Black triggerfish at MolokiniPhotograph by David Fleetham
It’s my first morning on Maui and my inner clock — set to East Coast mainland time — wakes me at 3:00 a.m. I leave my bed at Kula Lodge, beside a crackling fire, to summit before sunrise. Ascending 10,023 feet to the top of Mount Haleakala is breathtaking — partly because of the shocking 45-degree temperature and wind-driven rain. It’s dark, stark and damp as I set off, but the place is abuzz with loads of other chill seekers. I hike to the top, enduring a cold and cloudy sunrise before driving down the mountain.
This experience is a perfect example of why I love Maui, an island that defies simple description. It’s exotic yet familiar, refined yet rustic — far from everywhere but close to perfect. In Maui, stark contrasts live in natural harmony. With a month’s worth of activities packed into just a week, I’ve got a head-to-toe exploration planned. After the morning’s hike up Mount Haleakala I’ll work my way down to the water, purposely front-loading my trip with high-altitude activities so as to avoid post-dive deco constraints.
Batteries recharged after a tasty meal at island institution Hali’imaile General Store, I head for another uplifting experience on Blue Hawaiian Helicopter for an aerial overview of Maui and Molokai — hands-down the best way to appreciate the splendor of the islands and preview earthbound adventures to come.
The next morning, I head for the Kihei boat ramp and draw up to a trailer-bound 40-foot boat called Double Scoop. It’s the pride of Charley Neal, owner of PADI Dive Center Scuba Shack, who boasts: “It’s the fastest dive boat on Maui.” Its twin 355-horsepower turbo-diesel engines with jet drives seem eager to prove it, so I sign in with Capt. James Dingman, and pass my gear bags up to divemasters Doug Stewart and James “Toby” Tobin.
Before long we’re launched and riding the swells to Molokini crater, a protected crescent island three miles offshore. This is the most popular dive off Maui — a marine reserve below water and bird sanctuary above. With 75-degree water and visibility averaging 100-plus feet, it’s easy to see the source of its popularity. “Molokini is a oneof-a-kind dive location, with pristine clear waters and a lot of endemic Hawaiian sea life,” Toby explains.
I giant-stride into the blue and drop down into water so clear that I can see far down the sandy slope. We gather at about 50 feet and follow Toby to a popular cleaning station. There are so many big fish waiting to be serviced by yellowtail wrasse, it’s like a line of grimy Buicks at a car wash. We descend farther, and Toby motions to a sandy patch where dozens of garden eels are waving gently in the bottom current. As we approach, they simultaneously slip back into their holes, and we move on. The reef is alive with colorful commotion, a feast for the eyes. A herd of yellow-striped goatfish sweeps in along the sandy bottom, foraging with their twin chin feelers. A pair of longnose butterflyfish darts around finger coral, and Moorish idols sway lazily in the surge. I listen closely to hear a rainbow parrotfish munching on coral, then notice a small cavern where another whitetip shark is resting comfortably on his seabed.
Rough seas confine our second dive to sheltered water, a site called Enenue. It reveals many new critters, including a hidden frogfish, orange-spined tangs, moray eels, a playful green sea turtle, and a manta ray flying past just to tease us. Little did I know this would be the best glimpse I’d get of those soaring wings, despite plans to make a manta dive later in the week. Even on normally weather-blessed Maui, Mother Nature can intervene to curse conditions. So that afternoon, I miss the mantas and a scheduled scooter dive with PADI Dive Center Maui Dive Shop (see “Two More Adventures,” below).
With surf running high, I choose discretion over valor and head to the Maui Ocean Center at Ma’alaea Harbor. The MOC attracts more than 300,000 visitors annually; they come to explore Hawaii’s unique undersea world, and when rough weather keeps dive boats at bay, like it has me on this day, MOC offers the perfect backup plan: a private dive in the 750,000-gallon aquarium. Shark Dive Maui lets scuba divers come face to face with thousands of fish, stingrays and sharks, including the wildly elusive tiger shark.
Since rough surf canceled a scheduled night dive too, I was happy instead to join the sunset dinner cruise aboard Maui Dive Shop’s luxury catamaran, Ali’i Nui. The wind is raging and seas are rolling, but the stable cat handles it with ease.
The next day I catch the ferry to Lanai, where I rent a Jeep to explore this tiny island of 3,000 people. I check in at the Four Seasons Resort, the Lodge at Koele, and my preconceptions are shattered — this is no beachside palm-treed resort but a mountain retreat complete with a high-beamed great hall and two roaring stone fireplaces. It is the perfect blend of Old Hawaii and rustic, upcountry charm.
In the morning at Manele Bay I board Trilogy VI, a 54-foot sailing cat operated by Trilogy Ocean Sports on Lanai. Capt. Dominick Gambino steers us out, and immediately we’re escorted by a large pod of spinner dolphins. This welcome gesture primes the bunch for the upcoming dive among legendary lava tubes. Forged by ancient lava flows, the tubes hardened on the sides and filled with seawater as the lava flow ceased, leaving cavelike structures in their wake — much to the delight of adventurous divers.
We arrive at the first site, Shark Fin Rock, and instructor Mark Driessen and divemaster Kristin Belew take us down. We’re immediately swept up in the surge of sea life. Platoons of sergeant majors march past, yellow tangs are tossed about and, as I approach a patch of lobe coral, several damselfish let me have it. Hardly the distressed maidens of fairy tales, these fish fiercely defend their bit of turf and aren’t afraid to nip at my mask.
Next up on the dive card is Second Cathedral. Here a giant lattice of lava walls lets sunlight penetrate the inner sanctum, resulting in a serene churchlike scene. In one corner, there’s even an ornate stand of black coral resembling a wispy chandelier.
My last day of diving begins at Mala Wharf, where we set out again for Lanai, this time with PADI Dive Center Hawaiian Rafting Adventures. Owner/operator Stephen Juarez takes the helm of his 37-foot Naiad RIB, and in no time we’re at the shores of Lanai. Conditions are great again at Shark Fin Rock, so we back-roll in and settle down. Despite being on the same site, it’s completely different — like the same ingredients served by another chef. Juarez uncovers all manner of hidden critters like flame wrasse, a leaf scorpionfish, a zebra moray, a turkeyfish and tiny crabs lurking within cauliflower coral.
Next stop is Lighthouse Point, a cave-laden site, which Juarez says is a favorite of whitetips. Sure enough, as we hang back at the edge of a cave, a drowsy shark scoots out above us and prowls the reef. We move on, and I notice a tiny fried-egg nudibranch and look up to see great balls of blue-striped snappers undulating in the surge. Juarez points toward a rare white tang, and just when I think I’ve seen it all, I turn to see him dancing with an octopus. It’s a perfect finale before we brave the waves back to Lahaina.
Back at my hotel, I have just enough time to pack before watching the nightly ritual tiki-torch lighting and cliff dive off Black Rock. It’s also a great spot for a night dive but my flight the next day precludes it, so I content myself with another classic Hawaiian experience: a luau. The feast and celebration perfectly mirrors my experience on these islands, and I’m reminded of the incredible Hawaiian culture that lies beneath the surface.
For anyone who’s ever tasted these islands, returning seems inevitable. Perhaps that explains the sentiment in the final, knowing phrase of the Aloha ‘Oe song written by Hawaii’s last queen, Liliu’okalani: “One fond embrace, before I leave, until we meet again.”
TWO MORE ADVENTURES
1. Rough seas kept me from joining Maui Dive Shop on two very popular specialty dives: a scooter-propelled romp off Makena Landing, and a West Maui site frequented by manta rays. A diver-propulsion vehicle has the power to turn a diver into a human torpedo. With a bit of practice, you can scoot through the water at 4 to 5 miles per hour, covering much more territory (and seeing more animals) than mere fins allow.
2. Everyone knows about the famous Kona manta night dive, but I was looking forward to a special daytime encounter. A manta ray cleaning station on a reef at the base of the west Maui mountains features a canopy of hard coral harboring sea life like harlequin shrimp and nudibranchs. The star attraction, of course, is the Pacific manta ray.
A DIVERS GUIDE TO: MAUI
Average water temp: 75 degrees
What to wear: 3 to 5 mm suit
Average viz: 70- to 150-plus feet
When to go: Perpetual warm weather and water offer divers good reasons to visit year-round. For a chance to see humpback whales and hear their melodies underwater, visit Maui when they do — mid-December to mid-April.
Flights: American carriers offer nonstops to Maui (OGG) from Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Dallas and Chicago. If you’re flying from the east, an overnight stay at LAX or SFO will break the flight into two five-hour hops, and help ease the transition to Hawaii time.
For More: sportdiver.com/destinations/hawaii
Maui’s most popular dive site, and no wonder. With 150-feet viz, it’s easy to see dramatic drop-offs, oodles of tangs and pelagic passersby like mantas.
Scooter diving with Maui Dive Shop lets you pack in more sights per breath, like lava-strewn seascapes, schooling surgeonfish and curious sea turtles.
Minutes from Lanai’s main harbor, Manele Bay, this site’s numerous caves attract resting whitetip sharks, insomniac octopuses and curious divers.
Watch the nightly sunset cliff dive, and then make your own night dive around this easy, protected shoreline. Surface in time for the Sheraton’s sumptuous luau finale.
Maui Ocean Center
Dive with a tiger and other sharks in this 750,000-gallon aquarium. A great backup plan for bad-weather days, plus guaranteed shark sightings.
TRAINING: AWARE Fish Identification
Stop wondering what that beautiful fish was on your most recent dive, and impress your buddies by learning to identify what you see underwater.
Go to padi.com for more info.
Hawaiian Rafting Adventures/Dive Maui
This Lahaina PADI Dive Center offers daily trips to the dive sites of Lanai, such as First Cathedral. Contact: goscubadivemaui.com
Maui Dive Shop
This PADI Dive Resort offers dives at Molokini, off southwest Maui, as well as day and night manta dives. Contact: mauidiveshop.com
Scuba Shack Maui
This PADI Dive Center also offers dives at Molokini Crater, as well as guided shore dives. Contact: scubashack.com
Trilogy Ocean Sports
This PADI Five Star Dive Resort offers visits to Lanai sites like Shark Fin Rock and Lighthouse Point. Contact scubalanai.com