Brett Seymour, the Woods Hole crew, and I flew from Oahu to the big island of Hawaii. As soon as the island of Hawaii came into view from the plane I could see Kona’s famous landscape, dominated by black, dry, rough lava flows versus the lush tropical vegetation that normally comes to mind when thinking of Hawaii. We arrived with 31 cases of checked gear-cameras, underwater housings, power supplies, chargers, tools, dive gear, and our personal bags. After renting two enormous vehicles we headed to our hotel for the next few days, which would be spent doing camera tests, collecting footage for education and outreach, and helping out with an underwater television shoot. When we arrived at the hotel, we began what would become a daily process of unloading all of our dive and photo/filming gear. We spent the day prepping cameras, changing batteries and generally preparing for the next day, which would be spent entirely on the water.
We arrived at the harbor the next day to meet up with our dive charter, the Kekona. We crammed all our gear onboard (it was a tight fit) and began to set up the 3D camera and the topside monitors and recording gear. This process is the most time consuming of the day, and after what felt like (and probably was) a couple of hours, we were off to explore the Kona coast. I had never been to this island before, and our previous dives in Pearl Harbor were anything but the stereotypical Hawaiian reef dives, so diving here was a real treat. The water was wonderfully blue and clear, especially early in the day before the afternoon clouds rolled in. On our first dive we splashed in to see an expansive coral colony sprawling around us in all directions. The hard coral density was incredible—this was definitely one of the healthiest looking reefs I had ever seen. I did notice however, that the diversity of corals was remarkably low.
Our second site was at a lava tube formation near the shore. It was my first time diving in a cave (albeit a very open and short cave), and I thought I might be a little bit spooked. In fact, it was amazing and I had no feelings of fear whatsoever. I was awed at the texture of the rock and how our air bubbles collected under the roof of the cave and shimmered like an upside-down puddle of mercury. Wherever there was an opening in the top of the cave, corals and other encrusting organisms grew in small patches on the bottom, clearly dependant on the sunlight they received through these natural windows. And while the surge caused the waves above us to crash onto the nearby shore, all was calm and quiet in the lava tube. It was gorgeous.
We took a break back on shore to refill our tanks for the evening and grab some food. We had a bit of time to walk to Koloko-Honokohau, the National Historic Park on this side of the island. Created to protect and interpret native Hawaiian culture, this historic site encompasses a coastal area that includes a fishtrap and two fishponds, which were constructed with stone walls and exemplify some of the methods of traditional aquaculture. As we walked along the shoreline, I saw a couple of juvenile Green Turtles grazing in the shallows, peaking their small heads out of the surface for air every few minutes. Local families were picnicking on the beach, and their small kids were playing on the shoreline. It was a peaceful scene, and the perfect way to spend a late afternoon in Hawaii.
Our last goal of the day was to get footage of Manta Rays. Mantas in Kona belong to a distinct sub-population that is thought not to mix with individuals from other islands. There is an established industry to take recreational divers and snorkelers to a site popular with these giant rays. The dives happen at night with lights set up on the seafloor to draw in the mantas, which come in to feed on the plankton that is attracted to the bright lights. We waited until nearly all the recreational boats had left before setting up our own lights and attempting to film. We had lights on the bottom, and a diver in the water with handheld lights to illuminate the mantas from above. Brett and I went down first to set up the lights and dial in the exposure. This was by far my best assisting experience yet—as I hovered in the incredibly bright beam of the video lights so Maryann could set the camera’s exposure up on the boat, I suddenly caught a glimpse of something large out of the corner of my eye. I looked up just in time to see the wing of a giant manta sweep over my head! I shrieked loud enough that Brett could hear me, being so surprised at what had just come within inches of my face. The manta made another pass over me before swimming off. I was elated! I was thinking that I could now be happy even if we didn’t see any more. And for the next fifteen minutes, we didn’t. Not a single manta came to check us out after the initial flyby. Getting discouraged, I waited on the bottom with Brett, minute after minute, hoping to catch another look at these majestic animals. Finally, they graced us with their presence. First one, then another two joined in, and we sat there mesmerized by these huge mantas gliding through the beams of our lights with seemingly thoughtless flaps of their wings. They flew by, approaching us within inches, doing barrel rolls in the light. Brett filmed as they put on a spectacular show, and I took photos while not completely awestruck by these giant creatures swimming right at me with their mouths agape. It was a truly inspiring dive, and I can see why so many people come here to have this experience for themselves. It is important though that snorkelers and divers follow a conduct code to ensure that these mantas aren’t harmed by our presence. The Manta Pacific Research Foundation has guidelines for safely diving with Mantas here: http://www.mantapacific.org/kona/index.html.
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We spent our last day with the camera team from Woods Hole on a 3D shoot for a television documentary. Before our flights out of Hawaii, Kathy Billings and her husband Dick kindly hosted Brett and I for dinner. Kathy is the Superintendant of Kaloko-Honokohau and Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Parks. We discussed the current management of these parks and their many cultural and natural resources. These parks protect and serve to interpret ancient Hawaiian settlements, which include many culturally significant resources, such as fishponds, stone walls, petroglyphs, and religious sites. In addition, the park also protects the beaches and coastal waters, and all of these resources are under constant threat from development in the area. It was a beautiful evening filled with great conversation—thanks so much to Kathy and Dick for hosting us!
My visit to Kona was a wondrous experience, and a perfect way to wrap up my warm-water diving for the summer. Next I headed to the Channel Islands, which proved to be quite a dramatic change from the clear, calm waters of Kona!