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.


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.