Diving Family

Hawaii 2021

It was right when the Covid vaccine became a reality that I knew we’d have to book the trip sooner than later. The entire nation – the entire world – had been under a pall for a year, and nobody was traveling. Then, in late 2020, it became clear that vaccines were right around the corner. At the time, we thought that would be banishment of Covid, as we’d banished polio and smallpox. Silly us, but that was the belief.

I knew that when people realized that travel was an actual possibility, they’d start booking vacations as fast as their browsers could get to Expedia.

We’d been selling our granddaughter, Elena, on Hawaii since she was old enough to look at pictures of tropical fish. Apparently she bought what we were selling because it reached a point that she’d hear a mention of Hawa’i, and say, “When am I going to Hawai’i?”

I wanted to be able to say, “For your 7th birthday,” so I planned and booked a vacation house for December of 2021 in September of 2020. Yes, the others involved looked at me askance, but such long-term planning feels quite normal to me. Like I said, I thought that a covid vaccine reality would cause a run on vacation destinations like had never been seen in modern times.

We ended up here, along Ali’i Drive, right at the Mile 3 marker.

John and I landed at the Kona airport on December 13th, and had an evening to do grocery shopping and get dinner at On the Rocks. And then enjoy our first sunset from the upstairs porch:

Looking south from our Kona vacation home

The next day, Lisa and Liz flew in (I got real good at airport pick-up and drop-off by the time we were done), and got settled. The day after that, David, Mary, and Elena flew in, got their own car, and just rocked up at the house. Elena was immediately in love with the place because of this:

Elena’s favorite part of the house

Okay, so Elena’s favorite part of the house wasn’t the pool. It was the elevator. The house has three floors, and while there are outdoor stairs connecting all three, the elevator is way cooler if you’re seven years old. But the arrangement (the stairs, not the elevator) allowed Elena, and then Elena and Amelia, to flow effortlessly among three floors of family and friends.

Our first morning, we all went down to Kahalu’u Beach, just two miles south, and the most popular snorkeling beach on the Kona Coast.

Kahalu’u Beach Park

Elena had been practicing with her snorkel and mask all summer, getting ready for this day:

And was zipping all over the community pool looking at pretend critters and practicing all the critter signs we taught her. But you will note that she’s not wearing fins. She wasn’t the least interested in the fins, and even as we loaded the car to drive down to Kahalu’u, she said, “I don’t want my fins.” We took ’em anyway.

We got there, and got her into her wetsuit. Which was just barely big enough for her by the time December rolled around. But fortunately her dad knew a technique that he’d seen me use on his brother 20-odd years ago:

Then she sat down on the rocks at the edge of the beach, and saw dozens of other people with fins on.

“Let me try my fins.”

We put the fins on her. She then stuck her face in the water, and saw a couple of yellow tangs, a few sergeant majors, and maybe a black durgeon swimming around.

She was gone. I mean, she was in the water, hauling after those fish, just as she’d been doing in the swimming pool. What immediately struck me was how good her fin technique was. Most people, when they first get fins on, bicycle their legs. The goal is to keep a slightly bent knee, and kick from the hip. For whatever reason, that’s exactly what Elena did, and she motored through the water like a speedboat.

“I guess one of us better follow her.”

Which is what we’d do on every snorkeling outing for the next 2.5 weeks. This first day, we all kicked to the outer part of the park area, where the water was a bit deeper and there were few people. With multiple spotters around her, Elena would zip from person to person – whoever had something interesting to see.

Pretty soon, John found a moray eel, and yelled to the group that there was a moray under him. Elena appeared out of nowhere, and was yelling into her snorkel, pointing with one hand, and giving the “moray” sign with the other, above the water, so everybody would know.

We learned that 30-45 minutes was about the limit of what we could do before Elena became chilled and/or exhausted. But I cannot overstate the joy and fun that we’d have during that time period. Elena would rarely have her face out of the water, and within a few days, she was free-diving down to 5-7 feet to get a closer look at the critters.

Snorkel buddies

Snorkeling with Elena was easily one of the top one or two highlights of my trip.

The next awesome thing was Shannon and Amelia Ozceri showing up. Unfortunately, Berend couldn’t get away because of w*rk, but we were delighted to have 2/3 of the Ozceri clan there. When I went to pick them up at the airport, Elena said, “I wanna go!”

Welcome to Kona!

From that point on, Elena and Amelia were pretty much inseparable. There was occasionally some friction, which is to be expected. But mostly they had a blast with each other. Sharon and Amelia shared a room up on the 3rd floor, the same floor that David, Mary, and Elena were on. So early in the morning, we’d hear feet running around upstairs as the girls got breakfast and ready for the day.

You’re disturbing our Minecraft
Do you have a game better than Minecraft?

Unfortunately, we never got a picture of it, but the girls also commandeered the walk-in closet in the master bedroom and turned it into a fort. They would sit in there for long periods, Elena drawing, and Amelia reading Harry Potter.

Except when they were in the pool.

How we spent our afternoons
Take the picture quickly, we need to get in.
Look out below! (the perspective is wrong – Elena is not jumping on Amelia)

Maybe my favorite part of the whole trip was the family dinners at the outside table. As the sun was setting, we’d prepare meals in one or both kitchens, and carry them down the stairs. Then we’d sit 15′ from the ocean and 5′ from the pool, eat and visit.

Shelly and Kevin at dinner

A couple of nights, we brought in restaurant food, but mostly we just cooked simple meals. Pretty soon, Amelia and Elena would get bored with the grown-ups and retreat to the lounge chairs next to the pool. So they were content and we were content to enjoy the evening and watch the sunset.

Evenings – well, they went pretty quick. It was time for the girls to get ready for bed, and most of us would settle down soon after dark and think about what was coming the next day. Which always started with coffee and…

There were a couple of women who would come out to surf and enter the water right below us, always between 6:30-7:00am. So we’d drink coffee with the big windows open and watch them head out. We could also see the surfers, a little further down the coast, catching the first waves of the day.

We finally got the group all together when Shelly and Kevin made it in from Austin. With that, there were 12 of us, and it was absolutely glorious chaos. They were on the ground floor with John, and they’d stay up half the night, then sleep in. But they were always up for whatever was going on.

One day, we all went out on a dive boat with Jack’s Dive Locker – it was a private charter, so it was just our family. Lisa, John, and I were on scuba, and everybody else snorkeled. Amelia and Elena lost their minds snorkeling at the dive sites, and were constantly peppering the guide with questions about what they saw.

Dive boat in Hawaii? Yes, thanks – don’t mind if I do

Another day, David, Mary, Elena, Lisa, Shannon, and Amelia went up north to Kohala to ride horses across the pastures there. Both Shannon and Lisa are horsewomen of decades of experience, but they said they’d never done something like that. It was obviously an amazing experience for all.

One day, we all went down south to try a beach down there, but it didn’t really work out. What did work out was stopping for lunch at a cafe. There was no way we were going to get a seat inside the cafe, and it was raining, so we had a picnic in the car.

And that’s what’s amazing about our crowd – when it’s raining, and things don’t go as planned, nobody panics. We just switch to Plan B. Or Plan C. Elena and Amelia think that Plans B-F are just how life goes. In fact, Elena learned about “Plan B” from the Kratz Brothers, so when you say, “We’re switching to Plan B,” she just rolls with it. Including eating pizza in the back of a car in a cafe parking lot.

We got the Turo car with the Picnic in Back option

David, Mary, Elena, Shannon, and Amelia went kayaking at Captain Cook one day. They said the snorkeling boat crowds were insane, but I’m pretty sure they had a good time…

Go over in that direction, Mom.

One evening, we all went out to a luau. It was at the King Kamehameha, i.e. the in-town luau that’s been there for 20 or 30 years. Watching the girls watching the keikeis perform was worth the whole thing.

Elena’s birthday (known by others as “Christmas”) came toward the end of the trip. We wanted to make the house a little special around Christmas time, but Christmas trim pickings were slim. However, somehow I found the perfect things:

Santa and reindeer found us, even in Kona. Maybe the unicorns lit the way.

Finally, on December 29th, the last of us (Lisa, Liz, David, Mary, Elena, and I) closed up the house and headed to the airport. John and I had arrived on the 13th. It was time to go home, but it was hard to leave. What sticks with me are the memories…

  • Coffee with the windows open watching the surfers and paddle boarders go out.
  • Snorkeling with the girls and watching them lose their minds at the ocean.
  • Extended pool sessions until we dragged blue-lipped girls, kicking and screaming, into towels for post-swim snacks.
  • Board games in the evening
  • Renewing and creating bonds among the Haupert/Jones constellation members. Shannon, Amelia, Kevin, Shelly – they are family to us and we are all blessed to have them. @Berend – it sucked more than anything ever sucked that you weren’t there.
  • Dinners around the big table, with the beach 30′ behind us, and the sun setting.
  • Taking Kevin for his first two scuba dives ever. We had a blast, and at no time on either dive did we die.
  • Christmas/birthday celebration with impossibly tacky, but perfect, lit-up unicorns.
  • Four generations of our clan at the luau.

Things flowed, plans changed. Restaurants were full or couldn’t seat us because they were short of staff (covid). Rain came and kayaking had to be postponed. No matter what, we had a blast, and I was blessed to be part of it.

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Cabbage Patch Doll

[Originally published November of 2019]

[This is a story of Jeni Whaley and me diving Nigali Pass in Fiji.]

So we were getting ready for the third and final visit to “Nigali Pass” today. It’s a sand channel between the open sea and a lagoon. During tide changes, a current zooms through the channel, which is then full of barracuda, sharks, and other large silver fish. If the current is going out of the lagoon to the sea, the water is full of sand and stuff from the relatively shallow water of the lagoon. But when it is incoming, the water is clear from the outside, so that’s when we dive it.

Mark Rothenstein, the semi-professional taxonomist who’s on board with us, said, “Yeah, we dived it on an outgoing current once, just to see what it was like. It was like 15’ visibility with sharks suddenly coming into view right next to you. Once was enough.” 

Almost at the end of this dive is a little cut in the side of the channel where there’s natural seating for 8-10 people (“The Bleachers”). Y2K Fiji trip veterans will remember us sitting in there with the sharks circling over and around us looking for the fish head that Sam had hidden below the seats. 

The first two times we did the dive, we stopped at the Bleachers and watched. But the fact is that we’ve been seeing many more sharks before we got to the bleachers and then (weirdly) afterwards, toward the end of the channel. 

Another interesting twist: there’s a much smaller sand channel (hereinafter “the garden path”) that leaves the main channel, passes behind the Bleachers, and goes over the reef and into the lagoon. It’s an exquisite and easy trip back into the lagoon, with tons of soft and hard corals, and thousands of fish. Jeni, Andi, and I had followed it yesterday after leaving the Bleachers, and pronounced it awesome.

More plot thickening: if you follow the “regular” path out of the channel, you come across a field of Turbinaria reniformis coral which has been named “Cabbage Patch”. When you google it, you’ll see why. We had a brief glimpse of the Cabbage Patch on our first visit yesterday (and I have no idea if we saw it on Y2K). 

So it looks kinda like this:

The path through Nigali Pass

We had all kinda gotten over the bleachers, and Jeni was determined to get serious time on Cabbage Patch. She said yesterday, “When we do Nigali tomorrow, you and I are skipping the bleachers, we’re having a hot minute with the sharks in the channel. Then we’re going straight to Cabbage Patch. If you can take us up the garden path and get us there, great. But if you get lost and I don’t get to Cabbage Patch, you won’t believe the amount of shit you’re going to be in.”

Here’s the thing: you can 100% get to Cabbage Patch by just following the main channel out, keeping the reef on your right. You literally couldn’t miss Cabbage Patch that way. However, Garden Path is magical, and the path via the main channel is surgey and turbid as the lagoon and open sea water mix. Yesterday, by myself, I came out of Garden Path, got a little turned around, but ultimately found Cabbage Patch. I was 98% sure that I could find it accurately this time (“Come out of Garden Path, turn left, there’s Cabbage Patch – can’t miss”, said the divemasters). 

Jeni was more than happy to skip Garden Path to ensure Cabbage Patch. I was not, and was willing to risk her wrath.

We dropped in with Scott, the rising cruising director – Senior/retiring cruise director Chad had Andi with him for some last tweaking of her drift diving course. Scott, Jeni, 20-trip Nai’a veteran Bruce, and I floated down the channel, enjoying the sleeping whitetip sharks, and the expected gimongous school of barracuda. We got deeper, and the grey reef sharks started to appear, passing us headed upstream, and then circling back to do it again. All four of us stopped toward the right-hand edge of the channel at about 90’. That’s the problem with stopping there. The bleachers are at 55’, so if you stop where we did, you’re a lot deeper – air and no-decompression time both go relatively quickly.

But the show was too good to miss. We all lay on the bottom at 90’, held gently onto rocks, and watched the sharks swim all around us. The longer we were there, the more comfortable they got with us and they passed very near without altering their regular pattern.

After ten (?) minutes, I tapped Jeni and with a raised eyebrow pointed up toward the Garden Path. She nodded, and off we went. The path shallows quickly up to about 50’ or so, and my computer immediately forgave me for the deep time. 

We got up into the path, and a lone whitetip shark came scurrying down past us, as if it realized it was supposed to be in the main pass with its larger brethren. Jeni didn’t even see it – she was focused on the corals and fish playing in the bright sunlight (yes, even at 50’). 

We had originally agreed that Jeni would lead the dive, but at some point, she indicated for me to go in front. I knew pretty much exactly where I was. A couple of minutes on, Jeni pointed in the general direction of where we thought Cabbage Patch was. But I wanted to make it all the way to deep water, where I could be sure a left turn would take us there. I wasn’t keen on going up over the top of the pretty shallow reef to get there. I indicated to Jeni we should continue a bit on our course.

A minute or two later, I saw a short detour at about 10:00 and damned if there wasn’t the reef side of Cabbage Patch staring at me. I pointed it out to Jeni, who signed “Well, why are we sitting here?” I was enjoying the view from the reef side – the yellow barred bream and fusiliers were buzzing around that side – but it was indeed pretty shallow and surgey. 

Nigali Cabbage Patch

We swam clockwise around it and found a couple of bare rock hand-holds at 20’ on the lagoon side. I guess we were there for 15 minutes, watching the show and doing no work, consuming almost no air, and effectively doing our safety-stop during the highlight of the show.

One of my favorite characters in the play was a jack, maybe 12-15” long, who would occasionally swim through the cloud of fusiliers above us, obviously with murder and mayhem on his mind. The school would part, and he’d depart, awaiting his next sortie. 

The sunlight stayed as strong as it had all morning, with excellent visibility, even on the lagoon side. We had a living picture postcard in front of us, and neither wanted to leave. I’d look at Jeni, her eyes were dancing around the scene with a near beatific smile on her face.

Finally it was time to go, we lifted up and floated out into the blue. With our nitrogen debt long paid off, we simply drifted up to the surface. We were a long way from either of the skiffs, but after basically a week of this, we knew they’d be onto us quickly. Jeni raised a lazy arm (“Just like calling an Uber” I said) and Fijian Lee came and picked us up. Just as we got into the boat, Scott and Bruce surfaced some distance away; we went and got them.

“Maybe the best dive of… of my life.” said Jeni, aka Cabbage Patch Doll.

Jeni, post-dive

P.S. When I got back, I saw Mark the fish geek. His eyes were shining. “How was the dive, Mark?” “I got a lifer.” “Lifer?” “Black butterfly. First time I’ve ever seen it in Fiji, much less shot it. I was starting to think it wasn’t actually in Fiji.” Each of us dives in his or her own way.