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!

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