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The Big Island's underwater world is the setting for a dramatic diving experience. With generally warm and calm waters, vibrant coral reefs and rock formations, and plunging underwater drop-offs, the Kona and Kohala coasts offer some premier scuba diving. There are also some good dive locations in East Hawaii, not far from the Hilo area. Divers find much to occupy their time, including marine reserves teeming with tropical reef fish, Hawaiian green sea turtles, an occasional and critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal, and even some playful spinner dolphins. On special night dives to see manta rays, divers descend with bright underwater lights that attract plankton, which in turn attract these otherworldly creatures. The best spots to dive are all on the west coast.
Garden Eel Cove. Only accessible by boat, this is a great place to see manta rays somersaulting overhead as they feast on a plankton supper. It's also home to hundreds of tiny garden eels darting out from their sandy homes. There's a steep drop-off and lots of marine life. Rte. 19, near Kona airport, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740.
Manta Village. Booking with a night-dive operator is required for the short boat ride to this area, one of Kona's best night-dive spots. If you're a diving or snorkeling fanatic, it's well worth it to experience manta rays drawn by the lights of the hotel. If night swimming isn't your cup of tea, you can catch a glimpse of the majestic creatures from the Sheraton's deck. 78-128 Ehukai St., off Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740.
Pawai Bay Marine Preserve. Clear waters, abundant reef life, and interesting coral formations make Pawai Bay Marine Preserve ideal for diving. Explore sea caves, arches, and rock formations. Located one half mile north of Old Airport, it can be busy with snorkel boats, but is an easy dive spot. Kuakini Hwy., north of Old Kona Airport Park, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740.
Puako. Just south of Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area, beautiful Puako offers easy entry to some fine reef diving. Deep chasms, sea caves, and rock arches abound with varied marine life. Puako Rd., off Hwy. 19, Kohala Coast, HI, 96743.
Manta rays, one of Hawaii's most fascinating marine-life species, can be seen on some nighttime diving excursions along the Kona and Kohala coasts. They are generally completely harmless to divers, though of course no wild animal is totally predictable. If you don't want to get wet, head to the beach fronting the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, on the Kohala Coast, or to the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, where each evening, visitors gather by the hotel’s lights to watch manta rays feed in the shallows.
The manta ray (Manta birostris), called the devil fish by some, is known as hahalua by Hawaiians.
Its winglike fins, reaching up to 20 feet wide, allow the ray to skim through the water like a bird gliding through air.
The manta ray uses the two large flap-like lobes extending from its eyes to funnel food to its mouth. It eats microscopic plankton, small fish, and tiny crustaceans.
Closely related to the shark, the manta can weigh more than 3,000 pounds.
Its skeleton is made of cartilage, not bone.
A female ray gives birth to one or two young at a time; pups can be 45 inches long and weigh 20 pounds at birth.
There are quite a few good dive shops along the Kona Coast. Most are happy to take on all customers, but a few focus on specific types of trips. Trip prices vary, depending on whether you're already certified and whether you're diving from a boat or from shore. Instruction with PADI, SDI, or TDI certification in three to five days costs $600 to $850. Most instructors rent dive equipment and snorkel gear, as well as underwater cameras. Most organize otherworldly manta ray dives at night and whale-watching cruises in season.
Jack's Diving Locker. Good for novice and intermediate divers, Jack's has trained and certified tens of thousands of divers since 1981, with classrooms and a dive pool for instruction. Four boats that accommodate 10 to 24 divers (boats at capacity can feel cramped) visit more than 80 established dive sites along the Kona coast, yielding sightings of turtles, manta rays, garden eels, and schools of barracuda. Snorkelers can choose from morning trips and manta night trips, and dolphin-watch and reef snorkels. Combined sunset/night manta ray dives are offered as well. Kona's best deal for scuba newbies is Jack's two-part introductory dive from Kailua Pier: pool instruction plus a one-tank beach dive, or a two-tank boat dive is offered as well. 75-5813 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/329–7585 or 800/345–4807. www.jacksdivinglocker.com. Snorkel trips from $65.
Kohala Divers. The Kohala Coast's lava-tube caves, vibrant coral reefs, and interesting sealife make it a great diving destination. This full-service PADI dive shop has been certifying divers since 1984. A one-day intro dive course has you in the ocean the same day. A four-day, full certification course is offered, too. The company also rents equipment and takes divers to the best diving spots. Kawaihae Harbor Shopping Center, Hwy. 270, Kawaihae, HI, 96743. 808/882–7774. www.kohaladivers.com. One-day dive course, $175; four-day certification $650; two-tank dive $139 plus $35 for gear; snorkel rentals $35 per week.
Nautilus Dive Center. Across from Hilo Bay, Nautilus Dive Center is the oldest and most experienced dive shop on the island. It offers a broad range of services for both beginners and experienced divers. Owner Bill De Rooy has been diving around the Big Island for 30 years, and can provide you with underwater maps and show you the best dive spots in Hilo. He also provides PADI instruction and likes to repair gear. 382 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, HI, 96720. 808/935–6939. www.nautilusdivehilo.com. Dive-equipment rentals from $35 per day.
Ocean Eco Tours and Harbor Dive Center. This eco-friendly outfitter is eager to share a wealth of ocean knowledge with beginners and advanced divers alike. Six to 10 divers and snorkelers head out on one of two 30-foot crafts, and the day's destination—from among 80 sites, both north and south, that feature good reefs and other prime underwater spots—varies based on ocean conditions. Four-hour daytime dives or a nighttime dives to swim with manta rays are offered. PADI open-water certification can be completed in three or four days. Seasonal whale-watch tours are also offered. Ride-alongs are welcome on all charters. Honokohau Harbor, 74-425 Kealakehe Pkwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/324–7873 or 808/331–2121. www.oceanecotours.com. Excursions from $129; PADI open-water certification $650; whale-watch tours $95.
Shan's Scuba. For a personalized scuba-certification experience, certified PADI MSDT instructor Shannon Rhodes offers complete certification. Specializing in small groups, she's particularly good with those who feel intimidated about learning to dive. If you plan ahead, you can learn online with PADI before arrival, and Shannon will certify you in the water for a discounted price. Captain Cook, HI, 96704. 985/515–5990. Certification $400 ($300 with pre-online course).
Torpedo Tours. Owner-operators Mike and Nikki Milligan, both dive instructors, love to take divers out on their 40-foot custom dive boat, the Na Pali Kai II. They specialize in small groups, which means you'll get personalized attention and spend more time diving and less time waiting to dive. Morning excursions feature two-tank dives. Both snorkelers and divers can try the torpedo scooters—devices that let you cover more area with less kicking. Manta ray night diving and snorkeling at Garden Eel Cove are offered. This is the only company that fishes between dives. Scout, the dive dog, loves to swim with the sea life. Honokohau Harbor, 74-425 Kealakehe Pkwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/938–0405. www.torpedotours.com. Dives from $119; snorkeling from $85; torpedo scooters $30.