My granddaughter, Elena, has a problem with swimming pools. Specifically, exiting them. I mean, she’s eight years old, so it’s not like we expect to tell her, “You have ten more minutes in the pool” and have her jump out ten minutes later. This is simply a way of setting expectations to mitigate the systemic shock when she does actually have to finally get out. For real.
We give her 2-3 warnings, then say, “Okay, you have to get out now.” But somehow she’s always across the pool and/or underwater, so she can’t hear us. So it usually takes five minutes from the point where she’s told to get out of the pool for her to actually climb out. Whatever.
Which brings me to the dive I did today at Atlantis Dumaguete in the Philippines. It was a beautiful reef/muck dive, about which I’ll say more later. This is about ending the dive.
We’d been out for a perfectly reasonable, actually generous, length dive, and had come back under the boat. Our group consisted of Lisa, me, and another Lisa (hereinafter “Smiley”, for avoidance of confusion).
It was our last muck dive of the trip, and we were sitting on seagrass in about 12 feet of water, 15 feet from the boat. The sun was beaming down and a cloud of tiny silver fish were playing in the first couple of feet of water above us. The sunlight glittered off their bodies as they moved as a mercurial whole, a sci-fi scene of a luminous alien.
Our divemaster, KF, was hanging on the bottom of the swim ladder, looking at us, wondering why we weren’t coming over, since the other group had gone up. Or maybe he knew.
Anyway, in that moment, I channeled my inner Elena Catherine, looked at Smiley, crossed my arms, squeezed my eyes shut, and shook my head vigorously from side to side.
The international dive sign for, “Nope, not going up.”
Then I turned, faced Lisa, and did the same thing. Elena, had she been there, would have understood and supported my position. She would wholeheartedly agree that going up, when we had plenty of air, and this magical fairyland setting, would be dumb.
But then I saw that neither Lisa was buying it. Silly grown-ups.
So I actually did a generous thing. I was last to come up on the previous dive, so I put on my big boy pants, kicked over to the ladder and the awaiting divemaster, and went up.
Giving the two Lisas a couple more minutes with the seagrass, sun, and tiny silver fish.
If you’re a diver and find yourself on the Big Island of Hawai’i (which is probably not a coincidence) you owe it to yourself to do some shore diving. There is obviously plenty of great boat diving, and I can highly recommend Jack’s Diving Locker for that. But there’s something special about finding your own way to an awesome dive site. You get the experience all to yourself and your buddy(ies). If you want to be lazy about getting in the water, do so. Or if you’re a speed demon, you’re in the water before the boat divers have made it out of the harbor.
And I promise you that the shore diving is every bit as good as most of the boat dives you’ll do. Yeah, you gotta walk/crawl over lava. But for my money, it’s well worth it. Let me tell you about Puako 120. Puako is a little town 40 miles north of Kailua-Kona, immediately north of the Mauna Lani resort. It’s got a road, shockingly called “Puako Road,” that runs from Highway 19 down to the beach. All along it are glorious beach dives. This one is about “120” – you park at the utility pole labeled “120.”
One great thing about Jack’s Diving Locker: they give out maps of the awesome shore dives. Here’s the Puako map:
Lisa and I left the Hale Kona Kai condo before 7:00am and were parked around 7:45.
First thing about diving Puako: be sure to mark your exit point. When you’re out in the ocean, everything looks the same. We hung a big orange/white striped beach towel off a tree on the shore.
The entry at Puako is the only bit of drama in the entire experience. There is slippery lava that you have to walk/craw over to reach the sandy bottom or deep enough that you can swim. I highly recommend going at high tide so you get deeper quicker.
The other recommendation: wear heavy booties, both for lava and urchin protection, meaning strapped, rather than full-foot, fins. Carry your fins in, and walk holding hands (three points of support) over the lava. I’m making it sound worse than it is – don’t let me put you off. Just be properly prepared, plan and time your entry right, and Bob’s your uncle.
There are mooring buoys all over the area. We took aim at the “middle” one, a heading of 15° off the beach. If you’re an old beach diver like Lisa and I are, the swim isn’t that daunting. And on a pretty Sunday morning in August, it’s downright enjoyable. Roll on your back (saves air for the underwater bit), kick slow and take your time.
We got almost to the buoy, when I looked down and saw a drop-off to about 40′ directly below us. “Look what I found.” I took a compass reading on our towel – sure enough, 195° – math is cool.
We found a sand bottom in 20′ at the edge of the drop-off, and went down there to adjust straps, clear masks, etc. Then we tumbled over and went down toward the sand. There is a gentle slope down to maybe 100′ – we hung around 50-60′. “Left or right?” I asked Lisa. Shrug. Shore dives are so fun. I picked left (westward) and we started cruising along the slope, enjoying the finger coral. Less than five minutes after we descended, this guy swam past us.
I turned to see if Lisa was watching – her eyes were smiling ear to ear, so yeah. He came back 3-4 times. Lisa later said she saw him head up into the shallows. But it was fun to have him around for a little while.
Here’s the thing about drop-offs – I’m always turning to look out that way, because something amazing can swim past. Unlike the nature specials and Shark Week, the critters don’t have a swelling soundtrack to announce their arrival. I’ve always wondered how many astonishing sights I’ve missed because I was concentrating on something on the shoreward side. This wasn’t astonishing, but it was definitely way cool:
She was swimming parallel to us along the sand bottom, 40′ below us. If she was aware of us, she didn’t indicate it – she just passed us at a leisurely pace and disappeared into the gloom.
I should note that there were a bazillion reef fish of every sort. The outer slope reefs had clouds of anthias covering them. The big critters were fun, for sure. But even without them, the usual reef suspects made the dive delightful.
We continued on until we came to a weird topographic feature. As I mentioned above, there was a sand bottom at about 40′ below us to the right. But suddenly that sand bottom dropped off into the abyss in the direction we were going. And the slope that we were paralleling also dropped down into that same deep blue. It was beautiful. And freaky. We had to stop for a couple of minutes and just dig that particular junction.
Then it seemed like time to head back to slightly shallower water, so we headed up the slope. By sheer accident we ran smack into the mooring buoy one west of the one where we’d descended. I looked up and discovered that there was a boat attached to it, which explained the prop sounds we’d heard earlier in the dive.
My recollection of previous dives at Puako (a decade prior) was amazing topography, with canyons, arches, and towers of coral. I’d been missing that during the first part of the dive, and thought maybe I’d misremembered.
We just had to get to the right place. As we came up into 30-40′ of water near the second buoy, the canyons and arches appeared. I took a scientific wild-ass guess on the direction back toward our original buoy and we headed that way.
But we were careful to zig in and out toward shore to get the full joy of the terrain. Towers of coral. Archways that you could swim through, were they not full of big fish that you’d disturb. Dead-end canyons that looked like something out of a bizarre underwater cowboy western.
It was in one of those canyons that I had a memory of our friend Celeste Fowler. Man. We lost Celeste to cancer in 2004, and here 18 years on, it still stings. She was the most amazing diver, and just a magical spirit. Somehow I’d had the privilege of doing a dive with her at Puako – just the two of us. We were in one of those canyons, and Celeste was scanning her light under a ledge, when she waved me over. There was a whitetip shark sleeping on the sand under the ledge. We spent a few minutes enjoying that treat, then turned to head out. The canyon opened up in front of us, leading toward the drop-off – the view was stunning.
Celeste reached out and we held hands for a little while as we swam down the canyon. I hope that memory stays with me forever. Dives at Puako will help me keep it.
After meandering back in the general direction of home, Lisa and I thought it was time to think about finding the actual exit point. We found a sand patch, and I indicated that I was going to go up, get a proper compass reading, and come back down. But looking up, I saw a green sea turtle swimming over. It was surrounded by a dozen small jacks that were using its shell as a parasite cleaning station. One by one, the fish swam up to the turtle and wiped their sides against its shell, presumably to wipe parasites off themselves. Whether this has any benefit for the turtle, who knows?
After that show was over, I went on up to the surface to get a compass reading. Miraculously, we were close to smack on the path that we’d taken out at the beginning of the dive (I’m just not that good at navigation) – home was at 200°.
We stayed underwater as far as possible because (a) it’s more fun, (b) you see more, and (c) it’s easier kicking underwater. Ultimately, we were at about 6′, so I gave up and ascended, much to Lisa’s annoyance.
We kicked on in, made our way across the lava, fins in hand, and got back to the shore. 65 minutes underwater, every one awesome.
Standing at the car, Lisa said, “That was great. Now let’s get lunch at Harbor House, then drive down to Two Step, and go snorkeling.” Gotta get full value for your last day in Kona.
Random shore diving note
Over the years, I’ve tended to weight myself more heavily than the textbooks suggest. Even the textbooks have gotten better about adding weight since my early training days in the 1980’s, because it’s important to be able to comfortably stay at your 15-20′ safety stop, even with an aluminum 80 cu. ft. tank that has added 3-5 lb. of buoyancy since it was full. But what the textbooks don’t talk about is the convenience and safety of being able to stay submerged at 15′, or 10′, or even 5′ on your return from a shore dive.
Experiment with a couple of extra pounds. I don’t think you’ll notice the difference at depth, but you’ll be glad that you’re able to still enjoy the dive as you swim back at a depth of 10′ toward the shore at Puako.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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:
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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[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.
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.