Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hammerhead Shark Dive in Hawaii

Moku Ho'oniki Rock (Elephant Rock)
"Fish Rain", an aptly named dive site
 When adventurous scuba divers ask me where to go while they are here on Maui I tell them about the big three dives. Molokini backwall, Cathedrals on Lanai, and the Hammerhead shark dive at Moku ho'oniki rock on Molokai. Yet I had never done the hammerhead dive until today! And what a dive it was. The conditions were rough. 6ft seas with 15-20knot winds all the way across the Pailolo channel which separates the islands of Maui and Molokai. It is a live boat drift dive so the captain and crew have to safely get everyone off the boat while bucking from side to side in the heavy seas. Getting back on the boat was a whole different story. Only one dive company does this trip, Lahaina Divers. Heidi and I went with this outfit a month ago over to the island of Lanai to do some cavern diving at Second Cathedrals. And with my buddy Sean at the helm I knew we were in good hands. What I didn't know was if the conditions would be so bad that we would have to abort the crossing. It turns out that we made it although I am sure that some boats would have turned around but in good adventurous fashion we went for it and our perseverance totally paid off with 16 hammerhead sharks, 2 grey sharks, a huge barracuda, and a couple of spotted eagle rays.
Our group dropping down into the blue
Conditions were rough at the rock
  The conditions at the site were tough to say the least. 4ft wind chop on the protected side of the offshore rock. I was pumped we were going to do it though so I suited up and joined the first group in the water. We all gave the ok sign and started our descent with fingers crossed. Seconds into the dive the howl of the wind was gone and the wild bucking of the waves was no more. Underwater is one of the most peaceful places I know.
Our first sighting, a big hammerhead swimming up to check us out
  I wasn't sure what to expect from the hammerheads if we saw them. We got a first sighting only a minute into the dive. A hammerhead slowly glided by our group out in the blue. I turned to share my excitement with Heidi who, very typically was looking at a nudibranch...not at the shark. The next shark was a big eight or nine footer who swam up the reef in front of the group. I was willing it to get closer so I could take a picture with my wide angle lens. It stayed about 30ft away from the group but it checked us out before also melting into the blue.
Hammerhead at a cleaning station
 We had great visibility from 80-100ft. However, I was amazed to see the sharks emerge and disappear into the blue so easily. They have that typical shark grey body but that might as well be ocean blue under the water. It is one of the most exciting things for a scuba diver to have something bigger than you all of a sudden appear swimming right at you.
  We saw a school of three hammerheads swim by on the first dive and a school of four swim by on the second dive. All of the other sightings were of single sharks or pairs. The other dive group did have a brief sighting of a school of 20! The biggest was a 10 or 11 footer who was very thick in that school of four. But my favorite encounter came from another large hammerhead slowly swimming towards a big rock that turned out to be a cleaning station. As the shark neared the rock, little wrasses came out and started picking off dead skin, food bits, and parasites from around the hammerhead's body. I was the closest one in the group so I went in for a closer look. However I didn't want to scare the shark away so I tried to be very slow and quiet. I breathed out becoming negatively buoyant and slowly sank another twenty feet. Now at around 80ft deep I was right behind the shark. I was able to snap a series of pictures before the shark moved off out of sight. But I wasn't done yet. As I turned to my left I saw a small grey reef shark swimming just off the bottom. I was in shark heaven.
We also saw grey reef sharks like this one
 We finished our two dives with a sighting of a pair of spotted eagle rays. They were pretty deep and I did not want to go into decompression so I watched from afar and kept an eye out for more sharks. The rays were too tempting for most of the group however as they all jetted closer for pictures. And as I thought, two of our group went into decompression so they had to do a much longer safety stop at fifteen feet for about ten minutes to off gas all the nitrogen built up during our two deep dives.
  Getting back on a boat that is being hit by 4ft waves is a challenge in itself. The swim ladder is flying around dangerously, plus the boat is drifting quite fast because of the wind and current. This is why they only let advanced divers sign up for this dive and everyone was up for the challenge. Looking at all of the pictures later that day I thought to myself just how lucky I am to be able to be a part of adventures like this and to be able to share these adventures with someone like Heidi.

The "Big Three" Dives:  1. Molokini Backwall     2. Cathedrals on Lanai    3. Hammerhead Shark Dive at Moku Ho'oniki Rock, Molokai
Rebreather diver in the bottom left stayed under for 3 hours
Hammerhead school

Side view of a hammerhead

The excited look of having just swam with 16 hammerhead sharks!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Polipoli Hike in Maui

Looking down on a cloud
   Driving to the mysterious Polipoli hiking trails 6,000+ft high on the southern slope of Haleakala volcano is an adventure in itself. The 4X4 dirt road to get to the campgrounds at Polipoli state park is sometimes accessible by smaller cars but not today. It wasn't too wet to drive, in fact it was so dry with each footstep little clouds of dust stirred up. But the road had degraded during wet periods forming some pretty deep holes. Driving our little sedan we decided to stop and walk the last few miles instead of risking getting stuck in some hole. I think we could have made it but it worked out in the end.
Coastal Redwoods on Maui
The trail map at the campground is a little confusing showing different trails in different colors that are all a little to similar. The wooden sign has faded a bit making the colors and trails blend even more together. We decided to try and hike down and out to a trail marker we saw way back by our car. But without better directions we headed down to the redwoods to try our luck. The draw of Polipoli is the fact that you can be transported from Hawaii to the conifer forest of northern California in a matter of minutes.

Inside the Cloud Forest, Polipoli Spring State Park
Redwoods disappearing into the mist
Hiking down from the campground and past the one cabin the blue sky turns into a hazy mist. The temperature drops as the sun slowly winks out behind the white cloud flowing through the forest. This only makes the trees here more impressive. The smell of the pines, cypress, ash, eucalyptus, and coastal redwoods combined with the mist make this place like no other in Hawaii.
 As we hiked through the trails eventually finding our way back to the car we only came across one other person, a mountain biker noisily riding down the trail towards us. Other than that only the sounds of birds calling through the cloud rang out. For people who live on Maui this is a way to teleport your senses to a far off location. And for those visiting Maui it can be a chance to see a rare side of the island very far off the beaten track.

Check out last year's Polipoli photos and adventure here

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Swimming with Dolphins at Honolua Bay

  A day off usually means adventuring here on Maui but since Heidi has a flight scheduled in a few hours we could not go scuba diving. So we thought about possible snorkel locations to go and shoot at. There are spots where you can definitely see turtles, others where dolphins sometimes frequent. I could point you towards black tip reef sharks and white tip reef shark spots. But today we decided to make the long haul to beautiful Honolua Bay up on the Northwest corner of the island to look for the huge school of big-eye scad living in the shallows. We found them...and much more.

   The walk down to Honolua Bay is through a towering rainforest. It is an easy, level path bordered by huge trees covered in thick vines. The beach itself is all rocks. While not the most comfortable laying down surface the rocks do soak up the heat from the sun which provides an easy way to warm up after your snorkel. As we headed out the water cleared up after a few yards and we kicked our way over to the reef on the left. The coral here is shallow and very colorful. Everywhere you look coral is covering the rocks and forming a very healthy reef. Lots of unicornfish, chubs, and parrotfish hover over the reef. As we continued I found a young sea turtle who posed for a few pictures. This is when Heidi swam up and said, 'dolphins!' and pointed way out of the bay to deeper water.

  After a quick debate we set off in pursuit. The danger of swimming out of the bay is not deep water or sharks or current, but of tour boats coming to and from Honolua. Luckily my bright yellow snorkel fins make for an easy makeshift dive flag if I feel the need. Once we got out far enough we searched above water for signs of the dolphins. I saw splashes way off to our left, out in front of Slaughterhouse bay so we made our way towards them. There was actually one other snorkeler already hanging with the dolphins who was very surprised to see us. When we finally got close enough to see the dolphins underwater one broke off from the group and came right past me to get a good look.

By the sound of it these dolphins were 'looking' at us long before we saw them. The underwater pinging was incredibly loud. They were eco-locating constantly. Heidi had it so loud and so close that she said it rattled her head a little bit.

  Most of these spinner dolphins were in classic resting mode. A few were very playful with each other. I did find that it was hard to keep up with these dolphins compared to the group that sometimes comes to La Perouse Bay. There was one juvenile dolphin in this group as well. This picture on the right is of mom reminding the baby to head up for a breath. The baby went straight up, breathed, and right back down to mom right after I took this.

On the way back in we did find the school of thousands of big-eye scad. These scad are a dense schooling fish that are so much fun to swim through. They part like the red sea, forming a circle around you before reforming the school behind you. The water was a little less clear this far inshore but I managed to snag a few pictures as Heidi played with the school. This should be good practice for the schools of bait fish I hope to encounter in the Philippines next month.

 If you would ever like to purchase any of my pictures you can find my work for sale at
 If you would like a picture from this blog that is not on my photo sight feel free to leave a comment on the blog.

Also check out other adventures at Honolua Bay here:
Honolua Snorkel
Surfing Honolua

Monday, June 10, 2013

Circumnaving the Island of Lanai

Underwater Panoramic off Remote West Side of Lanai
Shipwreck off shipwreck beach
North Lanai snorkel gem
  This summer I have been captaining a new adventurous trip that circumnavigates the nearby island of Lanai. Getting to see the 52 miles of coastline, most of which is hardly ever visited, is quite a treat. I am driving a 38' rigid inflatable boat. It is the same style that the coast guard and the navy seals often use. With a smaller boat and a small crowd I can get right up next to shipwrecks, blowholes, 1000' sea cliffs and more. We look for tropic birds nesting in the remote cliff sides, dolphins cruising the nearshore water, and new snorkel spots to explore. Everything is an option. Based on the weather I can put people in the water on the south, east, north, or west coast of the island. Not to mention a few offshore pinnacles that make for some good drift snorkels as well.
Crocodile Needle Fish

You never know what's lurking beneath
Swim-thru at Five Sisters
  Since I am the captain I don't jump in the water, even at new spots. Because of this I wanted to go out as a passenger and check out some of these sites all my passengers have been raving about. Now I understand. Beautiful clear water, steep drop offs, massive underwater arches and swimthroughs await the adventurous snorkeler. The fish at some of these sites are plentiful even in very shallow water so the beginner snorkeler can enjoy just as much as the expert.

Ben serenely taking in the scene
Photo Op
Take a look at the snorkelers in these pictures to get an idea of the dropoffs we are exploring. At shark fin rock it is about 85ft straight down to the sandy floor. Outside of barge harbor it drops down even further into the blue abyss. The ultimate challenge are the swimthroughs. At our barge harbor site there is a big one about 50ft down.
Shark patrolling the swim through
Turning to meet me
  As I snorkeled down to the swim thru I was surprised to see a shark swimming up at me out from under the rock arch. I kept going down and it kept coming up until turning right in front of me and slipping back down under the arch. It was a 5ft white tip reef shark. You can see the white tips on the dorsal and tail fins.

Outer dropoff at Shark Fin Rock
Check out more adventures around Lanai here:
Second Cathedral Scuba Dive
First Cathedral Scuba Dive
Dolphin Watching

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Maui Night Dive: Hunting Cephalopods and Nudis Galore

  Woah! The nocturnal delights keep on coming. So excited after our last night muck dive Heidi and I decided to try it again. We saw octopus out on the hunt, its cute cousin, the bobtail squid trying to eat a shrimp almost as big as it was. Then it was a nudibranch bonanza after that with sightings of imperial nudibranch, trembling, white bump, white margin, kangaroo, gloomy, black dendrodoris, snow goddess, lilac spotted, orange gumdrop, tiled pleurobranch, and a couple of rare nudibranch spottings like the Carminodoris bifurcata, Aldisa pikokai, and the Tambja amakusana. These last three don't have common names since they are seen so rarely.

This bobtail squid was about the same size as my thumb. The shrimp he is trying to chomp down was slightly smaller than my pinky. They both held this pose for awhile until the squid finally spit out the empty shell of the shrimp. Shortly after the squid buried itself into the sand, leaving only its eyes above to relax and digest its hardy meal.

Carminodoris bifurcata
Aldisa pikokai
Hypselodoris imperialis (Imperial nudibranch)
It still amazes me that we can go back to the same place on the same reef on a different night and see totally different creatures. Many of the rarer nudibranchs we will see once and never again. It makes you wonder how much is hiding just out of sight.

Kangaroo Nudi (Ceratosoma tenue)
 If you want to check out some of my other night dives then check out these links or just search for 'night dive' in the search bar.

Night Muck Dive
Night Flatworm Dive at Makena Landing
Trembling Nudibranch (Goniobranchus vibrata)
Manta Ray Night Dive
I really liked the color of this scorpionfish's eye