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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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March 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Kona Aggressor II, Kona, Hawaii

the most exciting moment wasn’t the manta night dive

from the March, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

When I searched online for the world's best dive sites, the Kona Manta Night Dive was always on the top 10 list. But which dive operator to use for it? A dive buddy I met on the Belize Aggressor III told me the manta night dive alone was "worth the price of admission," he had done it aboard the Kona Aggressor II twice and enthusiastically endorsed the boat. However, I had heard poor reviews from other Aggressor Fleet guests about this boat's all-American staff having a sense of snobbish entitlement and not being as doting as foreign-born crews, like the ones that lavished attention on me during previous Aggressor trips overseas.

Kona Aggressor IIA while back, I had read an Undercurrent article about an Aggressor boat hitting a reef at night and having to evacuate guests. For this reason, I aim for metal-hulled vessels. The Kona Aggressor II, an 81-foot-long, aluminumhulled catamaran with twin 550-HP Komatsu diesels that motors Hawaii's western coast, seemed solid. While I have bad thoughts every time I book a liveaboard, I always get to the thought of "Odds are, it'll never happen to me."

So I took a chance, booked a two-week trip to Hawaii for Christmas break, and did the famed dive on my first day aboard. It turned out to be a severe disappointment -- the dive, I mean. The crew was great. But that "it'll never happen to me" concern? Well, it made an appearance on this trip.

It seems mantas are drawn to the plankton that are drawn to the lights at the airport. So for our two afternoon dives and the night dive, the Kona Aggressor II moored at Garden Eel Cove, near Kona's airport, after lunch to secure a parking spot before other boats arrived. The traffic was chaotic on dive number four. Hanging beneath the boat for my safety stop, I watched multiple propellers passing within 15 feet overhead, the boats jockeying for position. I surfaced to find 14 boats had joined us.

After a dinner of five-spice curry salad and sautéed shrimp Kung Pao, we joined the throng. It was a one-ring circus. Huge lights placed in the center of the amphitheater were surrounded by 100-plus divers and snorkelers flailing in the dark, flashlights in hands, trying to maintain their kneeling position at 35 feet in the surge. The light show was crazy, the manta show a crashing dud. Exactly zero of them made an appearance. The only thing I saw, besides the human pandemonium, was a decorator crab and Frank, a famous local undulated moray eel with a big yellow head, hunting off the human-supplied lighting. We waited for over 30 minutes before calling it a night, and our disappointed group sulked back to the boat at depth to avoid the churning propellers. The crew tried to explain away the non-performance on the full moon, thew winter solstice, and animal unpredictability. I tried to console myself by thinking, "It's nature, not an aquarium."

My luck changed on Day Two. For the second dive, my buddy and I were fussing with the cameras, so we were the last to enter the water at Sharkfin. As soon as my giantstride- entry bubbles cleared, I saw the unmistakable silhouette of a huge manta behind the boat. Our guide, an Italian blonde named Dominique, had told us all to meet at the bottom, the opposite direction of the manta. I started maniacally shaking my Aqua-Maraca to alert the group, while simultaneously turning on the camera and strobes, but everybody else was headed the other way. Oh well, I tried. My wife and I soon caught up to the feeding beauty at 56 feet, getting great shots and following for a nice distance. It was an exciting and exhilarating experience; one that makes me thankful I'm alive and that I dive on this beautiful planet. Unfortunately, we burned over 1000 psi swimming into the current to catch up to our group; we should have just stayed with the magnificent creature. I saw other mantas during the trip, but that one was the longest and closest encounter.

Afterwards, I pulled myself up one of the two low-sloped ladder onto the dive deck, three steps down from the main deck, and enjoyed a (very) hot shower. I gave my depth and bottom time to a crew member, who wrapped me in my dedicated (by number) warm towel after the post-dive rinse. The boat carried its 14-diver max on my trip, so it was a little tight when we all got ready at once. The dive gear stations ran across the main deck's stern, in two rows facing each other. I picked one at the end, sat on the bench seat with hinged storage underneath, hung my 2.5-mm shortie on the hanger and put my BC and regulator rig on the well-worn Nitrox aluminum 80 in the tank holder. Then I took my rig to the camera table, immediately aft of the big room that held the salon, dining room and galley. It was easy to find an outlet for charging my equipment, but other divers also had big and multiple camera rigs, so the table was always cramped.

Hawaii MapI got along well with the other four couples (one each from Italy, Sweden and Canada) housed in the ensuite bathroom cabins off the salon/dining room, and the family of four in the upstairs bunkroom behind the helm. My spouse and I were in Cabin Five, with a double bed (lower) and single upper bunk, private head and shower, individual thermostat, and media player with TV screen; it was "cozy" but comfortable enough. Most of us were repeat Aggressor Fleet guests. Admiring the praying mantis that took up residence in the small, fake Christmas tree on the topside bar was the extent of our post-dive entertainment; there were no long or boozy nights.

Fine by me, because I took advantage of the five dives per day -- two morning, two afternoon and a 7 p.m. night dive. But some sites, with lots of surge and fair to poor visibility, were almost as disappointing as that no-Manta night dive. "Well, that was a lot of work for nothing," my dive buddy said after a mundane long swim at Rob's Reef. At least I saw my favorite Hawaiian fish, the beautifully decorated Humuhumunukunuku apua'a (reef triggerfish) and the omnipresent Lauwiliwilinukunuku 'oi 'oi (longnose butterflyfish), both with names I really enjoy saying aloud.

To me, a fair Hawaiiian dive equals a good Caribbean dive. My big-animal sightings included spinner and bottlenose dolphins, and green sea turtles. At Driftwood, a huge stingray that looked like a king-sized mattress with a tail zoomed past me. My shark sightings included white-tipped reef sharks of varying sizes, from pup on up, and several scalloped hammerheads; at Turtle Pinnacle, I spotted a 12-foot tiger shark cruising below the snorkelers and spinner dolphins.

One of the Cabins - Kona Aggressor IINight dives often yielded the best sightings. Beautifully colored lobsters (banded spinies, Spanish and sculptured slippers) abounded. At the Hive, I crept up on a huge octopus with nickel-sized suction cups hiding in a crack. Jeweled anemone crabs, marbled shrimp and a hairy yellow hermit crab were first sightings for me despite 40-plus years of diving experience. Dominique, who had a degree in marine biology (and who crushed me by saying I reminded her of her father), maintained a "What Did You Sea" whiteboard near the camera table listing each day's sightings. A crewmember was in the water as a guide for every dive, but we weren't required to follow. Most dives were 60 to 80 feet, and lasted 50 to 60 minutes. The only restriction was a one-hour dive duration so the boat could motor to other dive sites during our intervals.

Several sites were more like great volcanic topography sample boards -- lava flow fingers, and collapsed tube arches and swim-throughs made of long-ago molten magma -- than a Hawaiian reef creature ID card. After a Christmas morning breakfast of French toast and Portuguese sausage while sitting "fireside" (the Yule Log burned on the salon's TV screen), we dropped in on the Lion's Den. Bright sunshine and crystal-clear water with well over 100 feet visibility gave a spectacular view of an old volcano and vast field of basaltic pillars fading into the deep. Huge pyroclastic-flow boulders stood as silent testament to a violent past. At Au Au Crater, I found a lava tube in the crater wall venting hot water, and conveyed my find to all by miming warming my hands at an open fire. (Can I lay claim to a new scuba hand signal?)

The Kona Aggressor II's Dive DeckWhile we were away, Santa visited our cabin and left us candy canes and Aggressor swag items. Christmas fell on Taco Tuesday, so lunch featured chicken tortilla soup, Kalau pig and steak tacos, Cuban black beans, Spanish rice and guacamole, and mango mojo. The 6:30 a.m. breakfast, morning snacks (like mango muffins and cinnamon rolls), lunch, afternoon snacks (flatbread pizza, hummus and baba ganoush) and dinner were all spectacular, not a description I readily throw around regarding cuisine. Chef Guy, a Hawaiian, toiled 16 hours a day on his craft, which resulted, damn him, in me gaining five pounds. And like I mentioned, the crew, all American, were anti-snobs. They were personable, omnipresent, seamlessly rotating their shifts and duties, and a joy to be with for the holidays.

But then then came the shock of the trip. It happened after Pelagic Magic, another site where I recorded "meh" in my dive log. Hanging on ropes beneath the boat for a night dive, my only sightings were some squid and a lone seahorse. I cheered up afterwards, during our trip out to the deep blue, when we gathered for a dinner of Caesar salad, bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin, garlic mashed potatoes and broccolini with ali'i mushrooms. So sitting in a food coma, the transition from serene to surreal was mind-blowing. I felt and heard a loud, high-pitched metallic scrape and screech travel underneath the boat, and sprang to my feet, thinking, "Holy shit, we just hit something. I knew I should have packed the drybag! I believe I remember where they said the lifejackets are." Trying to keep calm, I retrieved my wallet, postulating that money, credit cards and my driver's license would survive a swim, right?

The ship soon backed off the engines and made a U-turn to travel back in our wake. My guess was the skipper was unaware we hit something until someone went topside with the news. The ship's searchlight landed on a sizeable round buoy, with a post on top that looked a little banged-up. Captain Matt Herwig said it was a Fish Aggregation Device, which the state of Hawaii places around its islands to, according to its website, "attract schools of tuna and other pelagics to make it easier for fishermen to catch them." I was amazed we ran over such a thing and didn't foul the props or incur any damages. Captain and crew stayed calm and professional while doing their systems assessments, and we were soon back under way.

Rating - Kona Aggressor III was determined to make the most of our remaining dives, but while Boxing Day started out gorgeous, yielding a large scalloped hammerhead making a casual pass at Stoney Mesas and lovely swim-throughs at Catacombs, it turned later. The surge became considerable at Never Neverland; being tossing about among the boulders in 25-foot visibility made a challenging dive. The seas picked up during dinner, giving us a dramatic backdrop of waves crashing through an onshore arch and occasional blow-hole spout. Ultimately, two of us stalwarts joined Dominique for a night dive at the Hive and were rewarded handsomely. Visibility got better under the boat and the surge was almost down to "bad." I found a large scrawled filefish sleeping vertically in the fold of a sponge at 60 feet. A beautiful Spanish Dancer nudibranch posed for pictures, so I obliged her vanity. I was happy to have toughed out a dive with so much creature variety and volume. Plus, there was plenty of spiked hot chocolate served post-rinse with my warm towel.

We had considered some land-based dives during our second week, but never got around to it as we were too busy sightseeing the Big Island from our base at the Royal Kona Resort. Every day started with a coffee from Kope Lani on Kailua-Kona's main drag; the Kona Extra Fancy brew was so good, I shipped five pounds home. Highlights were driving past coastal coffee and macadamia nut farms for views of South Point and Green Sand Beach; visiting Volcano National Park on the east coast for free (due to the government shutdown), driving to the top of Mauna Kea for a beautiful sunset, and to the bottom of Waipi'o Valley for spectacular waterfall views. On the way to the airport, we visited the seahorse farm, which was interesting, but I would have opted for the octopus farm if it took last-minute reservations.

This trip made me appreciate my luck. I didn't see an abundance of mantas, but I loved my long swim with that big one at Sharkfin. Big surge and low visibility were diving bummers, but unique topography and nighttime critter sightings kept me upbeat. I got the adrenaline shock of a brush with disaster, but boat and cargo thankfully stayed upright. The abundance of excellent service, fantastic food and the option of 27 dives over six days made for a great week. I'm glad Kona Aggressor II only scraped that fish buoy and stayed damage-free, for I would highly recommend the boat to any other Big Island-bound divers.

-- R.A.M.

Our Undercover Diver's Bio: "I was exposed to diving at a young age by my father and Jacques Cousteau, and got certified in 1977. Aside from drysuit diving in Silfra, Iceland, I gave up cold-water diving, preferring the Caribbean, Yucatan, Micronesia and the Philippines, and am always accompanied by my lovely wife-buddy. I only feel truly stressfree at work when I have two dive trips planned ahead."

Divers CompassDivers Compass: I paid $3,035 per person, double occupancy (the 2019 rate is now $3,135), for seven nights, but some divers took advantage of a $500 per-person discount offered in an Aggressor Fleet email four months prior to the sailing date; cost includes room, five-and-a-half days of diving, food, beverages, beer and wine, but not transfers . . . The only cost which seemed like "piling on" is the Nitrox charge of $100 per person for the week, but "geezer gas" is almost a must, given the five dives offered per day . . . The boat has a "boutique day," selling Aggressor clothing and items, with a 10 percent discount for repeat guests . . . On land, I stayed in Kailua-Kona at the Royal Kona Resort, on Kailua Bay and near the center of town, for $260 per night. . . I rented a Big Island 4WD Jeep for $250 a day, which was expensive (it was the holidays) but worth it, because the big-name rental agencies wouldn't guarantee 4WDs, which proved indispensable . . . Da Poke Shack is a beachside takeout joint famous for the world's best poke fish preparation; they close when they run out, usually well before their official 5 p.m. closing time . . . Everyone makes a Mai Tai on Hawaii, but my favorite was at Don's Mai Tai Bar in the Royal Kona Resort . . . Websites: Aggressor Fleet -; Royal Kona Resort -; Big Island Jeep Rental -; Da Poke Shack -

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