The Critter Whisperer
You can’t miss Keri Key. Even though a light rain is falling this morning, she’s clearly the happiest one to be here. “My husband jokes that the only reason we bought the company was to satisfy my need for diving,” says the owner of Kona Diving Company.
Her voice lifts with excitement as she gives the briefing for the first of two morning dives, at Old Airport. The briefing includes cowfish, the gloomy nudibranch, a manta that “sometimes passes by at the end” and a critter that really gets her passions stoked: a male flame wrasse. “They’ve been showing off lately,” she says of the wrasse, opening her thumb and forefinger less than an inch to show off the size of the objet du jour.
Masa and I follow her down — she’s not hard to miss, wearing (purposely) mismatched fins and a colorful nudibranch hat — to a spot at 100 feet, where two male flame wrasse are showing off for a harem of females. I stay with one male who flares his bright-red fins, and then we move on to the cowfish, which is right where she said it’d be in a patch of rubble. We head shallower to a big lava formation covered in hard corals. There she finds a gloomy nudibranch against the bright hard coral it’s perched on. I’m on the line starting my safety stop when another divemaster starts banging his tank: It’s a “smallish manta,” just passing by.
On the second dive, at Devil’s Doorway, Key’s skills shine again. She tells us to expect schools of fish, in particular opportunistic raccoon butterflyfish and yellow tangs. These fish follow divers, which scare away sergeant majors from protecting their eggs. The fish then crowd in and start eating at the purple buffet.
Not five minutes into the dive, and we encounter the behavior exactly as she described. Masa and I swim near a pile of rocks covered in purple eggs, and the raccoons, yellow tangs, trumpetfish and wrasse swarm. After a few minutes of this, we head down toward the point, where pyramid butterflyfish are schooling in the blue.
I like to leave a little room for spontaneity in any trip, and it pays off big time that afternoon when we discover the 49th-annual Kona Stampede Rodeo. Just a 40-minute drive away, we enter another world: children running around with neon-pink lassos, and paniolos — Hawaiian cowboys — sporting 10-gallon hats. I’m the only haole among a wonderful diaspora of native Hawaiians. Masa is like a kid in a candy store photo- graphing the scene as it plays out in this small rodeo ground in a grove of trees. “I’ve been in Kona 12 years, and I never knew this existed.”