Fall diving in Kauai

There are so many turtles around Kauai.

We’re on Kauai! We arrived a little over a week ago and it has been a very full schedule since then. Our hydrophones are currently in the water for the third and final time on this island. Retrieval will take place on Friday, pack up Saturday, and it will all be flown to Maui on Sunday where this whole shebang will repeat itself.

Arriving at Lihue we were relieved to find that all our stuff made it here safely. Although Go! Mokulele airlines were very accommodating to us regarding our 15 checked bags, they were also very thorough, giving us little leeway on the ‘max 50 lbs per bag’ rule. Next to our tickets ($80 pp), the $400 in excess baggage fees were quite an eye opener.

The end of the road – anticlockwise around Kauai (the island has no ring road).

We’re staying in Princeville, a golf-course-and-condo type place on the north shore right next to Hanalei bay. I’ve been to all four main Hawaiian Islands now and it’s still a toss-up between here and the Big Island, but for now I can certainly say Kauai’s north shore is one of the nicest places I’ve been to in the state. Rural, little development, friendly people, and stunning scenery make this place stand out. The condition of the environment is made clear when one snorkels the fore-reef at night. Rock lobster can be seen moving about the top of the reef and can be caught easily. We hope this area stays as it is – we hear the locals talking often about big-money developers moving in and destroying the wetlands.

Lauren with friend

The sea conditions around Kauai aren’t influenced by the local weather. Instead, swells come from far offshore. There is no barrier reef around Kauai so what arrives via the deep ocean strikes the island directly, making for strong currents, large surf, and poor visibility. We initially planned, then abandoned, diving the West side. Not only are there no roads to take us very far there, what we can access is limited to a raging surf beach adjacent to a restricted missile test range. In the northern hemisphere summer, the northern Pacific is relatively calm while storms rage in the southern ocean. Consequently the south shore is battered by swells. In the winter the opposite is true, with swells from Aleutian storms bashing the north shore. In the fall, or right now, it can either be the best of both situations or the worst, depending on timing. Fortunately we have had the luxury of time in addition to lady luck being on our side. In the last 10 days it has been rough on the north shore then rough on the south, allowing us to first deploy and collect our hydrophones and cameras at Koloa landing in the south, then Tunnels beach in the north. Currently, swell is arriving from the south and northwest, allowing us to deploy instruments at Ahukini jetty on the east side. We hope that the conditions remain as they are until Friday, when everything comes out of the sea.

Rob, Simon and Sabrina with the hydrophones, camera, and survey equipment ready to go out at Tunnels reef.

None of us had been to Kauai before, and critical to our success here is local knowledge. The dive store owner mentioned that there was only one reliable shore-based recreational dive site on the island (Koloa) and that this time of year was ‘dicey’. Fortunately he gave us Terry Lilley’s contact details. Terry is the kind of guy you’d expect if you met someone walking around in the bush with no shoes in rural New Zealand. He is a marine biologist, running his own non-profit here in Kauai. He lives in a mobile research station by the beach and drives a battered 1994 Toyota previa. He used to own a reptile zoo in California before making the move to Hawaii eight years ago. Terry has dived more often than many biologists we know, and his observational experience is second to none. He is found underwater almost daily, and always with his HD video camera. His knowledge of the underwater regions around Kauai is incomparable – no one else has dived this island as often or as broadly across such a range of weather conditions. Finding Terry, who was very enthusiastic about helping us, has been a godsend and has allowed us to 1) deploy our instruments in the places we wanted and 2) stay alive. As a bonus, we’ve been introduced to some of Kauai’s best diving.

Lauren, Terry, Simon, and Rob at Tunnels reef.

One location has been particularly memorable. Tunnels beach is around 20 mins drive West from Hanalei. It is where Bethany Hamilton famously lost her arm in a tiger shark attack (As seen in the film ‘Soul surfer’). It appears to be a normal looking beach with a reef break offshore. Hundreds of pale tourists can be observed snorkeling just off the beach, swimming over a rocky region between waist and head-deep. Swimming out about 20 m further than that, the rock…disappears. A steep drop into deep water occurs all the

Divers exiting one of the caverns.

way along the beach. Why does the sand and rock end so abruptly? The answer lies in the positioning of the offshore reef and the winter swells. During storms, waves wash water over the outer reef, creating a ripping along-shore current that scours the underwater rock face. Currents of up to 7 kts can be experienced only 50 m from shore, even if it looks calm inside the reef. This is a dangerous place for the unwary. Even with a 4 ft swell on-shore we felt a 1 kt current pushing us along after we recovered our hydrophones. Without Terry we would never have known about the currents…and that this underwater cliff was perforated with an enormous, complicated maze of interconnected caverns that go back under the beach, under the beachside properties and under the road! In fact, much of Kauai’s underwater coastline is highly porous. Wherever we’ve dived in more exposed areas on the north shore, we’ve seen spectacular caves at around 10 – 20 m depth. There must be thousands of unexplored caverns out there.

Swimming through a cavern at Tunnels to get to our hydrophone deployment site.

During one of our rest days, Rob and I walked the Kalalau trail. Seeing as we only had one day, we figured we could do the 11 miles to Kalalau beach and back if we left before sunrise. This was both a good and a bad idea. Good because Kalalau beach was extremely beautiful and the walk took us through some spectacular terrain – reminiscent of Cape Brett for me.

Rob happy with himself at Kalalau beach.

Bad because 22 miles is around 35 km. This didn’t sound too bad until it became clear that it was virtually all up or down steep terrain. We got back at 9 pm or so and were rather sore the next day. Next time, we’ll camp at the end. The camping is so good in fact that many of the friendly campers we met seemed to be semi-permanent residents out there. With ample fresh water from the many waterfalls and an abundance of fish, prawns, and jungle fruits such as strawberry guavas and passionfruit, who wouldn’t want to stay until the park rangers come in on helicopters and drive the vagrants out? (apparently this happens more during summer).


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