Kona’s Manta Night Dive

Imagine sitting around a campfire in the dead of night with a few of your closet friends. All is quiet, save for the crackle of the flames, and the excited breath of your buddies. You would be telling ghost stories, but no one dares say a word. You are waiting for the real story to arrive. This won’t be a tale told with words, but an otherworldly experience, the story which you’ll tell for the rest of your life. Suddenly and quietly it arrives, a giant and majestic shadow, gliding gracefully over the flames. Everyone gapes in awe as a second shadow follows suit. The show has just begun…

…or so that’s the story I was hoping to write. But when does reality ever match up with expectations?

Fletch and I had flown into Kona the previous day specifically to go on the renowned manta ray night dive. Our previous night had been spent tethered to a line looking at bizarre creatures in the blackwater. The day had mostly been spent sleeping off the previous day's worth of travel and diving. Now we were back at the pier, waiting to board the dive boat. We would be doing two dives, one to acclimate to the diminishing light and to get familiar with the dive site, and the second to (hopefully) see the manta rays.

I watched the other divers as we waited, a professional habit. You can tell by the way people act a lot of times how much experience they have. There’s always that one guy with around 100 dives who is name dropping every place he’s ever been to, and one-upping every story you try to tell. He won't be impressed by anything you show him because he's already seen it all. There’s always at least one couple with one half looking smug and overly-confident, while the other half is glancing around nervously and looking a little green in the face. That second half is going to have ear problems and buoyancy trouble. Tonight there was a younger couple passing a tall, skinny can back and forth, the same shape of can that the spiked seltzers come in. That raised a red flag in my mind. But surely they weren’t that stupid. Surely it was just a brand of juice I wasn’t familiar with. Besides I was just a guest; it was none of my business.

The boat brought us around the island, to a spot just offshore from the airport. It felt good to be in the water again, and actually finning around, not just tied up to a line. The coral at the dive site was in pretty sorry shape, but I tried not to judge it too much. We weren’t here for the coral; we were here because the manta rays liked this spot. Familiar fish kept surprising me as they swam by, and I kept having to remind myself that oh yeah, we were still in the Pacific Ocean. Being in the western hemisphere again, a part of me had expected to see an entirely different ecosystem. We were back in the tropical Pacific though. Of course most of the fish were the same, from red tooth triggerfish and trumpetfish, to flounders and nudibranchs. There honestly weren’t a lot of fish, but it was twilight and fish tend to be early morning creatures.

Trumpetfish

Sea Urchin

Phyllidia varicosa

Yellowmargin Moray

Potter's Angelfish. This one was new to me, in fact I had to look it up online because it's not even in our extensive fish bible. 

Whitemouth Moray

Crab

Phyllidiella pustulosa

Whitemouth Moray


Towards the end of our first dive I looked out to the open blue and saw the first manta ray of the evening swooping in. It never ceases to astound me how beautiful and graceful they are. You see photos of them of course, and they are odd, ray-shaped creatures; basically large, square, pancakes. They aren't anything you would expect to be all that exciting. Nothing can prepare you for the elegance of 10-15 feet of wingspan gliding silently through the water. It’s as beautiful as watching a ballerina float weightlessly across a stage, coming from an animal as majestic as a thoroughbred.

We weren’t actually looking for mantas at that point, and the rest of the group was up ahead, zoned in on the reef. I was able to get Fletch’s attention though, and we paused to admire the beauty.

Back on board, our divemaster spent the surface interval telling us about manta rays, including the names of some of the regulars. There’s a manta database that keeps track of every manta ray in the ocean that has been identified. You can tell them apart from one another by their markings. Each manta ray’s markings are unique, just like a person’s fingerprints. If you are the first to photograph a new manta ray, you get to name it. Our friends Tanja and Stefan discovered and named a group of manta rays in the Maldives once. I always thought that would be the ultimate prize to be awarded as a scuba diver.

As we listened, the younger couple started passing another beverage in a tall, skinny can back and forth. This time I saw the label: White Claw. Fletch saw it too. We gave each other a horrified look. Fletch tried to whisper to her when the DM was out of earshot that she couldn’t be drinking that. “Oops, too late,” she replied in a cutesy voice that implied she was already tipsy. That put us in an awkward position. What to do? It’s incredibly important to never drink and dive, not only because it impairs your judgement, but physiologically, alcohol causes an increase in nitrogen absorption in the tissues leading to a greater risk of "the bends."

As professionals, Fletch and I still feel responsible for everyone’s safety even when we are just another set of paying customers. If this were any other dive, I probably would have said something, but this wasn’t any other dive. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many people, and something that most probably couldn’t afford to just shell out the cash for again on another night. How do you ruin that for someone by ratting them out? I consoled myself with the fact that Fletch had told them they were making a mistake. They were certified divers and had learned as much in their training. The bad decision was on them now, them and the dive crew for not noticing or caring.

I’ve been watching a lot of criminal law tv shows lately, and am envisioning that paragraph coming back to haunt me if anything bad ever happens under my watch. I have half a mind to delete it and just get back to the manta rays. Please don’t ever drink and dive, friends. You’re not just putting yourself in danger, but putting your dive crew, buddies, and any other professionals in a bad situation too. Crack as many beverages open as you want after a dive, just not before.

Twilight turned to dusk and the dive site filled up with more boats than I cared to count. More and more boats just kept pulling up, some at max capacity with divers, some with brightly colored floats for the abundance of snorkelers that would apparently be chilling at the surface for the show. It felt more like the floating version of a tailgate party than the moments leading up to a scuba dive. How were all these people going to share one dive site? It was busier than the busiest spots on Koh Tao, which was notorious for having a dozen boats lined up on any given site.

We descended with our group and took our places, kneeling in the sand around the campfire. Large lights had been set up and grouped together in the middle of a large clearing, and what had to be 100 divers were clumsily taking their places around it, ready for the show. Fletch stayed close to White Claw girl to keep an eye on her.

The setup was pretty cool. The lights lit the seafloor up like a campfire; the deep blue of the ocean in the dusky hours produced the same blue glow as the night sky. The plankton flitting around in the glow of the light against the blue gave the illusion of twinkling stars. You could almost forgive the crowd for being there. Almost.

We had been briefed to hold our torches pointing upwards towards the surface. I don’t know why we bothered with torches to begin with, the place was lit up like a Christmas tree. I glanced upwards to see hundreds of pairs of pale, flabby legs sticking out from floats in every color of the rainbow. The sight was comical. I also felt bad for pointing my torch up into so many pairs of eyes looking back down and so ditched the idea.

As dusk turned to dark, the first manta of the dive swooped through, casting her shadow on the crowd. She was the one with the broken cephalic lobe we had been shown pictures of on the boat, Koie. Out of the entire crowd, she swam straight towards Fletch and myself, mouth agape to scoop up plankton. The light from the campfire behind her shone through her gill slits, illuminating the entire opening of her mouth. She could have easily scooped our heads up along with the plankton, but luckily she preferred a much more minuscule treat. As she glided upwards to avoid colliding with us, I really thought that she might brush the tops of our heads. What a magical moment.

Another manta followed suit almost immediately, swimming directly towards me and Fletch, as if we were the lucky chosen ones out of the entire circle of what had to at least 100 divers. And then we waited a long time amongst the crowd for the third one to come, listening to the chorus of a hundred Darth Vadars.*

*Did you know that the sound for Darth Vadar's breathing was produced with a scuba regulator? 

I wasn't ready with the camera yet, and so she was already too close to fit in the frame. From her markings you can tell this is Akari.  

Manta ray swooping in on the night dive in Kona. 

Manta ray close up.


Manta ray gliding over the campfire. 


We only saw three mantas in total. A couple of them came around more than once, but sightings eventually became so few and far between that the divemaster motioned for us to get up and swim around. My heart sank a little bit. I was here for the mantas, and had already seen the lack of reef. I would rather have sat there, waiting for the slightest possibility of one more sighting.

My heart also sank because if we were getting up to swim around, the other hundred or two hundred divers would probably follow suit soon as well. Many of them were inexperienced, and many of them were on their first night dives. I had no desire to be in the middle of a swarm of newbie divers all kicking each other in the face.

The divemaster signaled that there was a little eel on the coral he was looking at. I happened to be the closest person to him, and so tried to sneak a peek before everyone else zoomed in. That was a mistake. It’s difficult to learn spacial awareness as a diver, and add to that not having any peripheral vision due to the mask. Add to that diving at night time where you can’t see anyway. A moment later I was trampled by half a dozen divers, all thinking they were the only ones who were going to go look at the eel. That was the last time I looked at anything the divemaster pointed out. Instead I just stayed towards the back and kept my eyes on the campfire, where another two mantas were silently gliding past, so magnificent and elegant that I forgot about the chaos for a moment.

I feel like a spoiled brat saying that I was disappointed with the dive. After hearing nothing but rave reviews from positively everyone, maybe I had just let my hopes rise too high. The first two mantas coming in back to back were moments of epic proportions that I will remember forever. Sometimes there are reports of seeing 30+ mantas on a dive, and I can see how that would be unreal. Being with so many people and only seeing three wasn’t all that astounding though. We might as well have been in an aquarium. I dive to spend time alone in nature, without people around. I share that experience with Fletch, and sometimes with a couple of students or guests. Sitting around with 100 divers and another 200 snorkelers just cheapened the experience. It was the same disappointment I felt when watching the latest Everest movie and discovering how commercialized climbing one of the most remote spots on Earth has become. Or the disappointment I felt when going back to Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto and seeing what a tourist trap it had become. There’s just too many darn people on this planet. Nothing is sacred anymore. I’ll stop now before this turns into a rant and you start calling me Thanos.

Back on board the boat we started to break down our dive gear, only for the dive staff to offer to bring it back to the shop and clean it for us. We hesitated, informing them that we were flying the following day and needed it to be dry. They promised it would be. It was a nice offer, so we took them up on it.

The following morning we packed our bags, and lugged them over to the dive shop to pack up our gear. Unfortunately, it was all very much still damp. Not only that, but our new wetsuits had been dragged through the dirt. As professionals, we usually insist on handling our own gear. This served as a reminder as to why.

We asked the girl at the desk if she could recommend a good place for brunch. She sent us down to the “strip,” implying that that was the place we would want to be. We arrived to discover that it was cruise ship day, and therefor the street was a busy shopping area buzzing with tourists in Hawaiian shirts and sun hats. Maybe some people enjoy that vibe. Maybe the girl at the desk had thought we were those people.

Fletch declared over brunch that he didn’t like the Big Island. It was too developed, and no one seemed happy. Everything felt forced and like a facade put on for tourists. I was actually glad to hear that, because I had felt the same way visiting Hilo, seven years ago. We took a beautiful piece of nature and turned it into just another big city, full of rules and regulations and too many people. I was so happy that Maui wasn’t like that, and that we were returning to spend the rest of our vacation on the laid-back island full of beach bums.

After our conversation, it was ironic on our drive back to the airport to hear the Uber driver tell us that she liked Kona better than her home on Oahu, because it was less congested. Yikes. We flew through Honolulu on the way back to Maui, and saw from the air through a break in the clouds that yes, Oahu was just a massive concrete jungle floating on the ocean. The view looked like something out of a dystopian future novel. I couldn’t wait to get back to Maui with all of her natural beauty, and our friends there who were waiting to hear about our trip.

Oahu as seen from the air. 

So is the dive worth it? If you have never seen mantas before, then Kona's night dive is pretty unique in that you are almost guaranteed to see them on any given night during the year. If mantas are on your bucket list, and Hawaii is as far as you are willing or able to travel, then the Kona dive is worth it. Otherwise, if you are like me and Fletch and prefer to have some peace and serenity in the water, try Palau, Indonesia, or the Maldives. People usually hear those places and think $$$. I can't speak for the Maldives, but if you can afford Hawaii, then you can easily afford Palau or Indonesia. Airfare may cost more, but you'll make up for the price tag on diving, food, and lodging. 

The Journey to Kona for Blackwater Diving

You have to be a true diving enthusiast to jump islands in Hawaii solely for the sake of scuba. Island hopping is not nearly as easy as it is in some countries. For one, the only way to travel between islands is by flying, and this isn’t Europe; airfare is not cheap. For two, the diving isn’t cheap either, at over $100 per tank. And since flying is involved, you have to plan 12-18 hours to decompress after your last dive before flying out again, which probably means staying an extra night. And oh yeah, it’s Hawaii so that isn’t cheap either. Is it worth it? Fletch and I decided to find out!

When you’ve been diving long enough, you begin to hear mention of not just great places to go diving in general, but specific “bucket list” dives. One of those is the manta ray night dive in Kona, Hawaii (we’ll get to that in the next post). I didn’t know if we’d ever return to Hawaii again, so I figured we might as well try to wiggle it in to our Maui trip. I chose a shop and after doing a little research, discovered that they offered a blackwater dive as well.

What is blackwater diving you ask? It is a very special kind of night dive where the boat drives everyone a few miles off shore and stops over some very deep water. Lights are deployed, divers descend around the lights 30 minutes later, and watch as completely alien creatures, most the size of insects, are attracted to the light. Some of these are deep water dwellers that come to the surface to feed and breed. Some of these are juveniles of species you might otherwise be familiar with, that float around in the open ocean until they mature enough to find a reef. Some of these are siphonphores, jellyfish-looking creatures that appear as though they are one organism, but actually are an entire colony of individuals called zooids. You thought the colorful reefs were home to some bizarre creatures? Try the open ocean in the black of night! 

Don't ask me what these are, but I'm pretty sure they're doing it...


Palau was famous for their blackwater dives, but I had an aversion to night diving at the time we lived there. I like light, and color, and mostly warming up in the heat of the sun after an hour underwater. I have since come to regret not experiencing blackwater there at least once. As good old Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do...” That has always been a favorite quote of mine. I have mostly lived by that. Except when it comes to cold activities like night diving. So now you understand why I was psyched to find out that Kona offered not only manta rays, but blackwater as well. 

Some sort of jellyfish-type creature... 


We managed to snag a deal on airfare due to Southwest Airlines being new to the Hawaiian Islands. Southwest was a circus. It’s hard enough for United to get people to line up in groups 1-5 for boarding, and yet Southwest tries to give everyone their own individual number to line up in order. Once on board, seating was a free for all. We ascended, plastic wrapped shots of juice were passed out, Fletch and I handed them back because a sip of juice just isn’t worth an entire plastic container continuing to exist as trash for 500 years, and then we landed.

Our layover in Honolulu took up the majority of our travel day. We drank Starbucks while listening to the gate agents socialize over the loud speakers as if they weren’t actually responsible for holding professional jobs.

Kona airport was a nice open-air airport that reminded us of Koh Samui. After collecting our bags - mostly dive gear and a change of clothes - we ordered an overpriced Uber to our Airbnb. We had chosen the closest condo we could find to the dive shop, thinking we were being clever and could just walk back and forth. We both completely spaced the fact that the dive shop wasn’t actually on the water, and therefor we would have to get ourselves to and from the pier, not the shop. So we ended up having to Uber each trip back and forth anyway.

Kona has a lot of reputable dive shops that all offer similar dives, but I had chosen Big Island Divers based on their stellar TripAdvisor reviews. We walked in to the shop completely amped up, excited to be in the water for the first time since February. Matt and Molly had been so excited for us. Everyone on Maui who had heard what we were doing had told us how amazing it was going to be. Now we had flown all this way just to dive and here we finally were. We walked into Big Island Divers and the shop staff were about as personable as DMV employees. Our excitement fizzled like a dud firecracker. Our questions were answered with the lackluster energy of a flat soda. All they cared about was collecting our payment. They couldn’t even be bothered to make extra money off of us when given the opportunity. Fletch asked if they had a thermal rash guard and the lady helping us out just waved her hand with a dismissive, “they’d be over there…”

When we walked out of the dive shop, our excitement level had dropped to that of a day-old helium balloon. I understand that not everyone who is reading this is a diver. So let me explain that the majority of divers out there, especially the ones in the industry, are high on life and ready to share their excitement of the ocean with you. Fletch and I tried to count how many dive shops we’ve been to between us, at least 100, and never had we walked into such a lusterless atmosphere. Hopefully all the positive attitudes were away on the boats.

We decided to cheer ourselves up with food and walked down the block to Umekes Fish Market Bar & Grill, a restaurant that had come highly recommended from the Uber driver who had picked us up from the airport. We knew we were in the right place when we saw all the different varieties of poke on the menu. I couldn’t choose, and so ordered a plate of “poke bombs,” which were four inari (rice-stuffed tofu pockets), each topped with a different kind of poke. I also ordered a scoop of vegetarian, purple potato poke on the side just for good measure. It was all incredibly fresh and ‘ono, which is the Hawaiian word for delicious. I like that word. The meal was easily one of the best we had the whole trip.

Poke! 

And poke bombs! 


We went back to the Airbnb to try and get a nap in before setting out on our blackwater adventure at 9:00 pm. Never had I been diving so late.

Later that night, we arrived at the pier where the boat was just returning with the regular night dive guests. They made seamless work of swapping guests, and off we went into the black of the night.

Our crew consisted of Captain Mikey and Divemaster Jaush. Jaush was friendly and extremely knowledgable, a little quirky perhaps, but the ones who get into the specific niches of diving like blackwater usually are (in the best sort of way). He was able to describe exactly what kinds of creatures and organisms we would be able to find at each different depth in a way that I'm sure would make many a marine biologist proud. Captain Mikey was a hoot. We were all geared up and everyone was excitedly chatting a mile a minute, everyone that is except for me. I’m always the quiet one. So he turned to me and said, “I’ve been thinking about it, and I decided that you should go first.” I have a feeling he was trying to freak out the little girl in the group, but I bounced up like I had won prize, and shuffled over to the entry point before he could take it back.

Our briefing had included the possibility of seeing blue sharks, or oceanic whitetips, or dolphins. It wasn’t a strong possibility, but more of a heads up on what would happen if we did. We were told that one wouldn’t be a problem, but more than one and Jaush was going to get us out of the water, dolphins included. I was excited about the prospect of blue sharks, and so had missed what exactly he had said about the dolphins. Something about small streams of bubbles meant that they were either hunting or excited. No one wants a group of excited dolphins trying to molest them in the pitch black water. I wish that were a joke, but dolphins are creepy creatures. Don't believe me? Look it up on YouTube.

The only thing I was scared of was the cold. I know that sounds silly. There I was, about to step off a boat in the middle of the ocean, in the middle of the night, over incredibly deep water, with a possibility of sharks - a scenario that would have a large portion of the population in tears - and I was worried about how hard I was going to be shivering in an hour.

I took a giant stride off the edge of the boat and splashed into the surprisingly warm water. What a relief. My mind was set at ease.

Each of us was tethered with a rope to our own personal decent lines so that we couldn’t get lost in the dark. I began my decent into the pitch black abyss with only the small beam of my torch illuminating the empty void. I could have sworn I saw the outline of a shark under me, but my eyes were still adjusting, my mind still running a dozen double-checks, and it could have just been the dark playing tricks on me, like a mirage in the desert, because it was gone just as soon as I saw it.

It takes a couple minutes to adjust to being in the water, clad in awkward gear when you’ve been dry for several months. It takes an extra moment to equalize your ears, to clear any water out of your mask, to find your buoyancy, and especially in the pitch black with one hand holding a torch and one hand holding a camera. Add to that being tethered and trying not to entangle yourself. Don’t worry, I’m a pro.

There I was in the midst of my checks and balances, not at all oriented yet, when a surprising force hit me directly in the face. And again. My mask and regulator were covering most of my face, so luckily there was no skin-to-alien-creature contact to give me the heebie jeebies. It all happened so fast that my brain didn’t even sound the alarms until the thing was gone. I shined my light around the blackness to see clouds of shapeless goop hovering around my face. It was likely ink from an octopus or a squid. I couldn’t imagine an octopus hanging out in open water, so it had likely been a squid. Fletch was on the decent line next to me by then, and I signaled to him that my heart was pounding. I calmed down after a moment though, and was just as soon laughing at myself. Haha, my face was attacked by a squid.

This is what squid ink looks like, floating around like a blob until it disperses. 


There weren’t any giant lights that had been deployed 30 minutes before the dive as they do in Palau; we had only our torches to attract bizarre critters. And bizarre creatures we saw plenty of. It was more like looking at weird stuff wiggling around under a microscope than scuba diving. I had a hard time focusing on half the things I saw because they were all darting around in the light beam like moths around a flame. It was even more impossible to get the camera to focus on such fast-moving, tiny things. I developed a very sudden and strong respect for those guys who take the blackwater photos. 

Scuba diving or microscope viewing? It's hard to tell...

A pair of tweezers perhaps? 


There were mostly jellyfish-like creatures. I even did see a box jellyfish drifting by at one point. Don’t worry, Hawaii doesn’t have the same kind of box jellies that Australia is known for, although they will still mess you up royally. 

Hawaii's variety of box jellyfish.


There were a lot of little shrimps, some visible, some nothing more than minuscule insects buzzing around the beam of light. 

I know at least one of these things is a shrimp!


There was a 6” wahoo at one point. Or maybe it was a barracuda. That was the biggest thing we saw, and yet it was still difficult to get a photo to come out right. It was the biggest thing except for the squid that attacked my face that is. Although technically I guess I never saw the squid. 

We all guessed that this was a juvenile wahoo, but Jaush later confirmed that it was actually a juvenile barracuda.

At one point I saw Fletch watching something intently, and so I drifted over to his line to see what had him so transfixed. He was staring at what looked like a little piece of mesh, no bigger than a square inch in size. It seemed to be moving in a way that only a living thing could, but it really just looked like mesh. It was expanding and contracting in a very graceful manner, and not in coordination to the subtle water movement, so it had to be living, right? My photo didn’t help my suspicion that I was looking at an inanimate object. 

The mysterious mesh. 


At the very end of the dive, Jaush waved me over to see a little creature about the size of a small grape darting around. I suspected it was a bobtail squid, but again, it was too difficult to focus on the fast movement in the pitch black. I wish I could have gotten a clearer photo, because bobtail squids look like little boops from Finding Nemo. They’re just the cutest little things you ever saw, and I got to see one! That was definitely the highlight of our hour floating around in the dark. 

Bobtail squid! See his eyeball on the southeast corner? 

Here is a stock photo of a bobtail squid so that you can see how adorable they are.


Back on board the boat, Captain Mikey had hot towels and hot chocolate waiting for us. I do love it when boats provide something to warm up after a dive.

It was 2 am by the time we made it back to the condo, so it wasn’t until the following day that Fletch and I discussed the dive. Sure we’d made mention of the weird things we saw, but not what we thought about the overall experience. Fletch finally broke the ice by saying, “Was is just me, or was that kind of disappointing?” I was relieved to hear him say that. I really hadn’t wanted to admit that it wasn’t the mind-blowing experience I had hyped it up to be in my head over so many years. Yes, it was a cool experience. Yes, I’m glad I tried it once, but at $170 each, it left a lot to be desired. I had thought that the hefty price tag was going to pay for the massive lights that our friends in Palau were always bragging about, but the only lights on the dive were the individual torches provided. We basically spent an hour, tied up in the dark underwater, watching the equivalent of bugs buzz around a torch beam. So I really can’t say I recommend the dive unless money isn’t an issue and it’s something you want to tick off of your bucket list.

I am now that much more curious about Palau’s blackwater dive though. Do the big lights make all the difference? Or is blackwater diving just something that I don’t fully appreciate? Maybe someday I’ll find out. Until then, I’ll tell you about the manta rays. Stay tuned! 

Another jelly blob of a creature. 


P.S. Just a quick public service announcement to always tip your dive crew. In researching dive shops, I came across a saddening number of reviews complaining that it is embarrassing for the dive crew to be begging for tips. You travel to new countries to learn about culture though, and like it or not, tipping is part of the culture in the United States. We tip for services, and tour-guiding of any sort is a service. Be kind to your dive crew.

Hana’s Local Treasures

Day three of our Hana camping trip was spent being shown around by Matt, who knew some pretty awesome local spots where we were able to get away from the majority of the tourist crowd.

First he brought us to Hana Bay, a picturesque bay area where we were meant to have breakfast, only we had already whipped up another batch of breakfast burritos at the campsite. The ones we hadn't already devoured were wrapped in tinfoil and baking in the hot sun on the dashboard. So instead we sat on a picnic table and admired the bay where the surf was crashing in. Things were mostly quiet, save for a tent where it looked like a party was being set up. For a tented event on the beach, they were going all out with the white linens and table settings and the whole nine yards. Molly, who grew up on Maui, explained that first birthdays are a big deal in Hawaii. And even though it is a birthday celebration for a baby who won’t remember anything, the parents take “baby’s first luau” as an excuse to party.

There are so many magical views hiding just around the corner in the Hana area.


Next we parked on the street next to a church, where choir music could be heard drifting out through the open windows and into the otherwise quiet, morning air. We cut across the church lawn, which apparently was perfectly acceptable, and found a path. In one direction, a resort was visible, with a beautiful view overlooking the foaming waves. We followed the path around in the other direction, which curved around a cliffside until we could see a red sand lagoon down below, with a wall of rocks creating a sheltered pool. Welcome to Red Sand Beach, or Kaihalulu Bay.

Red Sand Beach, Maui


The scene was picture perfect, and what an entrance too, looking down from the viewpoint on the side of the hill. We snapped our photos and descended down to enjoy the sea-level view. 

Here you can see the hillside that we hiked around to access Red Sand Beach.


We kicked off our shoes and relaxed on the beach for a while. The secluded little bay had a wonderful local vibe to it, and many of the beach-goers had brought their dogs, which were especially entertaining. 

Fletch enjoying the sun on his toes. 

This doggo, however, prefers the shade.


When we were ready to move on, Matt showed us the way to our next destination, Venus Pool, or Waioka Pond. This time the path spat us out at the top of a rocky cliff, which local boys were doing back flips off of into the clear, blue pool below. The only way to access the refreshing water would be to make the jump. So we found a dry nook in the rock to tuck away our belongings, and with a leap and a splash, all four of us jumped, one by one. I was last, but before I jumped, I grabbed our dive masks. The water was crystal clear and Matt had said that we could go treasure hunting for belongings dropped by fellow jumpers. 

Venus Pool, or Waioka Pond, Maui


The water was cool and refreshing after the morning of hiking around. Cool enough to have me content after a minute of bottom-searching, and swimming for the hot stones on the opposite side of the pool, where I warmed up like a lizard. Fletch being a fish in the water, spent a good while longer combing the bottom for any signs of small treasures like sunglasses. There was nothing to be found, but searching was half the fun.

It was growing later in the afternoon and so we eventually decided to make the drive back to Kihei. Rather than backtracking along the Road to Hana, we continued along the souther portion of the loop. It was amazing over the course of an hour to watch the lush, rainforest gradually turn into dry, desert, until it looked like we were driving through Wyoming or some parts of Colorado. How could the landscape change that drastically, so rapidly? 

Yes, this is still Maui.


We drove by a huge ravine carved out into the rock where it looked like flash floods had sculpted away the mountain over the years. The roads turned dusty enough that we wondered if we had really just been basking on humid beaches surrounded by lush mountainsides.

A pit stop on the side of the road introduced us to a happy, curly-haired dog that shared the color of Matt’s hair. They could have been brothers. 

Matt and his new friend.


We made it back into town and returned the camper Jeep that had taken such good care of us on our journey to Hana and back, and then crashed on Matt’s couch where Jurassic Park was playing on TV. How appropriate. We couldn’t ask for a more fitting end to a fantastic camping trip.

Waterfalls and Banyan Trees with 100 of Your Closest Friends

We woke up at the Kipahulu campground and set about making breakfast burritos with some quinoa salad we had picked up at Costco, zucchinis, and cheese. The meal was delicious and a cinch to cook with our kitchen setup. Then we brewed some tea and set out on a spiritual journey for the day.

Kipahulu sits at the base of the Pipiwai Trail, a two-mile hike through the jungle-covered mountainsides that leaves you wondering where the dinosaurs are hiding.

Molly, Matt, Fletch, and myself, started off single file through the tall grass, giddy with excitement and already feeling connected with Mother Nature. I left my cell phone behind. I do apologize for the lack of my own photographic evidence. That was very irresponsible of the blogger in me. But the hippie in me needed the next few hours to completely disconnect from the world that is increasingly ruled by technology, and to reconnect with nature. I’m sure you understand, and if not, then I encourage you to put down whatever device you are currently reading this on, take off your shoes, and go plant your toes in the grass somewhere. Close your eyes and breathe for a moment. You’re welcome.

We made quick time to an elevated lookout, with an epic view of the valley we had just ascended, a massive waterfall cascading down the rock in the distance, and of course the ocean, glittering blue down below at the open end of the valley. We stopped to marvel, and to let our eyes get lost in the sea of lush greenery covering the mountainsides.

Makahiku Falls, Maui
(Photo by laserdad on Pixabay)


Farther along the trail we came upon a massive banyan tree. If there is any tree more wondrous than the rainbow eucalyptus tree, then perhaps it is the banyan. The banyan starts out as a humble fig tree, but then all of its branches begin to grow roots and those roots become new trunks. This process continues until you have what you would think was an entire forest of trees. Magically though, it is only one massive tree. The largest banyan tree in the world is located in India and covers over 4 acres of land.

Naturally, I had to stop and climb the banyan tree. It was beckoning to be climbed, and my inner child would not let me refuse. I stopped and relaxed on a branch for awhile that was perfectly parallel to the ground and as wide as a recliner. The others stopped to talk to fellow hikers, and I wondered at how many continued past, out of breath, and looking straight past such a marvelous tree. 

Maui banyan tree on Pipiwai Trail
(Photo by Brandon Green on Unsplash)


I finally decided that it was time to continue onwards, and set about the task of choosing from an abundant assortment of footholds which would bring me back down to earth. I imagined myself to be quite high off the ground, only then Matt came and plucked me out of the tree as if it was nothing.

Onwards we trekked, in no hurry to be anywhere specific. Right when we would imagine ourselves to be completely immersed in nature, there would be an abrupt Danger sign, pointing to a fatal drop. We found these humorous on several accounts. For one, why did our nature hike need to be interrupted with warning labels? And for two, I can’t help but wonder how many people they’ve lured over the edge by saying, “Hey, come here and look at this drop! It’s fatal!” And now I’m probably making you question my own sanity with climbing trees and hiking next to fatal drops. Don’t worry, this was a well-worn path that parents had their little kids running up and down. The warning labels were just to keep us from finding the dinosaurs. There were a few, random chain-link fences to keep the dinosaurs at bay too. I mentioned as much, and Matt burst my bubble by pointing out that the Hawaiian islands were formed long after the dinosaurs went extinct.

At one point the lush, tropical rainforest became an enchanting forest of dense bamboo. A clear, winding pathway was built throughout, and good thing too, because the towering green stalks were so thick that you could imagine being lost after wandering off the path for just a minute. 

Boardwalk winding through the bamboo forest on the Pipiwai Trial, Maui.
(Photo by aeforia on Pixabay)


The light penetrating the leafy green tops, far up above was exactly the serene, otherworldly experience I had missed out on in Japan. You may recall that we visited Japan’s famous bamboo forest, and there were more people there than forest. Here there were other hikers along the trail, sure, but it curved around enough that you never really had to see them except when passing in opposite directions. If a bamboo forest is the experience you are craving, skip Japan (probably the only time you’ll ever hear me say that) and head to Maui’s Pipiwai Trail. 

Light shining through the bamboo forest.
(Photo by mdrosenkrans on Pixabay)


We passed numerous hikers who were heading back down the mountain, and they all cheered us on with words of encouragement and to keep going, the end would be worth it. I wondered if we were meant to be huffing and puffing to the end of a race. The idea of not making it to the end had never even crossed my mind, but there was also no hurry to get there. I was exactly where I needed to be right here, right now, with some amazing scenery and even better friends. Thanks for the encouragement anyway. 

Several bridges led across the valley as you can see off in the distance here.
(Photo by Nathan Ziemanski on Unsplash)
 

Two miles later we emerged at the base of a 400-foot cliff with a waterfall cascading down the entire drop. You know that epic waterfall you envisioned in your head as a kid, and drew pictures of, maybe with the Pacific Blue colored Crayola, and then none of the ones you visited ever quite lived up to it, because they were only a few feet tall, or only had a small trickle of water? This was not the disappointing-but-still-pretty, real-life waterfall. This was the epic, cascade-down-hundreds-of-feet-of-steep-cliff waterfall you pictured as a kid. It was glorious. 

I did manage to capture a photo of Waimoku Falls on Fletch's phone, but it just doesn't do it justice. 


It was also odd to emerge two miles into the jungle and realize that 100 of our closest friends were already there. “Hey guys, you read about the epic waterfall in Maui to hike to as well? Guess they sent a memo out…”

Oh hey, people... 


Curse Instagram and technology for making magical places so easy to find. Blessings and curses. I guess without those same resources, we might not have been there either. And here I am using those resources to tell the world to check out this waterfall. Talk about a double edged sword…

We sat in awe for the better part of an hour. It kind of felt like that waterfall scene in Black Panther, where everyone is gathered on the sides of the cliff, mid waterfall, only instead of watching the crown get challenged in ritual combat, we got to watch several dudes' masculinity get challenged by Mother Nature. A few brave souls attempted to stand under the downpour of 400 feet worth of water for that Instagram shot. Even the toughest looking men could only stand for a handful of seconds, and not even under the full stream, before being crippled by the power of so much water slamming down on them.

I discovered that Fletch had brought his phone, and so did manage to snap a couple photos before confining it to the backpack again. I almost wish I hadn’t snagged those photos. No picture could ever do justice to 400 feet of water cascading down the side of a cliff. 

Top portion of Waimoku Falls. 


We made the hike back down, encouraging those headed upwards the same way we had been encouraged. Apparently it was the thing to do. Then we turned off the path just before camp and headed to the Seven Sacred Pools. 

Hiking back down the boardwalk through the bamboo forest...
(Photo by Madison Olling on Unsplash)


I wish I had a nice story about what made the seven pools sacred, but apparently it was just a marketing scheme back in the day to bring an epic but remote location to the attention of tourists. That plan obviously worked, because we got to share the beautiful, natural rock pools with 200 of our closest friends. Families were sunbathing on the rocks, children were jumping off the cliffs, grandmas were being escorted across the slippery parts; it looked like a beautiful Sunday afternoon at the park. You never would have known we were on an island in the middle of the Pacific, and a two-and-a-half-hour drive along a curvy mountain road from town. 

View of Seven Sacred Pools looking back towards the ocean.
(Photo by Zetong Li on Unsplash)


Back at camp we grilled cheese-stuffed mushrooms for dinner. Molly had brought ingredients to make s’mores, which made us all squee like excited children. She found us the perfect marshmallow roasting sticks, and we spent a satisfying half hour, huddled around the non-existent campfire, whittling our sticks down to sufficient points. I hadn’t had s’mores in ages, and now that I think about it, I don’t think I had ever enjoyed s’mores in the idyllic setting of a campsite. What a treat!

It was Saturday night, and the campsite filled up like it was the place to be on Maui that night. A mom and daughter were late to the party, and tried to wedge their tent in between Matt’s tent and the grill. It was a little too close for comfort, but what could we say? The campsite was packed. Luckily she realized before too long that people were still using the grill, and dragged her tent away in defeat, the same sort of defeat you see on shows when the character drags their chair out of the room.

As dusk turned to dark, several different groups seemed to be competing to have the most happening music. The group of girls in the middle of the campsite was winning with their rave beats and glow sticks. Winning that was, until it was interrupted with some weird hypnosis-type tracks that were speech tracks only - no music. Then the whole scene suddenly felt like the beginning of a horror movie where we were all about to get brainwashed and turn into zombies.

Remarkably, the whole crowd was very respectful and all noise came to a halt at 10:00 prompt, as if we were all observing an unspoken curfew. And so ended our day of beautiful nature, spiritual journeys, and lots of people. All in all, it was a magical experience. I always complain about there being too many people, but that’s never what I remember in retrospect. In retrospect, I’ll always think of a journey along one of the world’s most beautiful trails, complete with banyan trees, bamboo forests, and a waterfall that was nothing short of epic in the midst of it all. And best of all, sharing such a perfect day with the man I love and two amazing friends. 

Along the Road to Hana

A little bit of research into Maui would suggest that no trip is complete without a journey along the Road to Hana. Hana is not much more than a small community on the east-most coast of the island, and one of the most isolated communities in the state at that, but the road there is paved with some of the most epic scenery the US has to offer.

Our friend Matt suggested we go camping there. The internet suggested that camping out in an old-fashioned Westfalia was a rite of passage, but apparently booking a month in advance was not enough time to reserve an old dinosaur of a vehicle that might or might not break down on the curvy mountain roads. All of that was fine and well though, because it allowed me to find something much cooler.

Maui Camper Escapes has taken the idea of camper car conversions and applied it to one of the favorite vehicles on the island: the Jeep Wrangler. While an old Westy may be a nostalgic icon of the surfer bum days of the past, many of them now come with warning labels not to drive them to altitude. A Jeep is much better suited to your modern day adventures on those mountain roads that are miles away from the nearest cell phone signal. Plus you get to pretend you’re driving through Jurassic Park*.

*Not only was the original filmed in Hawaii, but the almost-opening scene where the main characters are flying into the park via helicopter, includes some scenery that is visible from the Road to Hana; so forgive my geeky dinosaur references the next few posts. 

Our Jeep camper from Maui Camper Escapes.


We picked up the Jeep from the business owner who set about showing us how to operate everything, from the pull-out awning to the pop-up tent. The jeep did not disappoint. Every little detail had been thought through. All of the power outlets had usb chargers, the dash had a cellphone mount, and the 5-gallon jug of water was already full. For a small extra fee, we rented a complete kitchen set, which had everything we could imagine needing: pots and pans, a grilling set, a dual burner stove and table to set it on (the table even had a hook to mount a lantern). There was also a cute, 4-person picnic table that folded up to about the size of a saxophone case. We were left wanting for nothing.

Kitchen set with stovetop.

This picnic table folds up to about the size of a saxophone case. We all thought that was a pretty cool magic trick. 


The afternoon was spent running around to Costco, Walmart, and Target, to pick up food for the trip. Having all three super centers in such small proximity was way too convenient for the kind of island life that we had become accustomed to living overseas.

Matt and his girlfriend Molly would not be able to join us until the end of the day, so we sat out in the backyard with Matt the evening before over a sandwich while he told us where we should go and what we should see before they joined us. He was sitting up in a director’s type of chair with his long hair and beard glowing in the moonlight, bearing an uncanny likeliness to Jesus guiding the way. He had just started telling us where to go for the best banana bread in his relaxed voice, when his roommate stormed outside in a flurry and started yelling at him to keep it down. It was quite humorous in retrospect, like a pot calling a teaspoon black.

The next morning we set out in the Jeep and began our adventure along the famed Road to Hana. We followed Matt’s instructions and stopped at Ho’opika first, hoping to see some more lazy turtles. There were no turtles, but we did see a field of cows grazing by the seaside. I’ve seen plenty of cows in my life of course, but never next to the shoreline. 

Cool lava rock formations at Ho'opika Beach, Maui.


Cow grazing by the seaside. 


Further along the road we searched for the rainbow eucalyptus trees that Matt had told us about. There weren’t any big signs that told us “this way to the trees” of course, but there were several spots along the road where numerous cars were pulled over to the side, seemingly for no reason. We slowed down at these spots to scope out the landscape for any signs of trees that weren’t your average brown bark and green leaves. And then just like that, there they were, with their rainbow tree trunks and branches in all their glory. They looked like they had been painted by Monet. They were magnificent. I never knew such beautiful things existed.

Rainbow eucalyptus trees along the Road to Hana. 

Did you know such beautiful things existed? 


We got out of the car to look for some plants in the area that supposedly closed when you touched them, according to Jesus Matt’s teachings the previous night anyway. Another couple was admiring the trees and we told them what we were looking for. They laughed and said maybe our friend had been seeing some trippy Alice in Wonderland things, but we were the ones looking at rainbow trees, so who was really having the Lewis Carroll adventure here?

Swinging from a rainbow eucalyptus tree. 


As we drove farther along, the road became narrower and the scenery became increasingly reminiscent of Jurassic Park. The greenery was so darn lush that I would like to formally take back every other time I’ve ever used that word, because despite living in the tropics for the better part of the past six years, I had no idea what “lush” meant until the Road to Hana. It was as if Mother Nature had decided to grow every form of green tropical plant along the mountainsides, and then drape it all in moss, and then have some ivy growing up everything, and then douse it in a final, blanket of green because why in the world not?

So it turns out this is what the top of a bamboo forest looks like...
(This photo is borrowed from TripAdvisor.)


As if the scenery weren’t epic enough, we rolled down the window to be greeted by the most intoxicating smells. Never mind all that nonsense about lushness, the smells were what made the Road to Hana out of this world. If you could imagine the fresh aromas inside a florist, and add some clean mountain air to that, and a slight sea breeze, and remove any hint of city, you’d have the Road to Hana. I’d buy that candle if it existed.

Admiring a random black sand beach we found down a dirt road.

Hawaii is home to many black sand beaches. 


Our next stop was in Ke'anae for banana bread at the famous Aunty Sandy’s. There were lots of fruit stands offering banana bread along the way, but apparently none of it could rival Aunty Sandy’s. We bought a loaf to split and it was warm and gooey and delicious; definitely the best banana bread I’d had in five years. I’ll even go so far as to say it was the best banana bread in the Western Hemisphere. But sorry Aunty Sandy, the gold still goes to Banana Bread Man (aka Donut Man) in Koh Tao.

Fletch, conducting the waves like an orchestra. 

Lanakila Ihiihi O Iehova O na Kaua Church next to Aunty Sandy's.


We continued the drive, and passed by more waterfalls than I could count. Some of them were clearly visible from the road as we drove past, some were merely hinted at by the clusters of abandoned cars pulled over on the side of the road, suggesting better sights were hiding a short walk into the forest.

One of many waterfalls along the side of the road.


It was growing late in the day, and so we decided to save the other sights for another time and find our campground. It turns out that arranging camping on Maui is a little more difficult than you might initially expect, given what a popular activity it is. You must use a designated campground unless you want angry locals knocking on your window in the middle of the night (according to everything I read anyway). The first campground along the Road to Hana is the YMCA, and requires an advance reservation. Apparently no one works there though, because I failed to get in touch to inquire about availability, and heard similar accounts from others.

Closer to the actual town of Hana you will find the Waiʻanapanapa State Park. This one also requires an advance reservation, and only has six designating slots for car camping. All six of these were completely booked up weeks in advance.

Finally there’s Kipahulu just past Hana, which allows you to purchase your permit upon arrival. Not only was this the only option, but it was Matt’s favorite spot to boot, so it all worked out well. If you are following Google Maps, don’t go all the way to the spot pinned on the map; that will lead you to a private church road. Turn off just before, where the signs for Haleakala State Park are.

We found ourselves a nice little nook towards the back of the lot. Molly and Matt arrived after dark, and we celebrated the summer solstice together by camping out under the stars. When Matt had moved his Tommy Bahama beach chair into the fully reclined position and the Truly consumption dwindled to a trickle, we finally said goodnight and floated up to the Jeeps' pop-up tent to find a surprisingly comfy and spacious bed. Even Fletch and all of his 6 feet of height couldn't complain about the space. We fell asleep to the sounds of waves rushing the shore in the distance, and other sleepy campers rustling around in their tents.

Stay tuned for an epic waterfall and even more Jurassic Park references...