Diving the Kona Coast, Hawaii
Newcomers may be surprised by the Big Island. This isn't merely the Hawaii of lush tropical forests and gushing waterfalls but of snowcapped mountains and stark, black lava flows. Two volcanoes — Mauna Kea and still-active Mauna Loa, each rising nearly 14,000 feet above sea level — dominate the island and shelter the Kona Coast from the prevailing trade winds. As a result, divers enjoy calm seas and nearly year-round sunshine, except when the volcano acts up and the island is shrouded in vog, a dense combination of volcanic ash and fog. Water clarity is exceptional, too, thanks in large part to minimal runoff from freshwater streams. Visibility is often greater than 100 feet and rarely less than 50.
Water temperature in Hawaii dips into the low 70s in winter and warms to the mid-80s in summer. The cooler temperatures prevent coral from growing as robustly as it does in other tropical areas, so the fringing reefs of the Kona Coast are relatively compact. Even without massive coral palaces, the topography is dramatic, with lava arches, tubes, and caves creating intricate underwater mazes. Exploring these natural formations is a Kona highlight, and swimming up through a vertical lava tube is an experience every diver should try at least once.
Corals and coralline algae in muted tones of brown, olive, and pale lavender provide a soft background for the showy fish. From the brilliant yellow tang and the classic blue-stripe butterflyfish to the snaggle-toothed moray, more than 680 species are found here, 400 of them in shallow water. Several species of shark and schools of spinner dolphins also make their homes off the Big Island, and its reefs harbor the shy octopus and numerous species of colorful nudibranchs and sponges. Deep water just offshore attracts pelagic, or open-ocean, creatures such as humpback whales and manta rays.
Snorkeling or diving the Kona Coast is almost guaranteed to provide encounters with some of the healthiest sea turtles in the Pacific. Spend some time in the water and you'll get to know the spiky Hawaiian turkeyfish, a slipper lobster or two, and schools of slender needlefish that hover just below the waterline. The Hawaiian state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua'a, or Picasso triggerfish, may take a while to pronounce properly, but its vivid, geometrically patterned body is immediately recognizable. The stiff little spotted trunkfish, the classic black-and-yellow-banded Moorish idol, and pairs of elegant, cream-spotted reticulated butterflyfish are also common sights.
Poke your head into the crevices of a reef and you're likely to come within kissing distance of a moray — but be careful of its sharp teeth. Eels, with their long, snakelike bodies, can fit into tight spaces, and during the day all you're likely to see are their gaping mouths. The zebra moray is among the most recognizable eels, with its brown body encircled by yellow-white stripes, but the dwarf moray is by far the most endearing. This six-inch yellow eel sometimes charges out of its hole like a ferocious toy terrier, its tiny white mouth agape.
Along the Kona Coast, rocky beaches are more common than sandy ones, but anywhere you can enter the water generally offers safe snorkeling and shore diving. Some of the best snorkeling and diving are found around the funky tourist town of Kailua-Kona and points south. Most of the island's scuba and snorkeling operations are right in town. Dive boats leave from the main dock, and guides can choose from more than 66 spots between the energy lab to the north and Hookena to the south. Half-day charters ply the 20-plus sites close to town. All-day and multi-day charters opt for pristine spots farther south, where the topography is more dramatic.
Continued In: Diving the Kona Coast, Hawaii - Part 2