After five amazing days in Maui, we arrived in Hawai’i (or the “Big Island”) as newly minted open water SCUBA divers.
The island of Hawai’i is best known for its gorgeous diving sites, world famous Kona coffee, and the active volcano on the island. It’s a huge island (no surprise!) and most travel guides recommend treating the west side of the island (Kailua-Kona) as a separate destination from Volcano National Park, which is more on the east side of the island. We actually arranged our flights so that we would fly into Kailua-Kona (west side) and fly out of Hilo, the airport on the east side of the island. This would save us hours of driving time.
We only had ~30 hours in Kailua-Kona, but we managed to squeeze in quite a bit!
After arriving at the airport in Kailua-Kona in the morning, we headed to our hotel to drop off our luggage before stopping by a poke shack for a quick and delicious lunch. We knew we would be diving in a couple hours so we didn’t want to eat too much.
One of the most famous dives you can do in the Big Island is the Manta Ray Dive. This is a night dive that is almost more like a show than a real dive. Divers, equipped with night lamps, dive down to the floor of the ocean about 35 feet down. Once settled at the bottom, all divers point their lights up towards the surface. The light attracts plankton, which in turn attracts the huge manta rays. It’s a beautiful and surreal show watching these huge, gentle giants swim up so close.
We went with Big Island Divers, a well respected local dive company that takes out divers in medium sized boats like the one pictured above. Unlike the larger boats that we had used in Maui, the Big Island Divers boat was smaller and did not have a bathroom on board. Basically, if you had to go, your bathroom was the big, blue ocean.
I learned from our first couple boat dives in Maui that I get extremely seasick. This time, I took seasickness medication and used seabands on this trip, which helped A LOT. Even though this smaller dive boat was arguably more rocky than our boat in Maui, I felt OK. Bonine is a lifesaver!
Our first dive was an afternoon dive where we explored the Kona Reef, the same area where we would be watching the manta rays after sunset. Because we were relatively newbie divers, our dive leader (who took a group of four) only took us down to around 40 feet. We explored the reef and saw many different types of tropical fish.
I don’t have a photo, but I saw my first honu, or giant green sea turtle. Unfortunately, he was sleeping and had his head buried in the reef, so I could only see his tail and the back of his shell. I’ve always loved turtles (grew up with a pet one who’s STILL alive!), and this definitely peaked my interested in wanting to see more turtles.
Right at the end of our dive, several of the divers spotted some manta rays swimming in the distance! It wasn’t even nighttime yet, but they were already in the area. Bryan was able to get a few photos of them from far away.
After about an hour we resurfaced and took a one-hour break in preparation for our next dive, the night dive where we would actually try to attract the manta rays.
At this time the sun was just starting to set. It was unreal how beautiful it was.
When the sun finally set, we put our wetsuits back on, got our lamps, and jumped into the dark water for our second dive.
There were so many people down at the bottom! In fact, different dive companies use different colored lights as “markers” for their people. This way, everyone knows which dive leader to follow. After all, everybody looks the same with their wetsuits and tanks in the dark water 35 feet below.
Everyone shone their lights up, attracting tons of plankton and fish.
It definitely took some time, and I got cold while waiting down there, but finally, FINALLY . . some manta rays appeared.
And it was truly magical.
Here’s a video that Bryan took with his Sony point & shoot camera (complete with its nifty underwater case!)
I had been cold underwater already, so when we came up, it was pitch black and I was *really* cold! We took off our wetsuits and changed back into our second set of clean clothing. Thankfully we had nice windbreakers and the folks at Big Island divers brought hot chocolate!
I have never been happier in my life drinking hot chocolate. It totally hit the spot.
We saw only three manta rays that day. On a good day you can see over twenty manta rays. I guess we were just unlucky. I’m glad we got to see a few, at least. Those moments were truly magical, and I can only imagine how amazing the “show” is if there are dozens of them swimming by.
The next morning, I told Bryan I really wanted to find turtles. The folks at Big Island Diver recommended walking along this bay right near where our boat left for the Manta Ray Dive the day before.
After walking just a bit, we saw a few people peering down into the water. And we saw turtles!
I was so excited. I probably took 20-30 photos before we decided we had to leave them.
We knew we couldn’t dive anymore because we were heading to higher elevation (the Volcano!) later on in the day. Instead, we headed out to Kahalu’u Beach Park for snorkeling. This park is great because it’s free, it has amazing snorkeling, and they rent equipment right on the beach. They even have lockers where you can store your car keys (don’t get them wet!).
The water at Kahalu’u Beach Park is beautifully clear and the coral reef is amazing. It’s pretty shallow, so you don’t have to swim out far before you see beautifully colored fish, amazing coral formations, and if you’re lucky . . . turtles!
It took us about 45 minutes of swimming around aimlessly before we finally stumbled upon this beautiful green sea turtle.
He was so calm and really didn’t seem to mind me swimming up pretty closely behind him. They say that as long as you sort of ignore them, they’ll ignore you too. It was mesmerizing and beautiful to watch the turtle swim around and sometimes bob along with the current.
I didn’t want to leave.
Alas, we knew we had to make our way out to Volcano State Park before it got too dark, so we had to get going.
We stopped by another poke shack for lunch. We then packed up our bags, checked out of our hotel, and hopped into our convertible for a pretty ride up to the town of Volcano, about 90 miles away.
On our way out, we ascended about 2000 feet up into the hills of coffee country. The views are beautiful and it’s fun to stop by coffee farms for a taste of coffee. We stopped at Greenwell Farms, which is on the way to Volcano, and tasted all of their coffees.
It’s free, and it’s really fun. Bryan asked if he could buy a full a cup for the road (we had a long drive after all). They were kind enough to tell him to go ahead and just fill up his travel mug. They were closing soon anyway.
With our cups full of phenomenal Kona coffee reserve (and our luggage full of several bags of purchased beans!), we set out for the town of Volcano, right next to Volcano National Park, as the sun began to set.
Next: our visit to Volcano National Park (plus where to eat there!)
This post is part of a larger series on our two week trip to Hawaii. Other posts in this series!