The Vibrant Side of Maui - Hawaii Au Naturel
There is no fountaining lava here, and the bustle and commerce of the beach scene are largely absent as well. So why is it that visitors regularly fall in love with Maui?
Probably it's because Maui County, which encompasses both Maui and Lanai, is a genuine slice of the old Hawaii - the Hawaii that was here long before the attack on Pearl Harbor, when agriculture and artists made up most of the local scene. Contemporary Maui is natural. It's casual. It is oftentimes stunningly beautiful. And it has a tempo that calms the nerves and soothes the soul.
Underwater, Maui offers diving that ranges from shore-diving simple to wall-to-wall dramatic. And again, the draw is the natural side of things. From nudis and eels to dolphins, sharks and mantas, this is the place to walk on Hawaii's wild side. And Maui offers five different and distinct wild sides from which to choose.
The barrier reef known as Turtle Reef is actually broken up into well over a dozen recognized dive sites on the island off Maui's western shore, from Honolua Bay in the north down to Thousand Peaks in the south. Aptly named, this is the side of Maui to dive if you want to absolutely, positively encounter a honu, or native Hawaiian green sea turtle, some of which can grow to absolutely gargantuan size.
But honu is not the only resident you'll encounter on your dives here. This long barrier reef is home to most of Hawaii's hundreds of species of reef fish, a quarter of which are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. Moreover, most Turtle Reef dive sites are shallow - enough so that an Open Water Diver card is more than enough qualification to visit them, and the limiting factor on your dives is almost certain to be time, rather than air.
Virtually all of the sites on this end of Maui can be dived from shore, making them ideal for Hawaii's version of "Play it again, Sam." Like a dive site on the West End that you visited by dive boat? Grab a buddy, put a cylinder or two in the cargo area of your rental Jeep, and go back and dive it again at your own pace.
Black Rock, near the Sheraton Resort and one of the most popular shore dives on Maui, bottoms out at just 20 feet - you're apt to turn pruney long before your tables or your dive computer tell you it's time to head up. Yet this underwater lava formation is alive with Spanish dancers, cowries, turtles and more, and a cavern in the rock adds an interesting dimension to this easy and shallow dive.
Olowalu Beach not only has a great Hawaiian name - it's a very good site for parrotfish and wrasse, not to mention turtles, and you may see a passing sand tiger shark here as well. If you are looking for a good shore dive with great coral, Olowalu is hard to beat.
One exception to the sand-to-sea accessibility of these sites is Canoe Beach. Although close to the Hyatt Regency resort, this site is far enough out, and the intervening water sufficiently current-swept, that you'll want to visit this particular site with a boat. But other than distance, Canoe Beach is extremely beginner friendly enough so that you might even consider it for a first-ever boat dive. The depth on-site is deep for this end of the island (50 feet), but the visibility is typically 60 feet, making it easy to spot turtles, scorpionfish, damselfish and much, much more.
THE SOUTH SHORE
Rocky and generally a bit rougher than Turtle Reef, Maui's south is again a shore-diver's dream, although the dreamers in this case should be somewhat more experienced divers, particularly for some of the entries and exits. But the reward is pristine waters and lots of underwater life. La Perouse Bay and the adjacent site of Ahihi Bay are both marine preserves (two of the four marine preserves in Maui waters). Ahihi Bay is currently closed, as a reef recovery process, but will reopen in 2010.
But for divers with adventurous non-diving friends, south-shore sites generally offer plenty to see for snorkelers as well. And the sun drenches this stretch of the Maui coast for most of the day, making it a great place to work on that "look, I've been to the islands" tan.
Like the west side, dives on the south tend to be relatively shallow and extremely bottom-time friendly, although sea conditions can have an effect on this. Some, like the fun-to-explore Five Caves, have rocky entries that will probably have you and your buddy entering arm-in-arm. The dive at Five Caves, though, bottoms out at just 50 feet and offers enough caves and swim-throughs that you'll definitely want to bring a dive light to scope out the marine life - it's a great place to spot turtles - and formations.
One exception to the shallow-site rule is Dragon Reef (so named for an underwater lava ridge covered in octocorals that, to some eyes at least, resembles a dragon's back). One can easily reach 70 feet at this site, making it one of the few south-shore sites where your first-dive-of-the-day bottom time might actually be less than an hour. But what Dragon's Reef lacks in bottom time it more than makes up for in things to see: Hawaii's usual (read "staggering") variety of reef fish and marine life.
THE NORTH SHORE
From Hana Bay west to Ho'okipa Beach, Maui bears the brunt of Pacific swells, giving this area some of the strongest currents - and with them, the influx of nutrients that grow large, healthy coral and attract some of the largest pelagic life. Although shore diving is an option at some North Shore sites, most are best visited with a local divemaster and a dive boat.
The North Shore sites tend to be the deepest dive sites in Maui, with only Molokini Wall offering greater depth than what you'll find here. Hidden Pinnacle, for instance, offers 100 or more feet of visibility. The structure rises from a 120-foot bottom. Pyramid butterflyfish and healthy deepwater sponges are resident attractions, and a full variety of pelagics present the possibility of cameo appearances. In addition to depth, Hidden Pinnacle usually has a fair amount of current present and can only be visited when weather conditions allow, so a PADI Professional who knows the site and a bit of open-ocean experience are both good ideas when diving here; it's proof that, in addition to being beginner- friendly, Maui has sites that a diver can grow into.
Also known as the "Pineapple Island" because the entire island was once a pineapple plantation, Lanai lies nine miles offshore from Maui. The plantation is now gone, and two luxury resorts and two championship golf courses have taken its place, but there are still no traffic lights on the island, and a good portion of Lanai's roads can still be navigated only by four-wheel drive.
If "natural" is the picture you get, you're on the right track. And underwater, that is especially the case. Off Maui's south shore is where many of the most spectacular of Hawaii's underwater photographs have been shot. From the supernaturally beautiful shafts of light reaching down from the ceilings of First Cathedral and Second Cathedral, to the beauty of flights of eagle rays winging their way under a dappled surface, Lanai is a cavalcade of drama and beauty.
Lanai is also a place to be approached without preconceptions. The dive site known as Pyramids, for instance, is named not for underwater rock formations (although it has those as well) but for the thriving colony of resident pyramid butterfly fish that are dependably on-site here. And Armchair is not a pleasant place to take a snooze, but a site where the shore topography looks like a La-Z-Boy for a sea-gazing giant. Populated with fish that will follow, rather than flee from divers, Armchair runs as deep as 50 feet, yet has enough to see near the surface that even snorkelers can be content here. And turtles, dolphins and eagle rays all make regular appearances on this site.
With its more than 25 dive sites, Lanai offers lava tubes, arches, caverns and all the diversity of an island that stands miles offshore from its neighbors. It's possible to spend your entire dive trip here and leave completely satisfied.
With Hawaii's greatest diversity of sea life in a single place, and the state's best visibility (routinely exceeding 100 feet), Molokini Crater is the central reason that many divers come to Maui. The upper portion of a shield volcano's crater, a crescentlike section of Molokini extends above water, and the rest forms a tropically warm bowl that serves as a nursery for all sorts of oceanic life.
Just about every reef fish in Hawaii is found here - and given the 50th state's stunning diversity, that's saying a lot. You can also find a variety of octopus species, various species of moray eels and an abundant population of whitetip reef sharks. The Molokini Wall is an eye-opening advanced drift dive on a site that plummets into foggy blue depths and has often been referred to as the best wall dive in the United States.
With whitetip, blacktip and gray reef sharks, dolphins, schools of fish numbering in the thousands, and even regular visits by mantas, Molokini Wall is the sort of site most people want to visit again and again. Then again, that's a pretty apt description of Maui in general.
Maui Dive Shop (mauidiveshop.com) operates both a 48-foot boat and a 32-foot boat, and offers trips to at least two destinations every day of the week, with one trip geared to newer divers and snorkelers. Lahaina Divers has a quarter century of experience diving Maui, Molokini and Lanai, and operates two 46-foot boats. The operation is also disabled-friendly. Hawaiian Rafting Adventures/Dive Maui caters to small groups; the boat is rated for 22 divers, but carries a maximum of 12. In the water, dives are done in groups of no more than six divers plus a dive professional. Scuba Shack Maui (scubashack.com) operates a 40-foot jet-drive dive boat carrying a maximum of 12 divers, and advertises its service as "like having friends on Maui that own a boat." For more information, contact the Maui Visitors Bureau.
Scratching the Surface, Top Inland Treks
If you have a midweek surface interval, a non-diving companion looking for something to do off the boat, or simply an interest in thoroughly enjoying one of Hawaii's most naturally beautiful Islands, here's Sport Diver's three-part topside tour of the beautifully wild side of Maui:
Begin by renting a car and making the drive from Kahului Airport to Hana on the world-famous "Road to Hana." Budget three hours for the drive - and if you stop for pictures as often as we do, even that might not be enough. This spectacular drive makes more than 600 twists and turns (an average of about a dozen every mile), crosses 54 bridges in its 53-mile length, and passes some of the most spectacular scenery you'll ever see from a car window.
You'll see pineapple and taro fields in cultivation, tropical rainforests, waterfalls, steep volcanic terrain, and, of course, the vast Pacific. This drive can also be done as a guided tour, or you can buy a tour tape or CD and listen to it as you drive for a better understanding of what you're seeing.
Feel like a walk once you reach Hana? Go past town to the south and hike the Pipiwai Trail up to 400-foot-tall Waimoku Falls. The trail takes about four hours, but it's worth the walk.
Then get to bed early, wake up at about three in the morning, and drive up to the Haleakala Visitors Center in Haleakala National Park to watch the sunrise from the crater's edge - absolutely guaranteed to be the best sunrise in Hawaii. Your vantage point, 9,740 feet above the Pacific Ocean (which you'll be able to see, if there aren't clouds below you) makes this an amazing way to start the day.