Drifting in the warm turquoise sea, off the coast of the world’s most isolated chain of islands, diving in Hawaii evokes a magic unique to this serene part of the Pacific — where the isolation not only soothes visiting travelers of faraway worries, but unleashes a diorama of unique speciation, adaptation, and evolution found nowhere else on Earth. Visitors often ask what they will see when they come diving in Hawaii — a question for which the answers are as boundless as the expansive clear water that contains them. An exciting and colorful story unfolds when you look beneath the surface, and enter the deep blue mystery surrounding the island of Hawaii.
Kona’s beautiful diving begins the moment you enter the harbour. Most harbours, such as the nightmarish one I got certified in, are so murky and dark that successfully completing a dive requires borderline physical fusion to your dive buddy so you don’t get lost. Kona’s harbour, however, contains not only stifling visibility, but also an array of large turtles, resting Hawaiian spinner dolphins, resident Tiger sharks, and rainbows of endemic and Indo-Pacific fish species traversing its colorful, bright reefs. Exiting the harbour (although some of our best dive sites are located in the harbour) we’re commonly greeted by pods of spinner dolphins in the morning and early afternoon. Of all the spectacular diving in Hawaii, I never imagined I’d be so entranced in awe before even departing the harbour.
We do, however, have many other dive sites that make exploring the realm past the harbour mouth a worthwhile venture. Stepping off the boat into crystalline bliss, bubbles subside and unleash a panorama of vibrant coral reefs. The Big Island features some of the healthiest reefs in all of Hawaii, due to its relatively low human population density and comparatively younger age. Not only do Hawaii’s coral reefs support an impressive array of fish and invertebrate life — when we peer across their colorful terrain, we’re observing one of the most impressive displays of resilience in our ocean. Climate change, plastic pollution, acidifying and warming sea temperatures, changing currents, and chemical pollution from unsustainable tourism have placed enormous burdens on Hawaii’s ancient reef systems, and to watch these ecosystems adapt and survive beneath the weight of anthropogenic activity is an inspiring display of evolution and resilience. While we must make changes to our terrestrial lives to respect and preserve these ecosystems for generations to come, the resilience and survival I’ve observed beneath the surface inspire me to what is possible. This concept mirrors a common attitude across conservation of Pacific Islands that treats these places as “vulnerable” and defenseless in the face of mounting environmental pressure — but observing underwater ecosystems and the communities that rely on them, I am constantly intrigued by their intertwined resilience, and how much has been preserved. The coral contains stories of relentless and enduring survival, responsible for supporting much of Hawaii’s ocean life and coastal communities.
Hawaii’s coral reefs are much more than colorful marine organisms — when we open our eyes beneath the surface, we’re exposed to deeper stories about these islands and vibrant living histories. The array of calcium-carbonate organisms stretching across the moananuiākea (“the expansive ocean”) represent deep spiritual and ancestral ties to Native Hawaiian peoples, who consider the reefs to be an “akua,” containing much “mana” and life energy, that provides both birth and death to people and the islands. According to students at U.H. Hilo who published a book on the significance of corals in Hawaiian culture, the corals extending across Hawaii’s colorful seafloor represent deep cultural symbols to Native People and human communities — they’re considered the beginning of life, and therefore, comprise the most ancient ancestors of all living things in Hawai’i. When we peer beneath
the surface and revel in the spectacularity of Hawaii’s complex reef systems, not only are we introduced to marine ecology and fascinating species diversity, but also, to deep and enduring spiritual relations that project fascinating stories about the ethnobiology of corals, and how humans, past and present, interact and care for coastal ecosystems. The resilience of the corals mirrors the resilience of Native Hawaiian peoples as they continue their fight for sovereignty and conservation of their culture and land. Diving in Hawaii, we witness these intertwined struggles, as the reciprocity of shared fates between man and nature unfold beneath the surface. Indigenous ways of knowing provide an invigorating lens through which to view the underwater world — it’s shown me that the beauty of Hawaii’s diving is relentless and enduring — we choose what we let ourselves see.
Opening my eyes to the vibrant array of hard corals and the dozens of fish that call this ecosystem home, a story rich with life unfolds across the seascape. In his book, “What a Fish Knows,” ethologist Jonathan Balcombe describes that fish account for 60% of vertebrates alive on Earth — to watch them drift in gentle currents, opportunistically hovering to catch the plankton drifting by, is to engage with a class of organisms that comprises over half of Earth’s animal kingdom. While diving in Hawaii exposes you to some of the most captivating megafauna in the Pacific, including 12 different species of cetaceans, dozens of shark species, and the largest population of coastal manta rays in Hawaii, one of my favorite creatures to observe throughout our dives are the tiny plankton flowing through the currents. I find it fascinating that the tiniest creatures often play the most important roles. Although often unnoticed — I don’t think I’ve ever heard a diver exclaim to me that they saw plankton on a dive — they form the foundation of the entire marine food web. They not only feed large megafauna — like the manta rays and Hawaii’s occasional whale sharks — but form the foundation of food security for creatures across the entire Pacific. It may not be “intimidating” to swim beside specks of microscopic plankton, but it is humbling in its own way to swim within the tiny and often disregarded creatures that we can thank for the foundation of our planet’s ocean.
The ocean doesn’t exist for our entertainment — but it’s hard to be disappointed after a dive in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii. What really sets Kona apart from other destinations is its coastal variation and pelagic zone. Most of our dives, although very close to shore, hug dramatic drop-offs into hundreds of feet of water — you truly never know what visitors to expect. While motoring from one dive site to the next, we have been greeted by extremely rare beak-toothed whales, and there are 11 other species of cetaceans that call our coastline home. After jumping in for a dive last week along the Old Airport, a Great Hammerhead boldly appeared out of the blue and not only swam by us — it stayed, for five minutes. Kona demonstrates the possibilities awaiting the limits of our imagination — just when you think you’ve seen “everything,” new visitors appear, or existing ones exhibit entirely unexpected behaviors — like a large, unusually bold hammerhead that stays with a group of divers in 15 feet of water for minutes at a time. These interactions fill me with something deeper — have you seen the navy blue pupil of a coastal manta ray stare into your eyes, meeting your conscience? Have you watched tiny plankton, the smallest but arguably most important lifeforms in our oceans, drift through the water column in vulnerable tranquility? It’s like drifting in space, except we’re not observing dark “nothingness” — it’s abundant “everything-ness”, the foundation of life that created the whole living planet that is our world.
People often say that divers are strange individuals with a borderline-eccentric interest for the underwater world — but once you open your eyes and look beneath the surface in Kona, it’s impossible not to be fascinated in this all-encompassing way. As the environmentalist and writer Rachel Carson remarks in her book, “The Sea Around Us,” our world’s oceans began as giant, lifeless basins produced by millions of years of dark, lonely rain. I’m absolutely stunned when I hear people remark that they saw “nothing” on a dive — in comparison to Earth’s lifeless prehistoric oceans that birthed the planet as we know it today,
there’s so much to behold — and so much to respect, protect, and continue advocating for. Every time I go diving in Hawaii, one thing I can always walk away with is gratitude, for the ocean, its stories, and the lessons and interactions that it opens my imagination to. When you really open your eyes beneath the surface, Hawaii’s diving has beautiful stories to share.