Saturday, March 18, 2017

Hawai'i Adventure: Kona Coast Diving

Kona Coast

The first week of our trip we had reserved for Scuba Diving, Snorkling, and general exploring on the Kona (West) coast of the Big Island. That is what everyone calls it, “The Big Island”. Not Hawai’i. The Big Island. And so you have “Big Island Divers” and “Big Island Brewery” etc. Lots happening over there. Traditionally, there were not very many people living over on that side of the island. Why? Because there's very little fresh water. And the little water that there is flows deep under the lava flows and doesn’t come to the surface until it runs into the ocean. So there. But the fishing was good and King Kamehameha lived over there, so it wasn’t all bad. And then when the tourist industry wanted to build, well, you do that on the side of the island where the sun is shining. So you buy up all of the beaches that you can (or make new ones) and build some big hotels. So, lots of people putting in vacation homes or retirement homes or just “I want to live in the sun” homes on the Kona coast. Seems like they are having a little population explosion. One reason I say this is because none of the maps are right. They are putting in new (and big) roads faster than Google Maps can keep up. Even so, don’t try and drive the main drag through Kona at rush hour. There are not a LOT of cars, per se, but there is even less road.

The old traditional road up the coast, Ayli’i road (which is the name of the royal caste) is a two lane road that is one set of houses over from the shore. Drive up it once, just for fun. Even better, ride the little trolley/bus that goes from the south end to Kailua. Lots of older hotels and resorts here. The new resorts are all north of the airport built on top of the 1800 vintage lava flow (built in a place where no one wanted to build houses). There are a number of state beaches along here. They are small little things. A 100 yard long cove where there is some sand. The beach a block from our VRBO is called Magic Sands beach. It is called that because the sand comes and goes. Come one day and there will be a nice sandy beach. But if you have a little weather, then next week the sand will be gone. Come back a week later, and the sand is back. Sounds cool, doesn’t it? The sand was gone when we were there, as the weather was pretty rough. But we still had a great time sitting on the shore in the beach above the rocks and watching the surfers and boogie boarders having a great time. You have to know what you are doing to be in the surf at that beach when the surf is up and the sand is gone. You have to be able to catch your wave, and then get off before it plows you into the rocks on the beach. You also have to know how to get up on the rocks when you are done and exit the ocean on a sharp rocky shore. Perhaps not for me.

My partner had found us a VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) a block off the beach at Magic Sands. It was a lovely little apartment below the owners place. We had a nice garden, a little kitchen, a barbecue, a fridge, access to the washer/dryer, and use of beach chairs and boogie boards. We also had AC, which we used in the evenings to help sleep. We were a five minute walk to our little (semi) private beach, 15 minute drive away from downtown and perhaps 30 from some parks and such to the south. Very convenient.

Diving the Big Island

One of our vacation goals was to make use of my partner's recent scuba certification and do some tropical diving. She did her open water certification dives in the Hood Canal (a natural canal-like waterway off of the Puget Sound in Washington) in January. She was wearing a very thick full wetsuit in the almost snowy weather in a place that has like 15 foot visibility. We expected more from Hawaii. And we got it.

Our Dive Boat sets out

On the Boat ride out.

We used a company called “Big Island Divers”. They have a Very nice shop in Kailua. I mean, this place was a bigger, nicer shop than just about any dive shop I have ever been in. They also had excellent prices on regulators and such. The friendly staff signed us right up and even measured us for gear and showed us how to use their BCs (Buoyancy Compensators). Their BCs had the lead weights (that you need to go down) integrated into easily ditched (so you can go up) pockets with little handles. (as a super aside here, I will note that everyone these days would call these inflatable life vests a “BCD” “Buoyancy Compensator Device”. But when I trained we called them just BC. I would argue that the word “Device” adds no descriptive value and should be discarded. For instance: do you call a Grill a Grill Device? Do you call a Hammer a Hammer Device? “Device” is assumed. Or you should go the other way and call it a BCDT “Buoyancy Compensator Device Thingimajig”.)

Here is how a Dive works with these guys. You meet at the boat at around 8:00. We did two different excursion and had two different boats. The big boat was a little nicer ride. This boat is kept in the water in the little man made harbor at Kona. When you get there, all of your gear is already setup and waiting. This means that your tanks are sitting snugged into a rack right behind a sitting place on the bench. Your BC is attached to your tank and your Octopus (regulator, Dive Computer, Air Pressure Gauge, spare buddy regulator) is hooked up to your tank and your BC. And your light wet suit is sitting on top. All ready to go.

They do an intro and short safety lecture and then out you go. Both boats can probably do take out 12 guest divers. They usually have you set up into two groups of 4-6. Each group has a dive master and you do a “led tour”. That is, you follow your dive master around for the length of the dive. This is not as restrictive as you might think since the only requirement is that you stay within sight of the leader. With up to 100 foot of visibility, staying in sight is pretty easy.

The weather was little rough the week we were visiting, so the sites we could go to were a bit more limited. You also have this issue where there are a lot of dive charters out and the moorings for the boats to use are fixed and limited. So if someone else is already on the morning for the site you wanted, you need to wait for them to finish or move on. Here is an interesting thing. All of the moorings that are used by the Dive Charters are permanent moorings and are shared. This means that someone has got down and put half-inch screws into rock at the site. Coming up from that are wire cables that attach to a strong plastic rope that eventually ends in a floating buoy. However, this buoy is tied to float about 15 foot beneath the surface. So the dive boat will navigate to where the mooring should be (using GPS), get a visual on the buoy underwater (they are white) and then a crew member (usually one of the dive masters) will jump in with the mooring like and swim down and attach it to the underwater mooring at the buoy. Why? Because every time you drop an anchor, or raise an anchor, you tear up the bottom. The anchor slips and slides along the bottom and it scratches rocks, breaks coral, flips over boulders. Doing this thousands of times a year would really make a mess. Jerry Garcia (of Grateful Dead fame) loved diving off Kona. The story we were told (and I have a couple of sources here) said that he put a big hunk of money into a fund to establish and maintain these moorings. This would either explain why one of the sites was called “Terrapin Station” or why the GD have an album of that name.

Once you are on station it is time to dive. There isn’t a lot of messing around here. Just about everyone out there is a very experienced diver, my partner and I seemed like the only green horns. You slip into your wet suit (1 piece, zipper in the back. don’t get this wrong). Get defog on your mask, put on your fins, slip your arms into your BC jacket and wait. But not long. They feed off one side then the other. When it is your turn you walk (well, waddle) to the stern, put your regulator in your mouth, put a hand on your mask, and giant stride into the rolling Pacific. Swoosh, Splash. One disconcerting second of foamy white and then (if you remembered to turn our your air and partially inflated your BC with the little button) you bob to the surface and there you are. Watching and waiting for the rest of your group to enter. What are you doing if you didn’t turn on your air and inflate your BC? We, you are headed to the bottom with nothing to breath. Someone will probably notice before the end of the dive. But since your ALWAYS check your air by taking a few breaths, and you ALWAYS put a little air into your BC and your ALWAYS check your pressure gauge to make sure you have 3000lbs of air at the start of your dive, you are fine. Hell, you are more than fine, you are fraking great. You take a look down and get your first unobstructed glimpse of the dive site. It is like 40 feet below you. A rolling landscape of coral and lava and boulders and fish. And you can see like EVERYTHING. I have never been anyplace where the visibility was so good. 60 feet? 100 feet? Incredible. 

Hard to look Sexy in this gear.
While I am waiting for the other people in our group to enter I do the "in the water get ready" things. I like to do a saline rinse of my Eustachian tubes. You do this by taking off your mask (push it down onto your neck, so you don’t drop it) then you take a handful of nice clean sea water and you inhale it up your nose. You heard me. Right up your nose and down through the back of your throat and then spit it out your mouth. Perhaps a little gagging and coughing, no big deal. Why do a thing like this? It clears the mucus off of the entry to your Eustachian tubes which makes it easier to clear your ears as you do your dive. Trust me. This is the greatest and surest way to make sure that you don’t have to cancel your dive because you can’t equalize. Or it is a great joke that was originally played on me by my dive instructor and I am unwittingly passing on to you. (Editor's Note): Ever since I went to Catalina Island as a chaperone for fifty middle schoolers and looked at all the organisms in sea water through a microscope, I am very careful to let as little ocean water enter my digestive tract as possible.  You won't find me doing the sea water rinse!

The other thing you do if this is your first dive in a while is a buoyancy check. Put your regulator in your mouth. Let all of the air out of your BC. Exhale. You should sink when you exhale and then come back to the surface when you inhale. If so, you are semi-neutral on the surface and so should be a little less so at the bottom (when your wet suite is compressed and so less buoyant). This is often when your Dive Master will elect to add a couple more pounds of lead to your gear so you can descend more effectively.

Ok. Everyone ready? (Man, that was a lot or work). Let’s Dive.

some Yellow Fish
Look at that Vis

There is a hose that attaches to your BC at the top left shoulder. It has a control at the end that lets you let air out or put air in (via a pressure hose to your first stage and tank). Hold it over your head (so it is the highest part of the BC), push the out button and let all of the flotation air in your BC go rushing out. You will become negatively buoyant and sink. But slowly. Every 5 feet or so you want your ears to clear. If they don’t, you need to hover (kick a little) and do whatever you do to compensate. Some people grab their nose and blow. I did a lot of diving when I was younger and I learned how to hold my jaw such that my tubes open and my ears clear. Surprisingly enough, that trick still works for me! Down we go. 40 feet to the bottom. Our group meets the bottom. Everyone adjusts their buoyancy to their liking (air into or out of your BC) and we all give each other the OK, and then we are off on our tour.

nice wall

I think that is a Nudibranch. It was actually very colorful. I blame Go Pro

The Dive master is mainly an extra safety feature and a tour guide. She (or he) will point out interesting things (oh, look, a Moray Eel) and monitor your air and make sure you get back to the mooring line of the boat at about 800lbs of air to do your required 3 minute safety stop and end your dive.

We are following her along and just having a grand time looking at things. On all of the dives we did, we would first go out to the edge of the shallow water and travel down the cliff. We would go down to around 100 feet. Once to 110. Now, I am not completely sure why we did this. 100 feet is really deep. It is at the edge of what is safe to dive with non-professional equipment. It is cold, dark, and sort of dead down at that depth. Also, since the pressure is 4X the surface, you are breathing in 2 times as much air in each gulp as you would at, say 30 feet (which is 2X the pressure of the surface). So you burn your air up really fast. However, it is REALLY cool to look up the cliff you just swam down. Oh man, that is pretty. And you can pretend you are a jet fighter plane zooming over the ledge. Wait… perhaps that was Nitrogen Narcosis speaking there. Anyway, 5 minutes at 100 feet and then back up to 60-40 feet to cruise around looking at things. The places we went were largely create by lava flows with coral growing over them. Lots of little hills and valleys to swim through. Some natural arches and overhangs and caves. One dive site, called “Freeze Face”, had a lava tube where a fresh water spring poured out. The spring water is much colder than the ocean and if you swim in, you freeze your face. ha. A article I read said that ancient Hawaiians would dive into the ocean with a stoppered gourd and turn it over once they were in the fresh water flow and fill up the gourd in order to get fresh water. Hmm. Probably didn’t use this method to fill a bathtub.

And what are we seeing? Coral everywhere. A few big fish. We saw a ray swimming above us and a couple of sea turtles. The most fun thing we saw was Moray eels. Actually saw a few of those. The dive master would coax a few out of the rocks by waving his fingers at them. A tasty treat?

We are gathered around a little Octopus. See the Ink?

When you are diving, and are new or rusty, like my partner and I, you check your air pressure a lot. You start at 3000. When you get to around 1200, you want to be fairly close to the dive exit. When you get to 700, you want to be starting you final ascent. Since she and I were looking out for each other, we needed to key off of which one of us had the least air. I have a lot of experience, but that was 30 years ago. She had very little experience, but it is all recent. All of the dive masters also say that men burn air faster than women. The way it worked out, we were pretty much even. That was nice. 

The Submerged Mooring

Once you indicate to your dive master that you hare around 700 PSI of air, she will point you at the boat (that shadow floating over there 80 feet away) and you swim up to do your 3 minute safety stop and exit the water. The 3 minute safety stop is a new PADI requirement since I was trained. There are a few different certification bodies around that do dive training. Back in the early 80’s, when I got certified, there was mainly NAUI with PADI as a young upstart. NAUI was an organization of professional divers. PADI was more a commercial enterprise started by Dive shops. Well, now a-days, just about everyone is PADI. They couldn’t even find me on the NAUI website. sigh. So PADI has this 3 minute safety stop. The idea is that you ascend to around 15 feet and then stay at that depth for 3 minutes. Your dive computer (that everyone has) knows about this and will automatically start a 3 minute count for you once you get to 15 feet. In General, you don’t have to actually stop. You can just swim along at 15 feet for awhile. But in practice, if the bottom is at 40 feet, it is little hard to stay at 15 unless you hold on to something. So my partner and I made it a practice to swim to the mooring and hold onto the rope just below the float (which was always right at 15 feet depth). You blow bubbles for 3 minutes and stare off into the distance. This will put you at around 500 PSI, just the right time to get out. You leave the mooring and swim along just under (but to the side) of the boat and come up at the stern. Inflate your BC using your tank air and indicate to the boat that you are OK and ready to get out. Swim up to the stern ladder, hand up your fins, and climb on out. Hey, do you have a bum 60 year old knee that hasn’t lifted 60 pounds of gear in a few years? This could be the hardest, most exciting part of the dive. Don’t want to mash your face into the stern of the boat in front of the crew. Luckily, they will help you out. Sit down where you stood up. They captain will help guide your tank bottom into the holder and help you get your arms out of the BC, and you are done !! You can get out of that wet suit and perhaps go for a quick swim (and perhaps a pee) while you wait for everyone else to finish up.

And wait and wait.

The more you dive, the more comfortable you get with diving. The more comfortable, the less stress. The less stress the slower you breath. The slower your breath the longer you can stay down. Some of the people in our group stayed down like 10 or 15 minutes longer than my partner and me. That is 25% more bottom time. Boy. We need some practice.

Anyway, the captain has already switched your gear to your number 2 tank. You can have some lunch and some water and enjoy the sunshine. We have at least a one hour surface interval and perhaps a bit more while the crew moves us to a new site. Then we do it again.

During 2 days we did 4 dives: Turtle Haven, Koloko Canyons, Terrapin Station, and Freeze Face.

Keep the Romance in the Dive

We had hoped to do another day, but the weather and scheduling just didn’t work out for us. We did do some Snorkling and general exploring. More about that next time.

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