see the big guys -- sharks, rays, wahoo, even monk seals. Its all quite a thrill and its just off the coast of Kauai, Hawaiis garden island.

Hollywood loves Kauai: here they filmed Six Days, Seven Nights, and all three Jurassic Park movies. It has the only navigable rivers in Hawaii, and, instead of volcanic rock, its composed of dark burgundy dirt that seeps into everything (the locals seem to have given up on cleaning their clothes, and sell T-shirts -- dyed with this red dirt). Kauais sparse coral reefs are accompanied by spectacular lava tubes and a vibrant reef community. But, its whats 17 miles offshore, across the Kaulakahi Channel, thats the real attraction to divers. The Island of Niihau is inhabited by 200 folks who only speak Hawaiian and live without electricity, telephones, paved roads and crime. To maintain their culture, they dont allow visitors to come ashore. Still, in July, I made three day trips to dive the clear waters, with dives every bit as good as when I first visited in 1998.

From May to October, two operators -- Bubbles Below and Sea Sport Divers -- offer twice-weekly trips, weather permitting. During my first week, I had calm water for the crossings for three trips, yet even with the raincoats provided, I got soaking wet on the way home. Both operators canceled their trip the following week due to rough seas.

Sea Sport Divers 33-foot Radon dive boat left the Kukuiula harbor at 6:30 a.m. with eight bleary-eyed divers, Captain Andrew Nellis and Divemaster Paul Piretti. Niihau and Lehua, Offshore KauaiTrolling on the way over, the crew landed a 65 lb. trevally and offered to cut steaks for divers after the trip.

Our first and third tanks were at Vertical Awareness, a wall dive with jutting lava shelves, where the current was slight, visibility ran better than 80 feet, and the water was in the mid to upper 70s. The rule is to group dive. We never went far from the dive boat, and we were back underneath after 20 minutes. We went 60 feet on the first dive and 70 feet the next, which disappointed me since theres more to see deeper. I climbed aboard with 1000 psi after 60 minutes, while diving with Nitrox mixed at 32 percent O2. This site had plenty of tropicals: huge schools of pennant fish and millet seed butterflyfish, Moorish idols, four-spot, longnose, and pyramid butterflyfish, yellow tang and even a red stripe pipefish. Sparse outcrops of cauliflower coral covered the ledges pocked with large irregular holes, providing an otherworldly appearance. The second dive -- Super Highway, part of Niihau Arches -- was preceded by snacks and followed by sandwiches. Going no deeper than 65 feet, we visited arches formed by swirled lava with plenty of lava tubes, caves, sink holes and pinnacles (somehow missing a spectacular natural stone amphitheater that I later saw with Bubbles Below). The caverns held plenty of surprises: tiger cowries, their mantles bright white with brown spots, hiding in crevices (you cant collect em), whitemouth and yellow margin moray eels, or ceilings covered with orange cup coral Tubastraea coccinea. And once, a group of juvenile gray reef sharks came by. We got back to port after 7 p.m., with a total running time of 5.5 hours. Frankly, its a long and not so comfortable day.

While Sea Sport offered a good trip and has a more comfortable and roomy boat (both boats have heads), I preferred Bubbles Below, thanks largely to owner Linda Bail. Looking like she has enjoyed the endless Hawaiian sun for the 22 years she has been diving these waters, she has a natural personality for the dive business, and putting all her divers at ease. Before and after every dive, she consults fish ID books and describes species and behaviors endemic to Hawaii and Kauai. She knows where critters hide and creates different sounds underwater to attract them. All her dives were drift (the only way to get full value here) unlike Sea Sport, which anchored for the three dives I did with them (I did see them drifting the Keyhole when I was out with Bubbles Below). Physically strong and a first class swimmer, she always came up last on a group dive. Sure, you can do your own thing with Bubbles Below, but chances are that just as she knows where every critter is, she also knows where you are, even if you take off.

Bubbles Belows 35-foot Radon leaves the Port Allen dock with Linda and Captain Peter Ricciardi about 7:30 a.m. (And gets back past 6 p.m after spending four hours in the boat.) This harbor, rather than the port used by Sea Sport, saves up to two hours of travel time, a significant benefit. We were well fed on board, with bagels and cream cheese on the way out, a veggie pizza heated on the engine block after the first dive, sandwiches, chips, and juices for lunch, and plenty of water. Computers and safety sausages were gratis. While she required group dives and staying within visual contact of the divemaster, she relaxed the rules after getting comfortable with divers skills. And, no computer police, though they go no deeper than 130 feet (Nitrox fills were 33-34 percent). Camera and body rinses came from the fresh warm shower aboard. (Both operators boats had workable heads.)

At Niihau, a pod of spinner dolphins circled our boat. Unlike their bottlenose dolphin cousins, they quickly left whenever they sensed a snorkeler or diver. Our first dive was Keyhole Drift on Lehua Rock, where Linda led us on snorkel to a huge keyhole-like opening in the rock, through which the early morning light shone down upon us. We descended the deep lava wall, where giant trevally and bigeye jacks roamed. A trio of spotted eagle rays passed in the distance. As we moved along, whitetip and gray reef sharks sometimes swam in for a look. Against the stark rock and azure seas, a riot of colors surrounded us from the schools of Potters angelfish, pyramid and pennant butterflyfish, and the native bandit angelfish, which has a black eye level band level that separates its coloration into gray above and white below. Hawaiian fish life can indeed be a colorful t r e a t .

A gentle dive at Niihau Arches in an underwater Grand Canyon-like setting took us past a huge underwater amphitheater, along with the huge underwater arches and dozens of lava caves, tubes, and swim throughs. I had visions of the amphitheaterlike lava structure filled by the piscine equivalent of a WWF match between competing monk seals! As we swam through a huge arch, a green sea turtle swam into the distance. In a lava tube, I used the small flashlight from my BC pocket to illuminate the bright orange-colored colonial cup coral on the ceilings or the branches of feathery black coral.

The last dives of each charter were made close to Lehua, at Ambers Arches or Pyramid Point. While I spotted a rare spotted knifejaw -- a false parrotfish with bright white face and a dark gray body densely covered with spots -- endangered monk seals provided the show. About 1,200 are left in the Hawaiian archipelago, mostly in the northwest islands. Their bulging expressive eyes make them especially photogenic. Linda told us to let them determine their interaction. To have a monk seal hang with us, she said, Try to look or act interesting. Yeah, so how do I know what tickles a monk seals fancy? Well, a monk seal did become fascinated with a petite female diver who wore a striking yellow wet suit and yellow fins, the only one of us who didnt look like a seal underwater. On another days dive, a monk seal posed in front of the photographers at 25 feet for 5 minutes, turning his face back and forth and vocalizing, as if to say to us: Hey, take my picture from this angle, its my best profile!

I had the distinct displeasure of sharing a dive with a fellow who described himself as an aggro photographer. I learned what he meant when he charged directly in front of a monk seal while I was circling behind it for a stealth camera shot. He got off a single picture, while chasing the monk seal away, and keeping everyone else from getting a photo or even seeing it. Later, Linda asked him to be kinder and gentler, but I would have preferred to keelhaul him.

Niihau and Lehua are sharky waters. On drift dives at Keyhole, I saw sharks as I descended. Often, whitetip reef sharks from 3-5 feet swam at 30-50-foot depth. Gray reef sharks up to 6 feet long could be seen down to 80 feet or deeper. A step up from inquisitive, they didnt veer from divers, and occasionally swam around us. Linda stressed that we should ascend in pairs. A solitary diver should signal her, and she would pair him with an ascent buddy if she thought it necessary. Here she has seen Galapagos sharks, copper sharks (what the Aussies call a bronze whaler), and, even a great white shark headed straight for a lone diver upon ascent. While Linda said she only takes experienced divers on her Niihau charters, one diver sat out due to a combination of sharky waters and seasickness.

Both operations offer two-tank local dives, much easier efforts and surely rewarding for the average diver visiting Kauai. I made several dives with Bubbles Below on the southwest end of Kauai north of Port Allen. Drifting in a 2-3 knot current, Linda led us through three dive sites off Kauai: Sand Cave, Turtle Bluffs, and the Fish Bowls. We finned past a dozen green turtles on the bottom, some stacked on top of one another. A pair of leaf scorpionfish hiding in a head of antler coral swayed in the current, making no effort to right themselves as they went with the flow. We finished at the Fish Bowls and were surrounded by abundant schools of colorful reef fish, including black durgeon, millet seed and pennant butterflyfish an longnose butterflies.

Upon entering the clear blue at a site named by Bubbles Below as Hineokas Horehouse (sic), I was encircled by hundreds of bluestripe snapper, Moorish idols and pennant butterflyfish. At the lava bottom strewn with sparse coral, a large lobster in a lava opening teamed up with a trumpet fish. Small schools of Hawaiian domino damselfish made a unique chirping sound when I approached. They were spread like silly string along the bottom gelatinous white strands from a burtied medusa spaghetti worm. Red egg coils of the Spanish Dancer led Linda to a brilliant red 9-inch long Spanish Dancer; she released it to unfurl its bright red mantle and twist and undulate in the current. The sparsely sown heads of cauliflower coral interspersed with antler and lace coral reminded me just how barren the coral population is here when compared with the Caribbean. However, it supports a rich and colorful marine life community, more interesting to my eye than the Caribbean, with invertebrates such as a huge tritons trumpet, a large partridge tun, and many crowns-of-thorns. We discovered a pair of white-tipped reef sharks in a small cave and were entertained by many moray eels hiding among the lava outcrops intertwined in coral heads. Niihau and Lehua, Offshore KauaiSpawning wrasses released sperm and eggs above the reef, feeding a host of reef fish, and hopefully leaving a few embryos behind.

I dived Hale OHonu (House of Turtles), three times. Morning, Noon and Night. You cant get much deeper than 60 feet, unless youre way off course. On a morning dive, I found a pure white frogfish, quite unusual camouflage unless youre sitting upon a bleached coral head! Whitetip reef sharks (2-3 foot range) swam around and turtles decorated the lava and sparse reef bottom, some stacked 2 and 3 feet deep. One poor turtle was covered with tumors about its neck, head, and flippers (a natural phenomenon or from the effluent from the sugar cane processing on the land nearby). Finding a large tritons trumpet, Linda tried placing it next to its favorite food dish, a crown-of-thorns, but it wouldnt take the bait. On our afternoon dive, a huge school of Hellers barracuda finned away as we entered the water. Fewer turtles, but lots of scorpionfish, Hawaiian and green lionfishes, leaf scorpionfish and a fire dartfish. A yellow, white, pink and red 3-inch fish had a dorsal spine 2/3 as long as its body, which it flicked up and down. Our night dive was chock full of the marine life: both spiny and Hawaiian as well as slipper lobsters, turtles and green morays in holes in the lava. As darkness descended, parrot fish created their mucous blanket for their nights rest. Searching in the lava crevices unearthed tritons trumpets and a pair of whitetip reef sharks. As we motored back to port under a full moon, I noticed an impossibly large white Moonbow on the horizon, a rare phenomenon. Up above a shooting star lit the skies. All special effects that even Hollywood couldnt create.

Kauai is a well-populated island with plenty of tourist activities: Ocean kayaking, surfing, windsurfing, sailing, fishing, hiking, camping, sightseeing, and just beaching it! Youll see locals surfing and sailboarding on beaches all over the island where it is best advised that tourists stay out of the water due to unfamiliarity with currents, rip tides, and surf. There have been 26 drownings in Kauai in the last two years, mostly tourists.

Clearly hit by the events of 9/11, bargains abound. There are endless accommodations, from B & Bs to the tony Princeville Resort, which has the Prince Course. I secured a Triple A room at the new Radisson Kauai Beach Resort (the old Outrigger Kauai Beach Hotel) for $121 a night with taxes, using my AAA card for a discount. This hotel has a great swimming pool, is right on the beach, and is close to Lihue and Kapaa. Locals go to Camp House Grill in Kalaheo for great burgers, breakfasts, and daily fresh-baked pies. Hamuras Saimin Stand in Lihue offers a heaping bowl of saimin noodles with vegetables, meat, or seafood in the $3-$4 price range. Sticks of grilled teriyaki-marinated beef (tough and inedible) or chicken (quite good) are $1, and the lilikoi pie for dessert is $1.50. Roys at the Poipu Shopping Village is part of Roy Yamaguchis high-end chain with pricey yet exceptional meals for two at ($80-$100 with drinks and dessert). Nearby Kikos Paradise had great fresh fish and excellent ribs at a reasonable $16-$20 price range. Brenneckes $18-$25 price range for excellent fish offers a view of Poipu Beach from the deck. Popular Zelos on the Beach at Hanalei had the worst food on the island. Dried out coconut shrimp arrived too spicy to eat and ribs were simply boiled with barbecue sauce poured on them.

But, go to Kaui to visit Nihau, where drift diving is the only way to catch a glimpse of the pelagics that are also along with you for the same oceanic ride. Bubbles Below delivered this in spades, with gray and whitetip shark dives, dolphin, big fish, eagle rays, and frolicking monk seals. Its an expensive trip, but dont miss it -- and reserve far in advance since the only way to visit this is with the Best of the Bunch, and thats Linda Bail.

-- C.K.

Niihau and Lehua, Offshore KauaiDivers Compass: Sea Sport Divers charges $240 for this day trip, and Bubbles Below charges $235. Two tank dives with Sea Sports and Bubbles Below are $100. Nitrox fills are $10 extra at Bubbles Below, and $12 at Sea Sport Divers. Both Sea Sport Divers and Bubbles Below give progressive discounts (10%-15%) on your dives, depending on how many days of diving you are with them. Sea Sport Divers would not count their Niihau trips towards this discount, while Bubbles Below did. Sea Sports Divers also does one ($70) and two-tank ($85) shore dives, Bubbles Below does not have shore dives. Seasport Divers, 2827 Poipu Road, Koloa, HI 96756, phone: (800)685-5889.http://www.kauaiscubadiving.com; e-mail: seasport@pixi.com. Bubbles Below, P.O. Box 157, Eleele, HI 96705, phone: (808)332-7333. www.BubblesBelowKauai.com;e-mail: kaimanu@aloha.net ... You need a car on Kauai since the shops dont pick you up so you must drive to the harbor. SASD has a large well-stocked dive shop, but Bubbles Below operates a boutique out of their van for souvenirs ... John Hoovers Hawaiian Sea Creatures and John E. Randalls Hawaii a n Shore Fishes are good I.D. books and available through Undercurrent. ... Recently divorced, Linda Bail now uses her maiden name, Linda Marsh.

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