Category Archives: Scuba Diving

Malpelo Island

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Malpelo Island.

We were in a strange situation. Malpelo Island is hallowed ground for many divers. A “once in a lifetime” sort of place, a mecca for shark diving. The Columbian government will be closing Malpelo at the end of the year to charters that operate from outside of Columbia, or all the reputable operators to put it another way. We should have been super excited. But the timing of the trip could have been better. The only places left on any charter of the year were on dates that meant we would miss Joey’s 4th Birthday. Unbeknownst to us when we booked, the trip would also happen during the middle of intense job hunting by both of us, trying to solve the two-body problem after we had made the decision to leave Washington D.C.

So, at the risk of sounding impossibly spoiled, we weren’t sure we wanted to go on this trip. We are still not sure if it was the right decision, even though the kids had a great time with their grandparents for a couple of weeks and Malpelo lived up to its reputation for us.

We are still uncertain, but I figured it would be worthwhile to write a post and let you decide whether it was worth leaving the kids and a job situation in flux for a couple of weeks, just to visit a lonely rock 500 km off the coast of Columbia…

Malpelo

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No traffic here…

Malpelo island is an old volcanic core that rises from a solitary undersea volcanic ridge in the eastern tropical Pacific. Surrounded by deep water, this area of the ocean does not offer up many islands. One has to travel a long way from Malpelo to get to land – Columbia is around 500 km away and Panama even further. 600 km to the north west lie the Cocos islands and to the southwest the Galapagos islands, both more well-known and far more frequented. The isolation of Malpelo is part of its appeal for us – difficult to get to, relatively undisturbed and no boat/scuba traffic (the Columbian government severely limits the number of boats that can visit). Malpelo is famous for one thing: sharks. Type in “Malpelo Island” on google image search and you’ll see massive schools of hammerheads circling over some lucky photographer. While you can see hammerhead schools at Cocos and Galapagos, the schools of silky sharks and the reliability of the hammerheads are two more reasons why we made the effort to come out to Malpelo instead of Cocos.

There are few reliable and safe operators that take divers to Malpelo. A recent set of diving fatalities, where divers were swept away by strong currents and died adrift, underscored our desire to charter a reputable operation (the Columbian group responsible for the dead divers didn’t alert authorities until someone else did, then did not have sufficient fuel to search for their missing party…).

After some time searching, we came across the Yemaya – a Panamanian boat with a great reputation. We booked with Ed Stetson out of UCSB and headed down to Panama City. Ed’s group of divers were unusual. All seasoned folks and no yahoos. We were humbled – everybody was unique in some way. A surgeon, a charter boat owner, a financial analyst based out of NYC, a successful real estate developer, the world editor of dive magazine. Everybody turned up with dive alerts (pneumatic whistles), 2 m long inflatable safety buoys, signal mirrors, signal strobes and Nautilus lifelines (AIS-based VHF position transmitters). No corners were being cut in terms of safety – becoming lost would mean being set adrift in the open ocean with no one but the others aboard your boat to rescue you.

After a four-hour bus ride from Panama City we arrived at a dinky old river port in the jungle. The muddy tide was running too low, so we cleared customs, loaded all our bags on to the dive tenders and drove out 45 minutes to the river mouth where the Yemaya was waiting. She was all that we needed, and some more we could have done without. Yemaya had her own water maker, air conditioning, nitrox bank for rapid filling, a substantial oxygen bank, two screws and three generators (5 engines total) and a wonderful crew of Panamanians who loved their jobs. She also had a slight list to port, a very high centre of mass and a vibrant population of giant tropical cockroaches. This was going to be a trip to remember.

From the river, it was a 36 hour transit over open water until we came to Malpelo: a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean. For the next 7 days, we did not see another vessel.

Diving Conditions

There are many similarities between diving Malpelo and other offshore islands, like the Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand, the Brothers Islands in the Red Sea or La Perouse rock at French Frigate Shoals, NWHI. Imposing cliffs and no beaches. Nesting seabirds. Deep drop-offs. Raging ocean currents that bring in the big schools but also threaten to remove your mask upon a sideways glance.

However, Malpelo differs in a couple of ways. Firstly, it is truly in the deep ocean. There is no fringing reef, nor does it occasionally receive licks of a coastal current and day fishers certainly don’t make it out here. Consequently, real ocean-going animals can be seen. Wahoos were the first sign. Then came bonito schools and big, fat yellowfin tuna. Ascents and safety stops in bottomless blue water were the norm and rather than being a featureless and boring affair, there was always the anticipation that at some point a large and majestic creature would materialize out of the blue. Sometimes it was a giant oceanic manta. More often it would be sharks.

The Sharks of Malpelo

The magic of Malpelo is made by the truly impressive number of sharks that migrate to and from, and live around the island. Hammerheads, Galapagos and Silky sharks are the main species seen here but there are also occasional sightings of ocean-going blacktip sharks and “el monstruo” or a rare species of sand tiger, which is usually only seen during the winter. Contrary to what you may think, sharks are a good sign. The first part of an ecosystem that is removed when humans encroach is the top of the food chain – it’s easy to catch sharks and their fins are valuable to unscrupulous Chinese. Next to go are the big fishes – the tunas, wahoos and big snappers. The cascade that results from their removal fundamentally changes the entire ecosystem and reduces it to an alternate stable state: the prey population explodes, meaning their food sources (coral, algae) are depleted, leading to barren reefs that can’t protect juveniles so no recovery can take place. That is a story that has played out all over the world, but has not yet destroyed Malpelo.

In fact, the ecosystem remains so intact at Malpelo that you can witness inter-species teamwork on a grand scale. Anecdotal evidence suggests this kind of behaviour used to be common everywhere, but the depletion of predators has all but eliminated observations of this kind: Picture a reef filled with many small fishes swimming about and grazing on plankton. All of a sudden: pandemonium. A large school of leather bass (groupers) hundreds strong, blue fin trevally and moray eels arrive quickly and purposefully on the scene. Small fish dart everywhere, trying to escape by finding small holes in the reef. The morays are able to squeeze in to these tight spots and eat/flush the fish out – straight into the mouths of the leather bass, waiting just outside. If some make it past the bass, they succumb to the blue-lined jacks waiting right behind. We witnessed these ‘gangs’ attacking reef fishes on a daily basis and we could get very close – the predators were so focused on getting a meal they seemed oblivious to us taking photographs from just centimetres away!

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An incredible cloud made of thousands of enormous mullet snapper, Lutjanus aratus, at Malpelo. The ball is perhaps 60 m across.

Another thing that can be seen here and perhaps nowhere else are the numbers of mullet snapper. These predatory fish are large – about 1.5 m in length and 40 kg or more. They can be solitary but sometimes assemble in schools. At Malpelo, ‘schools’ doesn’t really describe the size of these aggregations. ‘Cumulonimbus cloud’ was the first thing that came to mind when we saw them. Untold thousands. Each an impressive creature, but together an almost prehistoric scene. The school wasn’t a spawning aggregation or some special event – the snapper frequent a particular reef next to the island every day.

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Galapagos and Silky sharks could be seen on the reef and in open water. They were very curious and non-threatening. We spent many hours diving and snorkelling with these inquisitive creatures.

One more good sign is that the sharks are naturally curious – they aren’t wary of people. With the exception of hammerheads, which are a notoriously flighty species, sharks at Malpelo will approach you with a genuinely inquisitive demeanour that is so obviously unthreatening you’re embarrassed you ever considered them dangerous. The feeling is exactly the same as when you are approached by a strange yet friendly dog in the street. Relaxed and languid movements, a preoccupation with the surrounding fishes, casually sniffing out potential morsels under rocks on the reef, all within arm’s reach. The feeling remains the same even when surrounded by a school of silky sharks in open water, miles from the island.

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Snorkelling with a large school of silky sharks miles from the island in open water was one of the highlights of the trip.

Hammerheads

One thing that stood out to us almost immediately was that while we were at Malpelo, the hammerheads were going to remain very shy. The dive guides tell us that five years ago, schools of hundreds could be approached almost by accident. You know they’re there because you’ll occasionally see them at the edge of visibility – their wing-shaped head and large dorsal fin are unmistakable. But they never willingly came close. Our time at Malpelo quickly became an effort to get as close to and see as many of these elusive creatures together as possible. We were eventually able to get fairly close to hammerheads coming in to a cleaning station to be groomed. Divers would settle on a rocky ledge and remain still and low, breathing smoothly and making as little noise as possible. Eventually, they would come up from the depths, replete with little butterflyfish picking parasites off their skin. One mistimed strobe flash or careless move would send the nervous animal bolting back to the depths. Patience and timing paid off: Lauren (who uses much less air than I do) was eventually able to get some great photos of these very special animals.

The classic image from Malpelo is of giant hammerhead schools circling overhead, reminiscent of those old photos of enormous bison herds or clouds of passenger pigeons, now long extinct. This kind of hammerhead photo is very hard to take, especially on open circuit scuba, because of 1) the noise you make and b) rising bubbles in the frame. We learned that in order to witness these majestic schools, and to photograph them, many cards had to fall in our favour. In fact, we were only able to witness truly schooling hammerheads on the morning of our last day. The factors in our favour then were: 1. Early morning before other divers. 2. A strong current that bought the schools to a reef and swept our bubbles away behind us. 3. Rough weather meaning our bubble noise was obscured by wave noise. 4. A deep reef with nothing overhead. 5. A shallow thermocline that compressed the available warm water overhead.

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In stormy open water, we descended without a line to a barnacle covered rock at 31 m, where the temperature dropped from 27 C to 15 C and the current was roaring. We became part of the reef. Slowly they appeared overhead, first in small numbers but then in their hundreds. They could be seen cavorting and displaying to each other, languidly cruising in mid water. They seemed oblivious to the freezing, breathless divers below, desperately trying to focus their cameras on the silhouettes above. I didn’t need to try to be quiet – at some point I realised I had been holding my breath for a minute or so (not recommended on scuba). It was worth the pounding headache. We hope our kids can see this one day.

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Schools of giant, shy creatures silhouetted against the morning sun.
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What we came to see.

Indonesia Was Amazing

So amazing that we have been blissed out for the past few weeks and haven’t even bothered to tell you about it! (We’ve also been pretty busy back in DC with a new project – more on that soon).

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snorkel selfie

The entire trip was such a wonderful experience for Simon & I. I always wonder as we plan vacations if we’ll be able to match or top the last grand adventure, and somehow it manages to keep getting better. Perhaps as we age we become wiser about enjoying things more? The highlight of this trip was diving in Raja Ampat from Papua Paradise Eco Resort. We were constantly in awe of some of the finest coral reefs we had ever seen. The biodiversity, although we knew it was coming, was unbelievable to behold. Hundreds of species of fish could be found on a single reef in this hotspot, including big predators like giant trevally (ulua in Hawaii). Even more amazing for me were the incredible number of tiny, often cryptic creatures hidden in the corals, sponges, and sea fans. Many species of nudibranchs were spotted on nearly every dive, and throughout our week in paradise we found an assortment of miniature shrimps and pipefish blending in perfectly with their surroundings. My

Pontohi pygmy seahorse, with Simon's index finger for scale
Pontohi pygmy seahorse, with Simon’s index finger for scale

absolute favorite was the pygmy seahorse. We were lucky enough to spot all four species of pygmy seahorse found in Raja Ampat at one point or another. These tiny animals range in size from 0.25-0.75 inches, and match their surroundings impeccably. In addition to being a fun photographic challenge (buoyancy check, anyone?), we couldn’t help but marvel at this product of evolution. So unlikely, yet so perfect for its environment. I am still completely smitten. As you may have gathered from our previous post, we were here during manta season. We had a lucky private encounter with two oceanic mantas just in front of the resort on our first day, and an enjoyable hour of watching five mantas cycle through a cleaning station at Manta Sandy later on. The best time to see mantas in RA is December-January-February.

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Lauren’s 29th birthday started underwater and ended with a warm & loving celebration at the resort.

We could wax rhetorical about the diving all day, but we’ll leave you with some photos and move on. We would highly recommend this destination to anyone, and we didn’t feel we could have done better than staying at Papua Paradise. We missed only a couple of dive sites that the live-aboards hit, but in exchange we got to experience the local sites, which we found to be equally phenomenal. The luxury of staying on land in a large, well appointed bungalow was evident, and we can’t say enough about the kind and helpful staff and management there. They even made me a yummy chocolate cheesecake for my birthday and had everyone sing to me at dinner – what a special surprise on a remote island, opposite the globe to my home! We decided to share photos via Picasa since there are so many. You can view our album here.

Papua Paradise Resort – 2 days in

(Mostly by Simon. Lauren doesn’t tend to write about toilets.)

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Papua paradise resort is everything you would expect, looking at their website online. Tropical beach with palms. Idyllic bungalows over the water with little sharks swimming between the pilings. Smiling faces. Diving.

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What makes Papua paradise different, for Simon anyway, was a US one cent coin placed on the desk in our bungalow. We assumed a previous guest had left it. About an hour later, as we were assembling our cameras and underwater housings, Simon needed a small coin to use on the camera mounting screws. It then became apparent just how thoughtful and accommodating the staff here are for divers. There is even a room with A/C and all of the tools and gadgets needed to clean, service, and charge underwater cameras, which we have made good use of already!

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We were having (delicious!) lunch when some kids exclaimed that they saw something in the water. “What’s that over there?” “I think it’s a manta ray”, Lauren said. After watching this thing (or things) move around for a few minutes, we could clearly see the rise and fall of pairs of wings, followed by a small, curved fin. Mantas. 100 meters away. Lunch was abandoned as we ran over and grabbed our fins and the camera.

 

Swimming out to sea, we found that the shallow reef flat in front of the resort abruptly ends and deep water begins. Beams of sunlight sparkled down into the depths. The rays seemed so tantalizingly close. We pressed on. We were almost there when the rays disappeared from the surface, presumably because we were making such a commotion. Turning around, we noticed that we were quite far from shore now… Suddenly, a black shape materialized into view. A single, large, and completely black manta swooped past us and disappeared into the deep. Fantastic.

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We returned to the pier, where the kids had convinced one of the staff to ready a boat to find the mantas. We hopped on and joined the effort. It became apparent that the mantas don’t like boats and would quickly disappear when approached. After failing to get near them twice, we watched them from about 30 meters away, happily grazing on the surface. Lauren & Simon quietly entered the water and slowly swam towards them, the family following close. We were finally rewarded. The rays were feeding on dense numbers of little blue amphipods on the surface of the ocean. They would pass us, skimming the surface with their giant vacuum cleaner mouths, before flapping their wings and gliding away.

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Overall, yesterday was a near perfect day. In addition to the manta encounter and constant delight over the perfection and thoughtfulness of Papua Paradise resort, we had three amazing dives near the house reef. The sheer number of fish, cryptic animals, and cool invertebrates was astounding. By dinner, we were writing to the grandparents’ “resort” requesting that Joey be sent over with diapers and sunscreen because we were never coming home.

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(Just kidding – please don’t give our jobs away!)

 

There was a storm this morning. About 4:30 AM the wind and swell suddenly picked up. The bungalow, which is made from palm leaves and wood sourced from the local jungle, doesn’t exactly remind you of a sturdy fortress. The wind and rain were driving into the side of the building with scary force and causing the building to sway. Sitting on the toilet, you could feel the seat move as the pipes under the building were hit by swells!

 

Incredibly, however, not a single drop of rain came through the roof. After the sun came up, an inspection of the bungalow revealed no damage. While the place looked a little fragile, the quality of its construction became apparent to us when we saw that it had emerged from the squall unscathed.

 

We are enjoying the views and schooling baby black-tip reef sharks under the bungalows while we wait for the all-clear to get in the water again. Word is that the dive boats should be running again after lunch.

 

Hawaii – top picks from our 5 month odyssey

After spending almost half a year in the Hawaiian Islands we’re on our way home! We’re excited to be back in San Diego with good friends, an apartment we can call our own, and reliable Mexican food…but we’re still sad to say goodbye to the Hawaiian Isles…for now.

Now that we have the luxury of hindsight we thought we’d write about our favourite experiences in the main Hawaiian Islands.  If you’re ever thinking about paying a visit,   maybe these places will be just as fun for you?

Oahu

Surprisingly good hiking: out the back of Niklas’ house

Honolulu was perhaps our least favourite place in the Hawaiian Islands (but still very nice). The melange of third-world squalor and ultra-trendy tourist hotspots detracted somewhat from the idyllic beaches and spectacular views from Diamond Head. That said, there were some great experiences we had here, both on and off the beaten path. The most unbeaten path was the hike from the back of Niklas and Sharon’s house, where we were staying.IMG_8369

Honolulu and Waikiki Occupy a narrow strip of relatively flat volcanic rock between the ocean and a steep mountainous ridge, formed as erosive forces cut away at the volcanic cone that initially created Oahu. Walk inland a couple of miles from the beach and you’ve gained about 200 feet elevation. Walk a couple more and you’re at more than 2000 feet. Such is the steepness of the mountains behind Honolulu. The houses stop at the line between habitable land and steep mountainsides. Incredible wilderness beckons beyond.IMG_8477

The Schneider residence is right at the edge of the jungle. Walk inland and you’re instantly amongst groves of strawberry guavas and mountain apples. A steep and poorly maintained track winds through the trees and up ridges, climbing all the way to the top of the chain of peaks behind the city. A glorious view awaits atop the cloud-shrouded mountains. Honolulu city is but a small inhabited region to the South. The reclaimed land around Pearl Harbour and Pearl city are visible to the west. Facing North, Kaneohe bay and the “windward side” is visible beyond an immense precipice. It appears so shear that it seems you could lose 2000 ft in altitude by just stepping off the ledge. Luckily, most of the time the wind is so strong you couldn’t really fall off by accident!IMG_8470

Haleiwa and Aoki’s shave ice

Haleiwa is a quaint surf town on the North Shore of Oahu that still feels reminiscent of big wave films like North Shore.  It was the first place we visited on our journey that really felt like Hawaii, and it is a great way to get out of the city.  Near Haleiwa we enjoyed excellent diving and snorkelling, the Dole Pineapple Plantation, and Sunday afternoon polo by the beach, complete with live music. The gem of Haleiwa town, however, is Aoki’s shave ice.  This is the second best shave ice we had in all of Hawaii, and is probably the best for ambience.  The shop doesn’t appear to have changed much since its inception 50 or so years ago, the ice is fluffy soft and melts in your mouth, and the array of flavours is excellent.  This was one of our favourite places to go after working (or fun!) dives.

Kaena point from the south side

During a scouting trip around the southwest side of Oahu, we decided to drive as far as we could to the West. We drove past electric beach and continued northwest. Eventually, we got to Kaena Point state park – the westernmost part of the island. We heard that one could walk all the way to the end of the point, but we did not (not a suitable hydrophone deployment site). However, just the ocean conditions at Kaena were very interesting. Past the last beaches, the shoreline was made of rough volcanic terraces. The water seemed exceptionally clear – its often very calm on the leeward side of the island, and Kaena Point park is on the inside of an “L” shaped portion of coastline. There didn’t seem to be any rivers to mess up the visibility and not many buildings to speak of. It looked like a fantastic place to dive, although we never got the chance (we deployed our gear at electric beach instead – one hour’s drive instead of two). We’d like to go back and dive Kaena one day, especially now that Simon has seen so many youtube videos of giant Uluas taken in those parts!

Marukame Udon

Search yelp for ‘cheap dinner’ in Waikiki Beach, and this shop is one of the first to come up.  Nearly 5 star average with hundreds and hundreds of reviews, we figured it must be good.  The concept is simple and executed perfectly.  Thick Japanese wheat noodles (udon) are made fresh on one side of the tiny kitchen.  They follow an assembly line from being rolled out and cut, to being placed in individual serving sizes, to being added to broth of choice.  Every time we went we waiting in a 20-50 minute line out the door, and it was always worth it.  It is always fun to watch your food being made, and although simple, the udon was delicious.  You could buy tempura fried eggs, seafood, and vegetables to add to the soup.  Even with that, we never spent more than $10 each. Excellent when you’ve just lost a $360 set of rental car keys.

Kauai

Kalalau trail

IMG_8765This was certainly the best nature hike (with the exception of the lava hike on the Big Island, which was more about the lava) we did during our stay in Hawaii. The Kalalau trail is 11 miles each way through steep cutbacks and dense jungle and a full day’s work if you plan to do the return walk straight away. IMG_8737The terminus is at Kalalau bay – a surreal place that really evokes the fantastical meaning of the word “Paradise”. IMG_8785The mountainous surroundings are difficult to believe unless seen: Giant, unbelievably thin spires and sheets of rock rising more than 3000 ft from the ocean covered in lush green jungle and roaring waterfalls cascading down their sides. No wonder many people out here basically live “off the grid” – camping out for months at a time, growing their own food, living an idyllic lifestyle. Clothing optional. Simon and Rob Grenzeback made the walk out and back in a day, but regretted not staying. Next time we’re in Kauai, we’ll be sure to bring a tent!

Tunnels beach

Imagine a calm tropical beach with white sand and palm trees. Imagine wading into the water and snorkeling over corals from about waist deep. Swim out to sea about 50 m and witness the coral reef disappear from beneath you as you swim over an underwater precipice overlooking deep blue water. Such unusual bathymetry exists at Tunnels beach, but why the odd name? Dive down the underwater cliff and discover the massive underwater caves that reach far back into the cliff. Swim inside and observe snorkelers through the small holes in the ceiling. The underwater caves at tunnels beach are ancient lava tubes, formed when liquid rock flowed through and cooled from the outside-in. Once the flow stopped, the hot stuff in the middle flowed out to leave a hollow tube. Local divers say that some of these tubes go back under the beach, under the houses by the beach, and out under the road! Amazing stuff, but we didn’t dare go back too far without cave reels and lights.

Terry Lilley and Hanalei

IMG_4122We met great characters on every island, but Terry takes the cake for us. Without him we couldn’t have done much on Kauai – the dive store owner recommended we dive only one site on the entire island! We desperately needed local knowledge if we were to find worthwhile sites at which to do our work. Terry was our man – he’s done more than 1000 dives around Kauai and is out almost every day. Terry calls himself a marine biologist and is not affiliated with any university.  Many people discredit him as he ‘only’ has an undergraduate biology degree. This is truly a sad thing, because Terry is more passionate about the ocean than 99% of the “marine biologists” we have ever met. Having known all three, we would put terry in the same basket as people like Lisa Levin and Paul Dayton.

Terry showed us how to dive Tunnels beach – ripping currents can take you away here if you’re not careful. He also dove Ahukini jetty with us, showing us how to avoid the strong swells that almost constantly bash that place. His emphasis was safety but not at the sake of adventure and scientific appropriateness. We’re indebted to Terry for helping us so much and hopefully we can meet up again…if he’s still around, that is. Terry and other residents of Hanalei (of “the descendants” movie fame) are fighting a big housing development that’s planned for the bay. The developers are extremely disliked by the locals, but official corruption on Kauai (which, when compared to the lawless Western U.S. of the 1800’s, isn’t so different in some regards) and other factors are driving the plans forward. Fearing the worst for the marine environment, Terry is an outspoken critic of the plans and local officials. Presently Terry is apparently recovering from having his arm broken. We hope things stay small in sleepy Hanalei.

Maui

The best shave ice (Ululanis)

Hands down the BEST shave ice in Hawaii can be found at Ululani’s on Maui.  We tried a whole lot of shave ice during this trip, and the unbelievably fluffy texture here could not be matched elsewhere.  The syrups were made from real fruits and had few ingredients, and were kept at a frosty temperature to keep them from disrupting the texture of the ice.  You must go if you are on Maui!

Nu’u bay diving – our favourite in the MHI

IMG_9162The best place we reckon we dived over the entire main Hawaiian Island chain is Nu’u Bay on the southeast side of Maui. The combination of extremely clear water, remoteness, relative sheltwe from the trade-wind induced swell, position on the flank of Haleakala, and excellent marine life made this place #1.  Nu’u was a challenge to get to by car along the lesser-known southern road to Hana.IMG_9240  The road is not always paved and most of it is one windy lane.  The real trick comes at the end, when we had to identify the correct gate along the road (which is never locked), open it and drive through, and navigate down a rocky drive that would have been moderately difficult for a 4wd.

Simon insists that our Honda Odyssey can offroad with the best of them.  It proved itself yet again on the gravel access to Nu'u Bay today
Simon insists that our Honda Odyssey can offroad with the best of them. It proved itself yet again on the gravel access to Nu’u Bay.

Our Honda Odyssey was barely up to the task but we only managed to get it stuck once.  Bring planks of wood to use as leverage. Other times we elected to remove heavy items like scuba tanks and carry them to keep the ground clearance as high as it could be.  We never saw more than one local fisherman at Nu’u, despite gorgeous views, a pristine black sand beach, and unbelievable diving and snorkelling.

Jaws

The north shore of Maui is famous for big wind and big waves. Some days we would see more than 60 kitesurfers and 40 windsurfers in the same bay. We sat there and counted the kites/sails in amazement. The steady alongshore trades and onshore swells make conditions ideal for fast sailing and wave carving, which looks extremely fun.

Along the “road to Hana” on Maui’s northeast side is a reef that only breaks when giant storm-driven swell from the Aleutian Islands of at least 25 ft in height rolls in. When these big waves arrive, they strike this deep reef in such a way that amplifies the breaking wave and creates the famous break known as “Jaws”. Although we didn’t witness the break under the right conditions, we had our own adventure driving out to one of the headlands overlooking the break. A search on google maps showed us that there was a dirt road that lead to this headland. We parked right where the turnoff on the satellite image was…and didn’t see it. The entire road had been overgrown with sugarcane. It was gone, but another dirt road a little way down the road appeared promising, so we took it. Some way down, we came across a burnt-out truck parked across the road with no wheels. It looked like it had been placed there deliberately, so as to keep people out. However, other vehicles had bravely forged a path around the truck, which we followed without questioning the abilities of our Honda Odyssey one bit. Soon the track became rutted to a level Simon would call “significant”. Our only hope was to keep the wheels out of the ruts, the depth of which now greatly exceeded the ride height of our minivan.  Some problems arose when the ruts criss-crossed, but aided by the fact that the clay on which we were driving was dry (and therefore not slippery) we managed to fight our way to the end of the road. We drove on to a verdant green pasture of coastal grass that ended abruptly at a cliff overlooking the ocean. Some locals were hanging out and had recently deployed a kite, from which they were about to hang what looked like an entire eel affixed to a 12/0 hook. “Big Ulua” was their reply when we asked what they were going for. Penn International reels showed they were serious: Ulua are very powerful fish. The coastline was rugged but the ocean was an inviting clear blue. Giant boulders could be seen strewing the bottom. Simon imagined them teeming with lobster. Swell pounded some nearby offshore reefs but “Jaws” was too deep to create white water in this weather. This looked like a fantastic place to dive, but even Simon conceded that the cliff walk down to the beach was “a challenge”. Several rickety iron stakes were hammered into the crumbling cliff face. A series of ropes were tied to them, allowing you to semi-abseil down the “path”. In an effort to check out the path, Simon discovered that the ‘ropes’ were in fact either garden hoses or scrap wire. It might be possible to get down the cliff with scuba gear, but a safer option would probably be to either A) bring your own rope ladder or B) go elsewhere (which we did, to Maliko Gulch).  Later, we talked to some local spearfishers who spoke of occasionally having to pay the fishing tax in this area. The currency was usually fish that had just been speared and the taxman usually wore a grey suit…

Big Island

Best dive shop – Sandwich Island Divers.

The kayak fits in very well with our rented Avalon.
The avalon at Sandwich Isle divers.

We encountered the same challenge with every new island: find a dive store that would lend us lots of tanks, cheap! Our place in Honolulu was great at $5 per filled tank per day but the signs on their front door telling us how Obama was destroying their business made the place feel strange. The only dive shop on Kauai that would rent us tanks was great, but at $7 each they weren’t cheap and we felt sad when the owner told us we should only attempt to dive one place on the island.IMG_0093 Luckily he gave us Terry’s contact details. The place on Maui was inexpensive (only $4 per tank!) but the owner was gruff and seemed to like the female component of the team much more than everyone else.

So, when we arrived on the Big Island we expected the usual pros-better-than-cons deal. Calling around, few dive stores seemed equipped to deal with us. “$10 a tank, as many refills of that tank as you want” was one reply.IMG_0314 We explained we didn’t want to drive an hour each way just to fill up but no luck. Others didn’t call back or have enough tanks. Then we found ‘Sandwich Isle Divers’ in Kona, owned by the Myklebusts. They knew what we needed and were very accommodating, even allowing us to store our kayak at their store. So we found it, “best dive store in Hawaii” – from people who actually went through dive stores over the entire archipelago.

Kalapana lava walk – coolest non-dive activity

IMG_0845Search “Volcanoes national park” on the web and you’ll get all sorts of images of spectacular lava flows, giant eruptions, and people standing right next to flowing lava! Visit and the story is very different. Red tape everywhere, no approaches to lava allowed (unless you pay $200pp for a chopper ride, that is). IMG_6793 Safety rules over excitement and experience. The only lava scene visible is the overlook of Kilauea caldera, where you can see the reflection of red light from lava on the steam and smoke billowing out. Boooring! Go to Kalapana, where you can walk a couple of miles and stand next to real flowing lava on public land, outside the park! One small caveat – you can save about 3 hours walk by paying some locals $100 to walk over their private land. Is it worth it to you? It was to us.IMG_6850  This is how we ended up going with ‘Kalapana Cultural Tours’ – an outfit that takes tourists to the lava. This company is unique because they operate out of the “Hawaiian Nation” – a group of native Hawaiians trying to reclaim the islands as a republic/monarchy. Simon thought they actually have a strong case: there was a documented military takeover, it was against the will of the locals, no compensation has ever been negotiated. Maybe the NZ Maoris and their treaty lawyers should get together with the Hawaiians?IMG_0907

Anyway, after a walk over some land that was younger than us, we got to the fantastic lava flows. Totally worth it, and bring some sticks for roasting various campfire foods over the lava. Childhood dream realised.

Place of refuge snorkelling

IMG_9658This was probably the best easy-access snorkelling on all of the islands.  The Place of Refuge was a temple that native Hawaiians could flee to if they broke a kapu (taboo).  If you were able to reach a Place of Refuge and perform the rituals before you were caught, you escaped the rigid death penalty.IMG_9639  This is just south of the marine park at Captain Cook monument, and often frequented by locals who use the boat ramp, swim, picnic, and lounge on the rocks.  We found the snorkelling and diving here incredible, both in terms of coral health and sheer numbers of fish.

Morty the mantaDCIM100GOPRO

The single most astounding thing that happened during our five month journey was our encounter with ‘Morty’.  We were with Lauren’s parents touring the northeast side of the Big Island, and had stopped at one last beach for a short snorkel before heading home.  We puttered around near the rocks, where the water was somewhat cloudy and the fish shy. DCIM100GOPRO As the parents were headed in, they asked Lauren if she had seen the manta ray!  Lauren and Simon quickly confirmed that there was in fact a manta ray swimming around in shallow water over sandy bottom.  He was filter-feeding on tiny animals that seemed to hover just above the sand, and was swimming back and forth at medium speed in regular rows, like you would mow the lawn.IMG_6184  It literally looked like a winged vacuum cleaner was sweeping the sand clean! All four of us were able to swim with the manta and watch him find dinner for as long as we wanted, while the regular beachgoers and families nearby had no idea that they were within a stone’s throw from one of these magnificent animals. DCIM100GOPRO We were so impressed that we named him Morty. Native Hawaiians later told us that he was a manifestation of one of our Aumakua, or guardian spirits, which might help explain his unusual behaviour.

South point

DCIM100GOPROThe southernmost point in the USA is South Point on the Big Island. The land just ‘ends’ here. No beach or anything like that, just a cliff face into deep water. The wind roars constantly, so much so that the trees are all bent over and there is a wind farm just up the road. The windward side of the point is always rough, but the leeward side is excellent for swimming, provided you can get in/out. A boat hoist serves as a diving platform where groups of teenagers dare each other to jump in.DCIM100GOPRO A steel ladder up the cliff offers an easy return. The water is very deep here, dropping quickly to >100 m about 100 m from the cliff edge. The cliff meets the water and keeps on going to about 10-15m, from which the rocky bottom gently slopes away at first. The water is always extremely clear as it hasn’t met land for thousands of kilometres before currents transport it briskly past South Point. It’s real open ocean here, and this is well known by the locals: dozens of guys with big game rods and ‘kites’ (black rubbish bags) run huge baits downwind, hoping for strikes on Mahimahi, Wahoo, and big Ulua. We saw a line get ‘taken’ while we were there but the hook let go before the fish was close enough to be visible.DCIM100GOPRO

We found a place where we could climb down a gully in the cliff and get in/out of the water easily. A huge, tightly circling school of bigeye trevally awaited us just past the boat hoist. The school was relatively skittish, so Simon was particularly excited about the possibility of some big boys showing up… but no luck. Lots of life adorned the cliff edge and we even found a few Hawaiian lobsters in some of the deeper holes (apparently this place can get picked clean because of the relatively easy entry).

P.S….Baby F!

We came home from Hawaii with a little souvenir… currently in vivo but it will be out and about in early August! Thanks for reading our blog, hope to continue this the next time we’re on an adventure!

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An Excellent Day at Kure Atoll

We got lucky yesterday- we were given a full day at the last minute instead of a half!  We used the extra time to explore Kure Atoll, and for the first time we brought our ‘big’ camera along for the ride.  Here’s a collection of some of our favorite shots from the day.  We are currently steaming full speed to our last stop, Lisianski, and gearing up for our final gear deployment on this cruise!  (PS- don’t let our last title confuse you. It’s pronounced cure-ay)

Highs and lows

Today is windier, and grayer, than previous days

The open ocean is at best a fickle place. The weather is always unpredictable. The sea ruins the hardiest of equipment. We can only do what we can.

Lauren watching for birds while one of the small boats is recovered. The crew get the boat right up against the Hi’ialakai as shown here so that people and gear can be off-loaded before the small boat is lifted to its skids.

Day two at French Frigate Shoals (today, August 5) sees us on board the R/V Hi’iakaiai without a tender – a loading wire on one of the davits was found to be frayed this morning, meaning the ecological survey team – which has priority – commandeered our boat to do their work. Even then, they had to leave four of their team on the boat as our vessel is smaller than theirs. So it transpired that Lauren and I have a day on board the mothership (Hi’ialakai) to rest, reflect, and prepare for tomorrow after a hectic first day. The downtime is also a great opportunity to write a blog entry!

The crew working on repairing the broken davit.
A booby flies past the boat.

Our arrival at FFS was made apparent to us by the sighting of a large object in the distance, La Perouse Rock. This and the small sandy islands on the atoll, are the only land for hundreds of km around. An excellent visual reference from which to get your bearings around FFS, La Perouse is also home to thousands of boobies (sfw). These birds now regularly fly past our boat, using our wind shadow to accelerate in the direction they need to fly.

We met with considerable success yesterday, although it did not come without cost: we were completely strung out and exhausted by the end and Simon was plagued with seasickness the entire day. Four dives in open-ocean swells on the windward side of the shoal were completed. In the process, two single-hydrophone recorders were deployed, the 11-hydrophone fly-by array was also deployed, and the ‘windmill’ – a bottom-mounted tower holding four time-lapse cameras, was secured to the bottom.

Simon works on securing a camera to the ‘windmill’, totally oblivious to the school of giant trevally circling him.

We even had the opportunity to conduct several benthic photo-transects and stationary fish count estimates! However, we also found that the flyby array was a challenge to maneuver and deploy from a pitching and rolling small boat. Simon also found that assembling the flyby in such weather was exceedingly difficult and leads to  vomiting sessions off the side… Luckily once the array was in the water and we were underneath, things calmed down greatly.

Even though we had made it to the bottom with their equipment, the challenges continued for us. The bottom environment on the southern side of FFS is dominated by large tracts of coral rubble, patchy reef, and white sand. Large, living reefs don’t occur in this area due to the occasional cyclone that comes this way and destroying the windward reef. While the sand looked like an ideal substrate into which one could screw in sand anchors, it seemed that in most places the sand only formed a thin veneer over hard coral. After about a dozen tries (3 mins of work per try), we finally found a place where the anchors ( about 4 ft, 1.25 m long) could be driven in to the ground more than half their length. After so much thought on where to put the acoustic instruments to extract the maximum scientific value from the recordings, it seems now that the deciding factors are simple: 1) near the reef 2) where the sand is deep enough to securely anchor the instruments.

Deploying one of the tenders. It looks precarious but the crane and tag lines allow the crew to place the boat exactly where they want.
Loading and unloading. A challenge in big seas.

We spend so much time concentrating on deploying the equipment and collecting information about the benthic habitat we almost forget to look up and miss some of FFS’s wonders! The first dive of the day seemed like diving in some kind of crystal palace. Visibility was much better than 40 m horizontal (130 ft) and the colour of the ocean was an intense blue. As we descended, long sinewy shapes moved over the sand – the shadows of large crimson jobfish swimming towards us to see what the commotion was all about. They were soon joined by giant trevally or uluas that seemed to act completely without reservation – no fear of spears or hooks, swimming tight circles around us at arms length. The quantity of predatory fish in this area is surprising although not unexpected – this reserve has not been fished (legally) for many years.

Coming alongside is the most ‘exciting’ part. The ship recovers the small boats while steaming ahead at moderate speed, and turns to make a lee for the small boat just as the bow line (painter) gets hooked on. Before you get into the lee, the lucky person on the bow line (Lauren for our boat, Simon takes the stern line) gets a good shower and arm workout holding on through the bumps.  (This is one of the bigger boats, HI-2.  Ours does not have any covered area at all and is a little bit smaller)

The small boat transits are extremely exciting.  We aren’t allowed to sit, because the jars and bumps can damage your back as we go over the big waves!  Yesterday we got a full on water-park effect when we plowed straight into one.  Fortunately the scuppers worked well.  Everything we brought on board was soaked, and eating lunch was a bit of a joke.  Simon wasn’t eating much anyway, and Lauren struggled to eat small packaged foods without them getting a salt wash first.  We worked hard under and above water, and made it back safely.  Our coxswain is awesome and we are glad to be working with him!

La Perouse rock in the distance. Atoll reef is visible closer in.

Now we wait anxiously for tomorrow. The hydrophones were deployed in an area that is a little rougher today as the wind is now blowing 25 kts from the south east. Will we get our equipment back in once piece? Will Simon be overcome by seasickness again?

Another booby flies past.

Underwater At Last

Can you believe that we were in Hawaii for 25 days before donning a scuba tank?  We sure can’t!  The time has flown by with the odds and ends of becoming settled in a new place (or series of places, as is the case for us) and preparing for the research expedition.

Friendly turtles buzzed our dive site all day

Science Diving!

We spent two days testing most of Simon’s acoustic equipment (the stuff we didn’t test just hangs off the ship).  We packed it all in the car and planned to do a series of shore dives.  The “basic” steps were:

The SeaHawk 300 with the fly-by array and our scuba gear. Ready for deployment.
  1. Pick a good spot (we chose Three Tables on the North Shore of Oahu)
  2. Suss it out and decide where we will dive.
  3. Assemble our scuba gear, inflate our trusty Sea Hawk 300 raft, pull out and assemble the sand anchors and small hydrophones.
  4. Get all of that stuff to the beach
  5. Load everything into the Sea Hawk on the beach and pull it through the surf.
  6. Surface swim to our planned site.
  7. Tie off all of the equipment to ourselves or hold on to it, and descend

    Simon bringing the trusty Seahawk to the beach
  8. Insert sand anchors and attach small hydrophones to sand anchors.
  9. Swim back to shore with the empty Sea Hawk
  10. Take turns exiting the water and pulling the Sea Hawk out

    Simon tying one of the smaller hydrophones to a sand anchor.
  11. Exchange dive tanks and unload the array (that’s the big thing that comes in three 50 pound pieces)

    Lauren and friend.
  12. Lauren dons dive gear and walks to beach with boat.  Simon follows with the array piece by piece, assembles it on the raft and finally puts on his dive gear and joins her.
  13. Pull it all through the surf and swim back to the dive site.
  14. Get the array out of the seahawk…easier said than done when you’re swimming next to it.
  15. Descend with a line attached to the array, which loops through a sand anchor so that we can pull it down underwater (the array is buoyant).

    Towing the Seahawk back to shore
  16. Secure the floaty end of the array to sand anchors and line up the hydrophones in a nice pattern so that beamforming and cross-correlation of acoustic arrivals can show us which direction the various sounds being recorded are coming from.
  17. Return to shore

    The fly-by array deployed on the bottom in a line configuration.
  18. Rinse everything off, including us
  19. Eat shave ice

On the second day, we did the same list in reverse (except the shave ice, which always comes at the end).  I am happy to report that we successfully achieved all of the steps, nothing flooded, we in fact recorded data, and that no one stole our equipment while it was left out overnight.

Lauren working hard on driving in a sand anchor.

Steps 4-6, 10, 12 and 13 were far more challenging than they sound (and than we originally thought!)  The learning curve is steep, so we hope we are already past the hardest part!  We quickly learned the pro tip that parking near the beach was an absolute must. Simon regrets spending two hours walking back and forth between car and beach, carrying heavy stuff in the tropical climate with half a wetsuit on. Never again.

Simon faffing around with his kit.

On the ship we will be operating from a small boat.  This will be extremely luxurious because it eliminates all of the parts where we have to carry heavy things across a beach and drag a small inflatable boat through the surf!  The underwater methods will be the same, so the photos here are representative of what we’ll be doing for the next month.

Happy Birthday Simon!

Simon turned 29 for the second time on Sunday, and we enjoyed our last free day on land by going for a series of easy hikes and walks around the Waimea Arboretum.  Lauren arranged a scavenger hunt variation for Simon’s gift, which included favorite activities like hiking, waterfall swimming, shabu-shabu dinner, and of course, shave ice!

Shabu Shabu dinner!
Amazing ginger plant flowers at the Waimea arboretum.
Lauren and Simon on Simon’s birthday hike.