Engine trouble. Bad enough that the boat has spent a couple months on shore, one engine replaced and the other rebuilt. Thus it has been a while since I have been out diving, since late October! Had the weather been better shore diving may have been a higher priority. The winter weather has been rough, with high surf warnings a common item in the morning news.
Since the gear had sat for several months the first order of business was a good checkout of everything. The tanks only had a few hundred pounds of pressure in them, but enough to check the regulators and computer. The valves and buoyancy bladder in the BCD held pressure. I did need a new mask strap, solved with a trip down the hill to the Blue Wilderness shop. Purchasing two, one for the mask, one for the spares kit. Both of the tanks are due visual inspection, need to get that taken care of.
Arriving in the Makalawena area we found a dozen boats milling about. Only one thing would attract that may boats… Dolphins. The shallow water here is a good place to find dolphins and whales. Sure enough, there were dozens of dolphins about and pods of humans snorkeling between the boats in an attempt to see the dolphins in the water. The dolphins seemed intrigued by the boats and swimmers. A group came over to check us out and surf in our wake.
There may be a few criteria of a good diving experience. One of the top reasons I would call it a good dive… When the dive results in at least one really good photo.
This fellow was not in a cave, not in a wall, but out on the coral flats, and area not usually associated with great photo opportunities. Out on the flats the light is troublesome, in a cave or under an overhang I can control the light, eliminating the strong blue green hues that ruin so many photos. Under a coral head, I spot a fish just perched in the crevice. He did not move despite six or seven exposures with the camera a foot in front of him…
When Dennis let me know he was heading south for ʻAuʻau Crater and that I was invited I didn’t even think about it… I’m in! When do we go?
The furthest south I had been diving along the coast is the Red Hill area. The dive sites there are good, some of the best I had seen. The snorkeling at Kealakekua, even further south, is spectacular. I had read descriptions of the diving at ʻAuʻau, and had really wanted to see for myself.
It is a long drive past Kealakekua Bay to the ʻAuʻau Point area. As such we left Honokohau much earlier than usual, ready for a long day of diving. ʻAuʻau crater itself is visible on the shore, a classic littoral cone formed where lava met water and created an edifice much like a cinder cone from the resulting hydrothermal explosions. The cliffs are pocked with sea caves, many small, and some huge, large enough for us to drive the boat into on a calmer day.
The first hint about the site was the amazing glimpses of the terrain you could see from the surface as we crossed the area looking for the mooring. Boulders and coral 30 feet below us one moment, then nothing but deep blue the next. This site has a wall! Not just a little twenty foot wall as you see along the Kohala Coast. A sheer wall that we could not see the bottom of while we hovered at 100 feet. The wall just drops into the depths, inviting you ever further down into oblivion. On 32% EAN nitrox we dared not venture any deeper. This thing is at least 200 feet high, probably much more.
The wall is a mix of volcanic rubble, in places you can see layers, but mostly it is remnants of thousands of years of lava flows hitting the sea and creating sand and fragments of rock. On the ledges and in the little cavities life flourishes. Urchins and sea stars roam, but there is relatively little coral. This unstable surface is a poor place for the hard corals to colonize. One exception is wire coral, meter long specimens protrude here and there.
For our second dive the choice was The Hive. Arriving at the site revealed a small sea arch adjacent to the mooring large enough to drive the boat through. We did not know what to expect at the site. Thus the dive plan was to make a sweep out the edge of the reef and then back towards shore to check out the sea arch for possible caves. The sweep was pretty routine, a steep coral covered slope, nothing to hint at why there was a dive mooring here. Coming back to the arch revealed what was special about this spot! A set of great caves hide right under the arch at 25-30 ft depth. There were lobsters, innumerable flat rock-crabs, and several species of nudibranch to be found.
As I thought about leaving the caves after a first sweep I looked at my gauge… Still a thousand PSI in the tank! I turned around and headed back into the cave to find still more.
Entering the cave I immediately noted a Spanish dancer I had swum right past earlier. Looking through the large boulders at the entrance I found a few blue dragon nudibranch, always a pleasant find. Dennis was trying to get my attention from a few feet away. I insisted that he look to see what I had found, a blue dragon. When I looked to see what he was pointing at it was another blue dragon. They were everywhere, I lost count, it was just a matter of finding one better situated for photography.
We surfaced, a set of very happy divers, conversation buzzing as we compared notes. Diving has an interesting complication… Communication is limited underwater, you have to wait until you surface to ask questions and compare notes. We identify critters, sometimes grabbing the ragged and well used books Dennis keeps aboard to identify some rarity. We find out what others saw and what we missed. Through the conversation the dive is extended as we relive it one more time.
These are some of the most fantastic dive sites on the island. Not easy to get to but worth it. There are very few boats that run this far south, most vacation divers are happy with the dive sites near Honokohau and the boats need not venture very far from harbor. Jack’s Dive Locker runs a long range dive if there is sufficient interest. The Kona Agressor live-aboard is the only boat that regularly calls at these sites. The very occasional private boat like us is the only other practical way to get to these fantastic dive sites.
Photography can be a tedious pursuit, even more so underwater where conditions can be very challenging. This leads to a regular issue in mixed dive parties. The photographers go slow, really slow. The other divers are ready to cover some ground. This occasionally means that the guys leave me behind.
While diving alone is not recommended, the risk can be mitigated. I shift to a different set of rules, a far more conservative set of rules if I am on my own. I keep the depth much shallower, to where I could do an emergency ascent with little risk, this is generally 30ft or less. I do not go very far into a cave, perhaps working the twilight zone, but not getting into the back recesses of the many little caves common along the Kona coast. These sort of rules are usually not much of a compromise. Almost all of the dive sites on the Kona coast can be enjoyed while staying shallow. Many of my best finds have been in the twilight zone of the little reef caves. Staying shallow also has the benefit of extending the dive dramatically, it simply takes far less air to fill your lungs when shallow.
Suck-Em-Up cave fits the bill. The maximum depth here is 30ft, and there are so many entrances and skylights that an emergency ascent is always possible. The rest of the guys are planning to sweep the reef face and take a deep excursion before heading to the cave. I am planning to simply dive the cave as I have several photographic targets in mind. I am first into the water, swimming a few feet from the boat awaiting Pete, Ben and Dennis. A loud pop and woosh announces a blown o-ring on an air tank for Pete, this will lead to a short delay. I signal that I am dropping anyway, they know where I will be. The cave entrance is only a few yards from the boat. I give a salute and they wave back as I slide under.