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October 2003 Vol. 18, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dive Makai, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

pacific critter diving on the Kona coast

from the October, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

Dive Makai has been in business nearly 30 years. From the outset, owner Tom Shockley focused on the excitement of finding and identifying unique Kona critters (coral isn't much in Hawaii, so you'd better focus on the fish), while treating his customers like adults and offering them good service and a lot of fun. His wife Lisa Choquette and everyone following conveyed the same enthusiasm. For other shops to compete, they too had to be personal and critter savvy, so many good operations developed along the Kona Coast. But none with such loyal customers as Dive Makai.

On my fourth diving day this September, spinner dolphins danced on the surface as we departed from the small boat harbor. That was a good sign, because on my first three days I had seen plenty of interesting critters and fish, but none bigger than a single eagle ray. This was Dive Makai's full-day, three-tank "adventure dive" to the south end of the island. As we bounced along for 90 minutes, we were rewarded with a perfect Hawaiian rainbow, a full 180-degree, horizon-to-horizon arc. A pod of pygmy sperm whales surfaced near the boat, and we slowed to watch them. (On the way back a pod of pilot whales passed within yards of us.)

At Horseshoe Canyon, next to sheer lava cliffs, Matt, the skipper, dove in to set the hook where it wouldn't damage coral. A dramatic slope of rock, like the bow of a sunken battleship, angled toward the bottom, where huge boulders were strewn. Coral greens, blues, and yellows brightened the terrain. One hundred feet down, a hammerhead swam by, disappearing slowly in the 60-foot visibility. Our divemaster Kendra, Matt's wife (and Lisa's daughter), pointed upward at two eagle rays. For the rest of the dive, I contented myself with small, rare beasties like a long nose hawkfish and a tinker's butterflyfish.

Given the $165 tab for three dives, I thought Dive Makai could spring for lunch, but we'd been told to pack our own. Their only provisions were sodas and sweets. After lunch, we dove a muck and rubble site called Pinnacles of Illusion. Kendra, whose fins are inscribed "Kendra Follow Me," found a unique Commerson's frogfish identical in color to its coral perch. It remained stoic throughout scores of strobe flashes. (Dive Makai prohibits prodding wildlife or rearranging corals for photogenic positions.) Kendra lighted a glowing red lionfish floating upside down in a lava crevice and a yellow margin moray with a golden stripe that shimmered like a neon ribbon along its spine.

Our last dive was at A-Frame Cave and Three Room Cave. Slopping upward toward land, A-Frame's triangular maw could hold several divers at once. Cave lobsters with iridescent pink spots scuttled backward. White nudibranchs clung to the cave's ceiling. Soldier fish stared at me and two splendid slipper lobsters wandered the cavern floor like alien insects. My partner waited behind as I beamed my light into the tunnel leading to the third room, beyond our limits, and then turned and kicked back out. Throughout the trip, water ran 80-82 F.

While Dive Makai lives up to its sterling reputation, it's a bit retro. Their cabin cruiser is trailored into the harbor daily. You hand up your gear while the boat is still on the trailer. You can board to rig it yourself, but must climb out before the boat slips into the water. The tanks are aging steel 72s, pumped to 2,500 psi. Though they have less capacity than aluminum 80s, for example, the staff allowed experienced divers to dive their own profiles, and breathe tanks empty, which meant hour-long dives. I was never checked for maximum depth or remaining psi. They can provide Nitrox tanks, but I wasn't unaware of it beforehand and when I arrived it was too late to reserve tanks.

Their 31-foot Lio Kai III has twin Volvo six cylinder engines, and a new coat of blue paint. There's no flying bridge, so most passengers ride in the cabin out of the sun. Photographers have a small rinse tank and use the top of the engine compartment or the benches to set up and change film. Eight divers are a full boat, and they will go out with as few as four. Six are required for the adventure dive.

But, heaven forbid, there is no head. Guests wishing to relieve themselves must request that the captain stop so they can face aft while everyone else faces forward. (For pooping protocol, see the following article.) High end divers in third world countries might accept this, but we're paying big bucks in the States. There is a head at the boat harbor, but I wouldn't use it without wearing waders.

While the Kona Coast offers many hotels, my partner and I went upland to the four unit Silver Oaks Ranch, fifteen minutes from the harbor at a pleasant 1,400 feet. Tom and Amy Decker provided a warm welcome and plenty of privacy. The ranch sits on 10 acres and has a herd of goats and a horse. Each morning wild turkeys gobbled us awake at 6:15. Perfect, since the boat leaves an hour later.

Dive Makai, Kailua-Kona, HawaiiThe Ocean View Suite and Coast View Room abut the Main House. A wraparound deck with a view of the coast is a wonderful place to enjoy the sunset. There's no A/C, but in August the temps at night were in the mid-60s, and there was a lovely breeze. The Garden Cottage and the Ranch House cottage have full kitchens (Silver Oaks does not serve any meals). In the refrigerator we found Kona coffee beans, teas, milk, cream, sugar, a couple of bagels, butter and cream cheese, fresh island fruit, granola, and cereal. There's a propane grill, so we could stop at Safeway after diving, hang up our suits at the rinse station, and throw a steak on the grill.

Kailua-Kona is a den of American tourist culture. The mini-mall is next to the T-shirt shop, which is next to the body piercing studio, which is next to the real estate kiosk offering free passes to a luau if you listen to their condo pitch. We tried a few restaurants like the Chart House, but found the food uninspired and overpriced. We breakfasted on the water at the Java Hut and got two small orders of bacon, eggs, coffee, juice, and a flaccid croissant for $27. The Sunday brunch at the King Kamehameha is $27.95/person -- unlimited shrimp, oysters, ahi sashimi, eggs, waffles, prime rib, etc. In the evening I did enjoy Teshima's in Kealakekuna. Lacking atmosphere beyond a kinetic light depicting Niagara Falls, it offers excellent ahi sashimi, tempuras, and teriyaki. The service is friendly and fast, and the clientele is mostly local, so we were paying kama'aina prices. On days when we weren't diving, we breakfasted at the Aloha Theatre Cafe in Kainaliu, where we feasted on macadamia banana pancakes or three egg omelets with sides of Portuguese sausage and fresh baked muffins -- with the ocean view. Now, I would hate to have that kind of breakfast before a three-tank, headless dive trip.

Across the street and 30 years back in time is Jake's Upcountry Cafe. A small bar with a pool table, Jake's is dark, local, and affects a cowboy air. A unique island experience can be found at Billy Bob's Park & Pork in the village of Kealakekua. Touted as "the best Texas BBQ in the State" Billy Bob's is right next door to Just Ukes, where Wednesday evenings there's a ukulele jam session.

Hawaii offers so much beauty topside that we divided our time above and under water. The signature experience is Volcano National Park, 96 miles from Kailua-Kona. Dive Makai, Kailua-Kona, HawaiiSome folks stay the night at the Volcano House, a rustic guest house overlooking the steaming fumaroles of the Kilauea crater. An 8-mile round-trip hike on a not particularly well-marked trail will bring you to Pu'u O'o, where you may see lava flowing under the black rock. At Mauna Kea State Recreation Area, there's a trail to the 13,796-foot summit. Or take a drive, but with 4WD only. Honaunau Bay, near the Place of Refuge, offers spectacular snorkeling and shore diving. There are also many secluded beaches, adventurous day hikes, rain forests, waterfalls, and old-time Hawaiian villages to be visited -- all unpretentiously described in "Hawaii, The Big Island Revealed," from Wizard Publications, an honest and forthright travel guide.

Dive days were long, beginning with boat departure at 7:15 a.m. and generally returning at 12:30 p.m. The rides to the dive sites are generally 15-30 minutes, but the briefings can take another 20 minutes -- plus suiting up (it's too hot to suit up ahead of time). The leader reviews the topography and the critters you can expect to see, where you can expect to see them, how to look for them, their behavior, and the hand signals specific to the marine life: sleeping, hunting, eating, fighting, and mating. Being able to communicate so much about the animals makes for great dives.

After the crew helped me on with my BC at Kiawi Point, I stepped off the transom, completed a buoyancy check, and descended to 80 feet along a sloping lava reef interspersed with small patches of pink, yellow, and lavender encrusting corals. Dive leader Alexa Beckman pointed out critters with her dive light. Endemic Hawaiian psychedelic wrasse with brilliant blue splotches on orange heads rolled over to watch me watching them. Dive Makai, Kailua-Kona, HawaiiNearby a school of raccoon butterflyfish fed on the coral. Juvenile yellowtail coris with three white stripes on orange bodies reminded me of clownfish as they dashed to safety in the rocks. A pile of algae turned out to be a devil scorpionfish so well camouflaged that only Alexa had seen it. To get back on the boat, I handed up my weight belt, then clambered up the short ladder over one of two small side platforms to a larger platform over the rudder. More than one diver banged his shins or slipped between the two platforms, even in minor chop.

After 82 feet for 44 minutes, we spent an hour surface interval reviewing the dive and snacking on Chex mix, popcorn, and cookies, while rehydrating with juice or water. The crew swapped tanks, and we moved to Turtle Heaven. Three phases of domino angelfish live in the coral -- fry in the smallest coral head, teenagers in the next largest head, and mating adults in the largest. The adults attempted to chase me away from their nests with audible croaks. A mammoth green turtle settled in the coral and began moving rocks about with his jaws to get at the algae.

Since the dive leaders all knew where to find the unique life, I usually followed. Hovering above the sand, Kendra found a juvenile peacock razorfish with its tiny angler-like appendage. It darted into the sand when other divers approached. Her light revealed a juvenile dragon wrasse (like a miniature lion fish, all black and white spines and mottled face). The staff sees these critters every week, but their enthusiasm was rekindled with each encounter. At times, I thought Kendra's wild gesticulations had to indicate a whale shark sighting, when instead I would be rewarded with a mantis shrimp the size of my fingernail.

Not a big macro fan, I came away from these dives with a new appreciation of the small stuff in general and Hawaii diving in particular. There's colorful and unusual fish and critter life, and with guides like these you'll see them all. Sure, I'd like to have seen more sharks and big guys, but that's Hawaii for you. After a week with Dive Makai, my partner and I concluded we were among the loyal ones who would return. Four days of diving, three days of sightseeing -- a perfect combination.

P.S. Other operations on Kona offer equally fine diving. Two fast "sixpacks" are noted for serving more remote spots, primarily south of Kona. Aloha Dive Company (www.alohadive.com or 808-325-5560) meets divers at Honokahau Harbor (north) or Keahou Bay (south) depending on where the dives are planned for the day. Richard Troberman (Seattle, WA) says that the owner, Mike Nakachi, a native Hawaiian, "will ask the divers what they want to see, and then he will try to accommodate their requests."

Pacific Rim Divers (www.pacificrimdives.com or 800-988-4830) will "try to match divers' site requests," reports Phillip Reed of Newport, OR. Unfortunately, the Pacific Rim boat, like Dive Makai, has no head. Aloha Dive's boat is equipped with a port-a-pottie.

For more creature comforts, Eco-Adventures (www.eco-adventure.com or 800-949- 3483), operates a roomy 50-foot, dual-hull dive boat with two heads plus showers. Sandwiches are served on two-tank day dives ($102 plus tax), and they feature day or night blue water excursions for encounters with large pelagics ($150 plus tax). Bob Greaves of Bonita, CA, recalls: "Eco-Adventures did an amazing job of taking us to unusual places, giving detailed, written, and clear briefings, and showing us things that we had never seen before." Kona Honu Divers (www.konahonudivers.com or 808-324-4668) is "a new and extremely well-equipped operation," in the words of Mike Vision of Annapolis, MD. Their 46-foot, custom-designed boat features freshwater showers, bathroom, 50 percent shade deck, plus TV/VCR.

-- T.D.

Dive Makai, Kailua-Kona, HawaiiDiver's Compass: Dive Makai Charters, 808-329-2025; e-mail dmakai@divemakai.com; www.divemakai.com. ... They dive seven days a week, weather permitting. ... The best visibility is September-October. ... December-February, storms can ruin a winter vacation. ... Two-tank dive is $90; check ahead for Nitrox. ... They may request a $50/diver/day deposit, but we didn't pay until the end. ... Payment is check or cash only. ... Tipping is discouraged. ... Rental gear is available, but specify in advance. ... They graciously provided wet suits from their stock on the boat to a couple of divers who showed up without them. ... A mobile dive shop is open before and after each trip, selling fish guides, T-shirts, and small bits of dive gear. ... Silver Oaks Ranch, 75-1027 Henry Street, #310, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740; 800-325- 2000; e-mail rsvp@silveroaksranch.com. ... The Garden View and Ranch House cottages go for $155/ night. ... The Ocean View Suite is $120, and the accompanying Coast View Room rents at $100 per night. ... They provide coolers, beach chairs, boogie boards, snorkeling gear, beach towels, bathrobes, a washer/dryer, and even a couple of mountain bikes, all at no additional charge. ... Volcano House has 42 units ranging from $45 for basic facilities to $180 for a room with ensuite bath and two beds. ... 808-967-7321 or e-mail volcanohouse@earthlink.net. ... To enjoy the Big Island, a rental car is imperative.

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