With marine life accounting for 28% of Hawaii’s many endemic species, the USA’s 50th state offers an alternative universe of underwater nature-watching. Words and pictures by LISA COLLINS, additional photography by MATEUSZ BEDNARCZUK
Divers explore Molokini Crater in fantastic visibility.
Appeared in DIVER June 2018
IT WAS SO PEACEFUL The early-morning sun was just peeking over the horizon as we waded over the beach into the gently lapping sea for our shore-dive at Makena Landing, on the south corner of Maui, Hawaii.
We slowly surface-swam along the lava rocks to the side of the picturesque bay, studded with oleander trees and fragrant plants, soaking up the beauty and tranquillity.
Reaching a small point, we dumped air from our BCs, slipped quietly below the surface and were suddenly hit by a noise, so loud that our ears felt as if they were vibrating out of our heads.
Singing mournfully and quite entrancingly, humpback whales were conversing with each other.
It seemed from the loudness that they could have been in touching distance, but whale-song is known to carry through the ocean for miles, and they were probably at least half a mile away.
The sensory change was like soft rock played loudly through a headset on a deserted island.
We had come to Hawaii in January, partly as an escape from the UK winter, partly because it was whale season, and partly because I was keen to photograph some of the unusual and endemic species that can be found in Hawaiian waters.
We had arranged the shore-dive at Makena with Robyn Torbin, store manager of Ed Robinson’s Dive Adventures, after diving with Ed himself on his boat earlier that week.
Makena, we were told, was a great place to find unusual species hiding among lava-rock boulders and corals along the natural wall of the coast, which gave way to a golden-sandy area that extended into the depths of the bay, close to the deeper channel running between the Hawaiian Islands.
That’s where whales come from Alaska to rest, give birth and recuperate, as their calves grow big and strong enough for the journey back north.
As we swam slowly along the wall, investigating the nooks but keeping an eye out into the blue occasionally for whales, I was astounded by how much seemingly familiar, yet unfamiliar, fish and marine life we observed.
Because the 137 Hawaiian islands, spread over nearly 6500sq miles of the Pacific, are 2400 miles from the nearest continent, they have the highest number of endemic and rare species in the world, far surpassing those of the Galapagos archipelago. Forty per cent of all species are endemic, and of those, 28% are marine species!
Many of these species are very different, but others are sub-species of more familiar widespread species, with only subtle differences in patterns or colouring.
The numbers of rare but not endemic species is similarly incredible. As we watched the fish dance in rainbow colours across the reef, this felt like a special dive.
THE MORE DIVES YOU DO around the world, the less often you get that feeling of novelty, but on every dive in the Hawaiian islands I would spot something new. At Makena Landing, new sightings seemed to be everywhere.
Robyn was a wiz at finding nudibranchs, pointing out tiny endemic Hypselodoris peasei hiding among the rocks and a Godiva, similar to ones I had seen in Indonesia but subtly different. This nudibranch is not only endemic but also very rare. I found a pretty white and gold Aredeodoris, fairly common around other Hawaiian islands, but rare in Maui.
Robyn led us along the rocks and up to a lava-tube cave under a small overhanging cliff along the shoreline.
As we came out, a large Hawaiian green turtle was gently grazing over the reef. Protected in Hawaiian waters, and almost revered, a very heathy population lives and comes ashore to rest on the beaches.
On the tiny beach near where we were staying, on every afternoon we visited a huge green turtle would haul itself up the beach and sleep in the shadows for an hour of two, oblivious of sun-worshippers and surfers alike.
On another beach, Ho’okipa, on the north shore of Maui near the small scenic town of Paia and close to a famous surf-site called Jaws, hundreds of turtles have started to come ashore to rest in the afternoons, before hauling themselves back down to the water at sunset.
The turtles have to negotiate the big waves that crash on the reef just offshore, attracting surfers and body-boarders. The area has been cordoned off and marine biologists and conservationists are studying the turtles’ unusual behaviour.
AFTER EXPLORING THE lava-tube, we headed slowly back towards shore. We spotted a tiny, fat endemic white-spotted toby, swivelling comically as it searched for food.
Two threadfin butterflyfish kept charging us. They can be quite territorial, trying to drive away other species, but happily gave us a good close-up photo opportunity.
A large blunt slipper lobster was hiding under a rock – although not endemic, these are not often seen.
What I thought at first was a large piece of white rubbish on the sand some way off materialised into a speckled Platydoris the size of a tea-plate. Fairly rare, this type of nudibranch was found in Hawaiian waters only in 1961.
We swam back towards the rocks to follow them to shore. An endemic spotted snake-eel poked its head out of the sand.
Only as we reached the quiet surface after a wonderful 92-minute dive did I realise how noisy the whales had been all through our dives. I hoped to see them under water one day, but couldn’t imagine how loud they would be close up. I had loved every minute of Makena Landing.
We had dived earlier that week on an “Adventure X” dive, on which guests can dictate where to go and what to see, with no bottom-time limits other than gas-consumption and no-deco time. Ed Robinson, an underwater photographer and artist, discusses the pros and cons of the sites, accompanies the divers and helps with their photography.
Ed had told us about Hawaii’s national fish the Humuhumu-nukunuku-a-pua'a fish (aka the rectangular triggerfish, very similar to the Picasso triggerfish). I was surprised to find that the national fish was not endemic, considering how many there were from which to choose, but I had never seen a Picasso triggerfish, let alone a rectangular one.
WE MET ED’S DIVE-BOAT at Kihei marina. Check-in is next to the boat, which is loaded on a trailer before being lowered into the water. There were eight of us aboard, with Ed and two other dive-guides, and our first dive was to be Enenue in Molokini Crater.
Apart from finding the national fish and other species and perhaps hearing whales again I hoped that if the vis was as good as it was reputed to be at Molokini, it might just be possible to see the whales under water.
During the 40-minute journey we could see whales breaching and tail-slapping in the distance. Molokini Crater is an almost-perfect half-moon-shaped islet, the remnants of a caldera from a volcanic eruption some 230,000 years ago. There was only a slight swell in the waters within the crater’s lee.
The back-wall is famous for pelagics and wall-dives but conditions can be rough, especially in winter.
We dropped onto a small wall with a sandy slope, hearing whale-song in the distance. We descended to 25m. Visibility was less good than I had hoped, but still a decent 30m!
The wall was full of life. I could have renamed the site Butterfly Gardens for the numbers of butterflyfish dancing around the reef. Schools of the bright yellow racoon variety were a stark contrast against the blue. Tiny Klein’s, teardrop and oval butterflyfish delighted me as species I had never seen, while more familiar ornate butterflyfish searched among the hard corals for food.
The “rare longnose” butterflyfish, with an even longer nose than the familiar longnose, is very unusual to find in Hawaiian waters. Even more exciting were the endemic multiband and milletseed varieties, which we spotted in pairs swimming over the reef.
Fighting for space with all these butterflyfish were numerous species of surgeonfish, parrotfish and triggerfish, and a goldring surgeonfish, recently classified as endemic but very similar to Indo-Pacific species.
I thought a pale triggerfish with black stripes was the national fish before realising that the colouring and pattern was slightly wrong. It turned out to be a lei triggerfish. Finally, Ed caught my attention – he had found a colourful rectangular triggerfish, and after seeing it I seemed to spot them everywhere, with their distinctive V-shaped pattern.
Suddenly the singing seemed to be very close by, enveloping us in a wave of vibrant sound. We searched for the whale, but couldn’t see it. Damn the rainstorms of the previous week for reducing the visibility!
As we continued along the wall we saw a reefoctopus, black leaf scorpionfish, more white-spotted tobys, a vivid blue-and-yellow Hawaiian spotted boxfish, thought to be a subspecies, and an endemic green turkeyfish.
Trevallies hunted in the blue and several species of morays hid in holes in the reef.
OUR SECIND DIVE with Ed was at his favourite dive-site Red Hill, below the slopes of Haleakala volcano in the south of Maui, where we had celebrated New Year’s Eve with many other people, watching an amazing sunset from the highest point on the island.
There were beautiful lava formations on the wall, a lava-tube swim-through with a huge green turtle sleeping, and a fat whitetip shark under a ledge.
We found several different types of shrimp in the lava-tube, including a rare Saron shrimp, far larger than any I’d seen before and thought to be a sub-species.
An endemic Steindachner’s moray shared a hole with a pencil anemone, and Ed pointed out a huge endemic titan scorpionfish.
After diving the southern sites with Ed and Robyn, we decided to try some northern ones, starting at Lanai Cathedral with Lahaina Divers and a lava-tube full of endemic Hawaiian bigeyes. Again, we could hear but not see the whales.
On the outskirts of Lahaina town, we did a shore-dive on broken, rubble-strewn Mala Pier, destroyed by a typhoon and now a haven for green turtles and critters. A large reefoctopus paused from its hunting to settle and watch us carefully. We saw three Commerson’s frogfish, one a bright yellow baby, a white adult and a huge mustard-coloured one. They’re rare. but obviously liked life at Mala.
I always find bird wrasse funny little creatures, darting about with their long noses. In old Hawaii they were used for treating brain diseases, as were yellowtail coris, also spotted at the pier.
Hiding under a broken strut was a beautiful 10cm endemic speckled scorpionfish, very well camouflaged. Nearby was another endemic species – an Hawaiian tiger cowry. A tiny golden dwarf moray, not endemic but fairly rare, was a good find, because they’re so difficult to spot hiding in small holes.
NUDIBRANCHS WERE ALL OVER the pier, and I found a Phyllidia varicosa, which I have seen all over Asia. This one was much paler, again perhaps a sub-species. Lying in the sand under more broken struts were two large whitetip sharks.
To the side of the broken structure, white and manybar goatfish (the latter’s Hawaiian name means “red”, from a legend of the fish eating the red blossoms of the ohi’a lehua tree) whiskered their way across the bottom.
An Hawaiian lizardfish, with many rows of teeth visible, is thought to be endemic, though some have been seen recently in Japanese waters.
I have only ever seen razorfish in these waters, though they are not endemic, and at Mala I saw two – of the juvenile peacock and Iniistius baldwini varieties.
We could have stayed forever but, air much depleted, we had to return to shore.
Back at Molokini Crater, this time with Lahaina Divers, several humpback whales could be seen breaching. As soon as we descended at Middle Reef in 40m-plus visibility it was clear that they were fairly close by.
The boat had moored over a sand-chute surrounded by reef. We dropped and explored one side of the chute, over the reef to the edge of a wall at 20m.
A reef shark cruised by below, and we could see schools of butterflyfish, variously coloured parrotfish, more rectangular triggerfish, filefish, trunkfish and a large bigeye emperor that followed us for several minutes.
We spotted several endemic species seen on previous dives, and no doubt there were many more in the waves of fish sweeping over the reef.
We kept looking for whales in the blue, but knew they weren’t as close as they had been at Makena Landing and Molokini previously. The singing was a gentle accompaniment to our dive, not the ear-blasting we had experienced before.
So we resorted to a surface experience and chose Ultimate Whale Watch Tours, out of Lahaina, for one of its small, personalised group tours on bright yellow RIBs, guided by captain Amy and marine naturalist Hannah.
FEDERAL REGULATIONS bar boats in Maui’s Nui Basin from approaching whales closer than 100m, though the whales can approach the boats. It is also illegal to swim or snorkel with them purposefully unless, again, they approach you while you’re in the water.
Whales have been known to come right up to the RIB to spy-hop the passengers, which is called “mugging”. We could only hope, while knowing that it was unlikely, especially at the start of the whale season. Peak time is mid-to-late February.
We set off at 7am as the sun rose over the flat-calm ocean, looking out for water-spouts. Hannah spotted one in the distance and we sped out in the boat as she briefed us on humpback whales.
Ultimate Whale Watch donates both staff and boats to researchers studying the whales during the season. The research has indicated a 7% increase in humpback populations in Hawaii in the past year alone. The researchers had also trained the staff in cutting free whales caught in fishing-line.
Over the next three hours we viewed many whales from afar, and several fairly close up, watching them slap their tales and pectoral fins. None chose to come any closer than 100m, but it was a magnificent end to an amazing trip.
The Hawaiian Islands are beautiful, exotic and soul-affirming, and somewhere I will always hanker to revisit to enjoy all those unusual and endemic species.
Next time, I aim to visit in the peak of whale season in the hope of being mugged. Mahalo!
GETTING THERE> Lisa flew from London Heathrow to Maui via Seattle with Virgin Atlantic and Hawaiian Airlines but there are many options, all with a stopover in a major US hub. Car hire is a must, unless staying and diving in the same town, such as Lahaina or Kihei.
ACCOMMODATION> Lisa stayed in a condo north of Lahaina but there are options for all budgets.
WHEN TO GO> Year-round. In summer water temperatures can rise to 28°; in winter they drop to 25° (air temperatures are similar). Whales visit from December through March. The wettest month is November.
PRICES> Return flights from £780 return. Ed Robinson Adventure X two-tank dive US $169, Lahaina Divers’ three-day, six-tank Maui Sampler package $389. Shore-diving $10 per tank. Three-hour whale-watching tour $89pp plus tax.
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