My wife, 16yo daughter and I spent the week on the big island last week. We're relatively new divers having all earned our Open Water and Drysuit certifications in the past 6 month. This was our first diving-focused vacation. My daughter is prone to seasickness, so we decided to emphasize shore diving with the exception of the Manta Dive. I contacted Chad and Fran from Diving Bell Scuba a couple weeks before our trip to arrange some guided shore dives and Kona Diving Company (KDC) to book the 2-tank Manta Dive. I also verified that both companies could install a drysuit inflator on the rental regulators since my daughter also gets cold very easily and was bringing her drysuit (special thanks to the good people at 8 Diving for making sure she was ready to dive in her drysuit and for getting a wrist seal replaced on short notice.)
We frequently stay north of Kona at the Hilton Grand Vacations properties in Waikoloa, so I asked Chad if we could dive Puako End-of-Road at least one of the days, so we could become familiar with the site for future un-guided dives. We got a text from Chad Sunday night saying that the wave report looked good for diving Puako Monday morning, so we arranged to meet him at 8am. Unfortunately when we arrived in Puako it turned out that the forecast had been wrong and there were regular sets of large waves coming into the small cove that serves as the entry/exit point. Chad was really helpful at describing what conditions to look for in order to dive safely at the site. Since we were still very keen to dive, Chad suggested that we follow him and Fran down to Old Airport where the conditions would be much better.
When we reached Old Airport, we got our gear ready and make the short trek over to the entry point. Chad did a great job of describing the site and the route we would follow for each of the dives (a loop to the south first, followed by a loop to the north on the second dive.) Both dives were awesome and we saw several large eels, a few lion fish, and, of course, the typical Hawaiian reef fish. Fran joined us on the first dive, but sat out the second dive since my daughter chose to explore the tide pools on the beach instead of the diving her second tank. Afterwards, we talked about our plans to do the Manta Dive with KDC on Tuesday night. It turns out that Fran works at KDC in the office. Chad offered to let us borrow his regulators that already had the drysuit hose attached since we were diving with him again on Thursday. That saved the hassle of moving the hose from set to set.
Tuesday's forecast was for pouring rain all day and it was definitely accurate. Mid-morning we got a call from Fran (with her KDC hat on) asking if we would like to reschedule the Manta Dive for Wednesday night instead. We jumped at the opportunity despite our plan to dive early Thursday with Chad. It turned out to be the right choice since the weather only got worse throughout the day.
Wednesday was so much nicer. We had already checked in for the dive while we were in Kona on Monday, so we were able to go straight to the boat on Wednesday afternoon. We met our guide (Daniel) and boat captain (JC). It turned out that KDC's larger boat was in dry dock, so we were on their smaller, faster boat with only one other couple. Given the faster boat, we were the first boat to reach Garden Eel Cove (by the new airport) for the afternoon dive. We had the reef to ourselves as Daniel showed us where the lights would be placed and then took us to see the garden eels on the sandy patch below the reef. My wife and I went through our AL80s in about 40 minutes and returned to the boat, but our daughter and the others stayed down for another 20 minutes.
After a long surface interval while Daniel went over the background information on the Mantas of Kona and while all the other boats arrived (16 in total), it was time for the big show. Despite being the first boat there, we were one of the last dive groups in the water for the second dive. With all the boats and snorkelers in the water and the massive number of divers, it was really chaotic when we finally started the night dive. We were all intentionally a bit overweighted so we could stay on the bottom in a circle around the set lights. Daniel found us a spot near the lights and, shortly afterwards, the first manta arrived from behind us. Despite there being only one manta, it was quite a show. The best part was that, since we were last into the water, all of the other boats and snorkelers packed up and left while she was still feeding. That left only the six of us around the lights watching her at the end. The dive was supposed to be limited to 45 minutes, but we all had air left and the manta was cooperating, so we ended up being down there closer to an hour, the last 15 minutes with just us.
The other hilarious part of the Manta Dive was the moray eel nicknamed “Crazy Frank.” Crazy Frank likes to hang out in one of the milk crates that the big spot lights are placed in and sticks his head up trying to catch the fish in the lights. When that doesn’t work, he starts trying to use the divers in the circle around the lights as a hiding spot and will weave in and out of the divers. If you find everyone looking at you instead of the mantas, it probably means that Crazy Frank is poking his head over your shoulder or is in your BCD. Just as we were wrapping up the dive, Crazy Frank came over towards us and Daniel had to head him off as we were starting to ascend.
Despite getting back to Waikoloa late after the Manta Dive, we were up early Thursday morning to meet Chad for more shore diving. Since our daughter is infatuated with nudibranchs, the first location was to dive on a collapsed pier north of Kawaihae harbor that the locals call "nudi madness." It turned out the Daniel was diving there Thursday morning as well, along with Kerry (owner of KDC) and some other KDC employees. The entry off the beach was a little rough and the visibility was closer to what you would expect in Puget Sound than Hawaii. Chad was a little apprehensive that we would be uncomfortable in 20-30 feet of visibility, but we assured him that it was more than we were use to at home. The entire dive was fairly shallow (25 feet at most.) We did not have much luck finding nudibranchs, but apparently that was mostly due to our poor vision and lack of experience because Daniel, Kerry and crew saw 14 different varieties. We only saw one.
For our second dive on Thursday, we headed down to Puako and finally were able to dive the End-of-Road site. The conditions were so much better than on Monday. The entry and exit were very easy despite the wind starting to come up during our dive. The reef structure at Puako was amazing with numerous swim throughs, caverns, and large overhangs from the volcanic geology. We didn't see any of the big creatures that are sometimes there, but saw so many different types of reef fish, octopuses, and nudibranchs that it was an incredible experience. We also feel like Chad was able to point out all the things to look for (and look out for) so that we will be able to dive the site ourselves in the future, which was our goal.
After the back to back dives Wednesday night and Thursday morning, we decided to have more land-based activities on Friday. We went back to Puako on Saturday to snorkel and to solidify the site in our minds (and my notebook) so we can refresh ourselves in the future before flying home on Sunday.
The six dives we did almost doubled the number of dives my wife had done and pushed me past the 20 dive mark. The tropical diving was definitely a nice change from diving locally, but we'll be back in the water in Puget Sound later this week so we don't get too soft. We're already planning on returning to the big island in August, though, and will definitely be diving with Diving Bell Scuba and KDC again (along with some self-guided adventures.)
Sorry for the long post. And I apologize for the lack of pictures -- we're focusing on the mechanics of diving for now and will add photography to the mix in the future.