I am not in Maui for an hour before I see my first humpback. I catch a glimpse of it breaching out of the corner of my eye — just off the beach its tail smacks down on the ocean’s surface. This is a good sign, I think as I drive down the highway to Kaanapali Shores in my silver Mustang GT rental. Within minutes of completing that thought — smack! — two more whale tails pound the water’s surface.
It’s February in Hawaii’s Valley Isle, and humpbacks are on my mind. I’ve been told that these waters are like whale soup this time of year and that you’d be hard-pressed to miss a whale if you’re within sight of the ocean. The humpbacks migrate to the Maui area every year between November and May, with February being peak season — with luck I might even see one on a dive, so I’m told. Thanks to the hilly drive from the airport to the Aston Kaanapali Shores, I’ve had my first few sightings, but certainly not my last. This condo-style hotel room overlooking the ocean will be home for the next few days as I dive with Hawaiian Rafting Adventures Inc./Dive Maui.
Although Maui is in the name, this operation merely docks and operates out of the Lahaina Harbor area. The real treat is zooming over to Maui’s sister island, Lanai, in a military-style RIB each day to experience some of the best dive sites these waters have to offer. The trip across the Auau Channel to Lanai takes about 45 minutes to an hour depending on what sites you dive.
“This boat was built for comfort,” says owner Steve Juarez. He wasn’t lying. As much as I love to dive, I often find the boat experience to be a bit uncomfortable — but not on Hoku. Juarez even created a custom tank-storage system that doubles as a cushioned backrest. No sore backs or bruised bums on this boat.
The ride goes by too quickly this time of year; we pass the time by looking out for the humpbacks that fill the channel. We watch cow-and-calf pairs playing at the surface, and Capt. Steve stops for a bit so we can get a closer look, but not too close because these whales are protected in Hawaiian waters. Boats must maintain a safe distance and refrain from approaching. We arrive at our first stop, Steve’s Cave — the site is fittingly named after Juarez himself, who’s been diving Lanai’s sites and maintaining their moorings for more than 35 years. The visibility here is excellent, often exceeding 100 feet, and a huge school of snapper greets us upon descent. With a depth around 50 feet, it’s easy to extend your bottom time at this site where you can consistently see two giant yellow frogfish, octopuses, squirrelfish and endemic milletseed butterflyfish all while cruising in and out of swim-throughs.
Next stop: First Cathedral, arguably the most famous site in the Lanai area and the site I was most eager to explore.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep my lunch down in between dives and skipped out on our second dive. How am I going to explain this to my boss? That’s all I can think about in between the seasickness on our ride back to Maui as we spot whale after whale playing in the chop. It hasn’t been scientifically proven, but my theory is that the choppier the surface, the more active the whales are — and the more active my stomach is. Despite a rough start to the trip, I was determined to stick to my itinerary and make my whale watching dinner-cruise reservation that night. Back on land, I did the exact opposite of what my gut told me and boarded the Pacific Whale Foundation vessel for an evening of cruising near shore to learn more about the humpback migration to Maui each year. We’re lucky to see quite a few whale tails and pec slaps as well as mom-and-calf pairs showing off in the sunset. It’s a perfect evening spent admiring the beauty of the coastline and marine animals that call it home.
On Day Two, my prayers are answered. Calm seas allow the crew to run the boat farther than normal, all the way around to the southernmost end of Lanai to dive Lighthouse Point. It’s on this side of Lanai that Juarez claims they’ve seen a whale shark cruising by in the past.
I hope it’s here that I get my chance to see a humpback — a diver can dream, right?
This site is full of life, featuring sea turtles, sleeping whitetip reef sharks, octopuses, three different species of eels and, of course, the Hawaiian milletseed butterflyfish. I surface from the dive, ready to find out where we are off to next as I hear my fellow divers talking about the songs of the humpback whales. Did we just dive the same site, or am I hard of hearing?
It’s on our next dive that I have my chance for redemption — we are headed back to First Cathedral. I back-roll in, the anticipation building up to this moment. The site is every bit as ethereal as I imagined. I see where the site got its name with the way the light shines through holes and cracks in the ceiling of the lavatube formation. I feel a complete sense of calm as I snap photo after photo, trying to get the positioning of the light reflecting off a silhouetted diver just right. The lava-tube cavern is just the main attraction — the site is full of busy marine life, from hungry turtles to sponge crabs, nudibranchs and even a frogfish appropriately named Big Red by Juarez. At my safety stop, I see an eel has formed an alliance with a trevally to hunt around the reef — watching the pair is a very entertaining way to pass the time.
Back at the dive shop, I take Juarez’s advice and stop at the local Food Lion for the freshest Hawaiian poke on the island. The local grocery store carries at least 10 different types of poke — a raw-fish salad — seasoned from sweet to spicy. This will be the perfect meal to enjoy from my balcony while taking in the sunset and whale action on my last night before heading to Wailea.
My third and final day of diving off Lanai was full of more endemic species, such as the tiger cowry shell that was particularly abundant at the Shark Fin Rock site. The lava that once flowed through each site carved a different path, making the topography of every site unique. The endemic species and almost guaranteed turtle sightings are just the icing on the cake. I round out my Lanai diving at Second Cathedral — the cathedral that’s less famous but arguably just as spectacular. A large cavern makes it feel as if there are multiple levels to this site. If you enter the cavern near the ocean floor you’ll get a sense of grandeur that doesn’t exist near the top, where the rock snakes back and forth in an underwater maze. I take my time going through the cavern filming the different entryways and squirrelfish tucked away in the cracks.
Back at Dive Maui, we watch a slide show of the week’s photos on Juarez’s monitor. He’s an avid photographer, with the largest stock of underwater camera gear I’ve seen on island. He makes a point to photograph each diver, his or her souvenir from Maui. We chat for a bit about his weekend plans to take his grandkids out for ice cream, and we promise to keep in touch as he hands me a USB drive full of photos from the week. I walk away without seeing a humpback underwater but feeling as if I’m part of the Dive Maui family. With the cozy shop in my rearview mirror, I head down the coast to Wailea, a popular resort area and the launching point for dives to Molokini Crater.
It’s at the Aston at Maui Banyan — another condo-style resort — that I realize if your room doesn’t come with a picturesque balcony, full kitchen and supplies for the ultimate beach getaway, you’re staying in the wrong place. I head out to have dinner with another local dive legend, Ed Robinson — owner and operator of Ed Robinson’s Diving Adventures. Over pizza and beer he tells me the story of how he came to Maui from Southern California in 1971 and just never left, a common tale on island.
Robinson makes sure to dive with the crew of Sea Spirit weekly. On my first morning out with the crew, Capt. Joe and divemaster Dave gush about the humpback whales they saw just last week at the site we are headed to — Enenue, an advanced partial-drift dive that runs along the corner to the backside of Molokini Crater.
This site is famous for its shark condos that sit down around 120 to 130 feet where resting whitetips like to hang out.
We stop briefly, but since we’re diving on air we continue to drift along, spotting big spiny lobsters, anemones and large trevally, all while listening to the mesmerizing sound of humpbacks singing — the first time I’ve heard the unforgettable sound.
It gets so loud at one point, I think a whale is going to appear right in front of me. I’m smiling so big that my mask starts to leak. I’m not hard of hearing after all; this is what they sound like!
Back on Sea Spirit, Lorraine — a diver from Toronto — recalls a time in her past 12 years of diving with the Ed Robinson’s crew that she was lucky enough to encounter a mother humpback and calf underwater. “I could have wept. It was such an amazing experience,” she says.
A sandy bottom with lava rocks and nudibranchs galore greet us at Red Hill. The sounds of the humpbacks are even louder here, and Dave shows us four frogfish gathered on one rock. I try every angle possible but can’t fit them all in one photo. Diving this site is like an underwater Easter egg hunt — I could return again and again and still feel I’m missing something.
Since the sites around Molokini are a short distance from the small boat ramp from which the Ed Robinson’s crew launches, we are back to the dock before lunch, leaving almost a full day for exploring topside.
As the crew cleans the boat, Dave shares his story. “I traded in my climbing pack for a scuba BC and never looked back,” says the climber from Colorado. That was 14 years ago.
Maui got another one. It’s easy to see why divers and travelers are drawn to the island. My last day of diving includes two more dives at the backside of Molokini, a manta ray sighting, a gray reef shark cleaning station, and more nudibranchs and eels than you can count.
Unlike many of the people I’ve encountered during this trip to Maui, I’m returning home. I didn’t get that elusive underwater encounter with a humpback, but its song will haunt me until I return.
Tips For Diving Maui
To maximize your Maui experience, keep these tips in mind when planning your trip.
Rent a car Having the freedom to drive yourself to and from the dive shop on your own terms is worth it, but having a rental car on Maui also opens up the door to great topside activities. Cruising the coastline in your convertible is an experience in itself, and driving the Road to Hana is a must.
Stay in a condo Most of the hotels double as condo properties. When you are traveling with dive gear, it’s nice to have the extra space as well as the amenities of a kitchen and laundry room.
Beat the breeze Although Hawaii is known for its sunshine, the trade winds between islands can create quite the breeze on the dive boat. Make sure to pack a boat jacket or warm clothes to wear during surface intervals.