Dark rocks, giant boulders, and aged patches of lava surround us. In the midst of these rock tunnels and small coral caves, our marine biologist guide Pauline shines her torch to find endemic marine animals poking their heads out, curiously staring at us. Instead of the usual colorful spectrum of corals that we see underwater, the topography here is extremely rugged, harsh and dramatic.
That’s because we’re drift diving along the sheer outer wall of a volcano — yes, a massive mountain formed underwater that last erupted hundreds and thousands of years ago. Partially submerged in the waters of the Alalakeiki Channel, Molokini is a crescent-shape volcano crater is a protected area both on land and under water for its rich and vibrant wildlife.
On land, Molokini is home to two species of nesting seabirds that are highly rare in other parts of Maui. Having been declared a Hawaii State Seabird Sanctuary, it is highly protected, and even unauthorized landing is prohibited. Under water, Molokini is home to approximately 250 species of fish, 25% of which are endemic – found only in Hawaii – which is a very high proportion as compared to elsewhere.The crater houses a lush reef with excellent visibility as deep as 150 feet (46 m), and around 77 acres of underwater terrain surrounding Molokini are considered a Marine Life Conservation District (MLCD).
Wikipedia photo from Forest and Kim Starr
That’s because we’re drift diving along the sheer outer wall of a volcano — yes, a massive mountain formed underwater that last erupted hundreds and thousands of years ago.
“At Molokini, we’ve seen all sorts of animals, from the great white shark to eagle manta rays,” said Pauline before our dive. As avid divers, we’ve dove in several parts of the world – from Palau to the Red Sea and the Great Barrier Reef – and we’ve seen various types of turtles, sharks and rays. But this was our first time diving Hawaii and we didn’t care if we saw big fish or small plankton. With our hopes high, we plunged beneath the dark blue waters of Molokini.
Upon descent, a vertical wall of craggy volcanic rocks plunged almost 300 feet (90m) beneath our feet into the darkness. Small angelfish and puffer fish were swimming in between the coral caves and rock tunnels. Small patches of green and pink corals bloomed from these dark grey slopes, like clusters of flowers. Molokini is said to have some of the healthiest corals in Hawaii due to its location away from the main islands (three miles from shore).
As soon as we reached a depth of 90 feet (27m), strong channel currents were sweeping us right along the volcano wall. On our left was the wall of dark, ominous volcano; on our right an ethereal expanse of deep, dark blue. With my hands and fins flailing in the water, I felt a slight hint of vertigo and an emerging pang of panic. I held on tight to Alberto’s hands, kept my eyes on the wall and tried to slow down my own breathing. But it was Pauline’s reassuring and calm demeanors that kept me composed.
As an experienced diver and co-owner of Mike Severns Diving, Pauline Fiene is also a passionate biologist who has dedicated her life to studying Hawaiian marine life. Since moving here 26 years ago from Wisconsin, she’s already done over 8,600 dives in Hawaii and published several books on the underwater life of Hawaii, including Molokini – Hawaii’s Island Marine Sanctuary. She even published the first worldwide record of spawning for a type of coral, and discovered many new species of marine animals. But despite all these achievements, she remains humble and down-to-earth.
That morning, she and fellow dive master A.J. made sure to chat with everyone personally to assess our skills and our preferences. They provided us with top quality gear and made us feel comfortable and confident, and that we were in their safe hands. Our deckhand Seth (who’s also a dive master) helped us with our tanks and equipment, making sure a klutz like me had everything in order. Before our dives, they even showed us pictures and gave short lectures to educate us about marine life here. In comparison to other dive operators we’ve dove with, they were the most professional crew we’ve met.
An Underwater Abyss
Back in the water, we started our search for marine life in the wall of corals and volcanic rocks: first, Pauline pointed out a blue dragon nudibranch, one of her favorite creatures. Spotting a pair of antennae, the nudibranch is protected by soft curly fibers which are are actually stinging cells that emit venemous substance when facing a predator.
Then a blue jack fish appeared, slithering right next to Alberto, slicing the water like a dagger. Its blue scales shimmered in the sunlight and its bright eyes sparkled as we watched it disappear into the darkness. Jackfish is one of the most common species of fish found here, and they’re usually found in a big school, but surprisingly we only saw a lonesome one.
Continuing further, a moray eel made an appearance, slithering out of its hole, peeking at us curiously. Alberto placed the underwater camera close to him for a good shot, only to be almost attacked by the eel.
Eventually Alberto spotted a interesting-looking creature and called out to Pauline to get her attention. It was in fact a triton’s trumpet snail, quite a rare sight, especially with one of such sheer size. The enormous sea snail spotted a pair of bright yellow antenna on its sluggish body and a beautiful tiger-patterned shell on its back. We watched as it slowly crawled towards a cushion sea star, and wrapping its foot and body all around it. Pauline then expertly picked up the snail by its shell for us to investigate its behavior. Miraculously, the snail hung on tightly with its whole life, determined to not let loose of its prey. Later on, Pauline explained that this is the way that the snail feeds on its prey, but first detecting its scent, then clamping itself on the prey and slowly devouring its guts using a paralyzing saliva.
After the spectacular show, it was time to make our ascent. But just before heading up to the surface, Pauline gestured me to look beneath my feet. There it was, a whitetip reef shark zigzagging its way around, slithering along like an underwater cop.
For our second dive, we headed closer to shore at Wailea to reach the St Anthony shipwreck. In the 1970s, the authorities sank cement barges fitted with car tires to attract marine life here for both fishing and diving purposes. About 15 years ago, they also submerged a medium-sized trawler into the waters here. Today, all these efforts have created a natural aquarium, with all sorts of holes and covers perfect for corals to grow and fish to live in.
Just as we descended on the sea bed, two enormous green turtles seemingly followed suit, diving down to the wreck and resting their heavy bodies on the mainframe of the boat while tiny fish fed off the algae on their shells. One of them even dose off as we just floated, watching them from just inches away. These turtles are the biggest we’ve ever seen in our lives and we were just in awe of their beauty and elegance.
Then it was as though all the fish in the area knew we were coming and all started swimming around us: a long and stern-looking trumpet fish first made an appearance, gliding alongside our group of divers at first then joining a school of yellow millets butterfly fish. Amidst the white stripe sea urchins were small slithery clown fish and surrounding us were a handful of sergeant fish. Hidden within a pipe was even an octopus that had eggs hanging like curtains from its gigantic eyes.
It was our first time diving a wreck and it made an excellent introduction, with an ideal depth to explore the tunnels and beneath the hull. Just when we thought our fun had come to an end, another two turtles swam right up to us as we ascended, as if to say goodbye.
This two-tank dive trip costs US$130 including tanks and weights. Rental for a wetsuit, BC and regulator with computer cost $5 each, while rental for all equipment comes at a total cost of $145 with mask and fins included.
All dives start at 6am and return by 11am or 12pm. Typically the first dive is off the island of Molokini and the second dive is close to the island of Maui, with the actual dive sites at each island determined in the morning depending on the interests of the divers and the weather.