Kona’s awesome manta ray night dive: Feeding mantas are remarkably acrobatic and capable of beautiful spins, twirls, and swoops. This is a great activity for divers traveling with non-diving friends or family since snorkelers have just as much fun!
Just in case the television reception in your cave is sub-par, the last year has been a wild ride for the rest of the world. Hawaii’s reaction to the pandemic was to require incoming visitors to quarantine for two weeks. While this has kept the number of COVID cases relatively low, the tourism-based economy has been slowly suffocating. As of October 15th, visitors who take two independent negative COVID tests will be allowed back into our island paradise without quarantine restrictions. To celebrate, I’d like to take a moment to remind you of Kona’s top five unique underwater photographic experiences that the rest of the world has been missing!
What follows is an unapologetic advertisement. I wasn’t paid by any businesses for this and I don’t really pay the bills through dive tourism. I am watching my town shrink. A few restaurants have shuttered their doors, some dive businesses have closed for good, and hard-working employees are starting to move away. The remaining businesses are open, and the people need our support. I don’t know about you, but I am getting antsy for travel. For most of the mainland, Hawaii is the closest you might get to international dive travel for a while. So why not stop by and have your favorite dive sites all to yourself?
1. Manta Ray Night Dive
Living in Kona, it is hard to imagine a diver that has never seen a manta ray. They sneak up on you during the most benign dives—usually from behind—and they never fail to take your breath away. At night, they are even more incredible. Most dive pros in Kona tell stories of that night where there were more mantas than water. Sure, there can be a lot of people underwater at once, but they are there because the experience is unique to Kona. With the crowd, the lighting, and beautiful “performers,” I prefer to think of it as more akin to a Vegas show than a natural phenomenon.
Don’t let the crowds chase you away! The manta ray night dive is the quintessential must-do for anyone visiting Kona
2. Unique Reef Systems
The Hawaiian Islands were created by violent volcanic activity in a remote stretch of ocean. The result is a reef system that is riddled with cooled lava tubes presenting a myriad compositional and lighting opportunities. And what better subjects than the unique biodiversity found throughout the chain? One-third of Hawaii’s fish species and a similar number of its mollusks are found nowhere else on Earth! With few visitors, the reef life has flourished, so common haunts like Honaunau, Crescent Beach, Hookena, and others are now more vibrant with noticeably more life.
Kona has a lot of secret spots. One of them, called “Touch of Gray,” is a gray reef shark nursery area. As many as 20 baby gray reef sharks can be found schooling under a natural arch. Keep your eyes up as this area is frequented by lots of other animals like mantas, whales, and schools of fish
The Kona Coast is dotted with caves and caverns that once served as plumbing to shuttle lava around. Now, these lava tubes create an endless number of opportunities for photographers looking to shoot wildlife, light rays, models, or just unique geologic formations
Baitfish called “akule” form giant schools at various locations up and down the coastline. These bait schools serve as a fun photographic opportunity themselves, but when other animals are hunting, or in this case simply interacting with the fish, the opportunities become even more fruitful
What visit to Hawaii is complete without a mention of green turtles? Sea turtles are almost guaranteed in places like Puako and Honaunau, where they can be found foraging or getting cleaned by yellow tangs
3. Tiger Sharks
Kona’s sharks are legendary, and the king of the reef is the tiger. Near certain harbors, Kona’s kitties can be commonly observed patrolling for discarded fish carcasses left by fishers. This is not an intentional shark-baiting situation, but instead a more organic encounter, so sometimes they are a shadow in the distance, and sometimes they are right behind you. When I stopped counting, we had identified over 20 different animals that foraged in the area. A few were relatively small at around eight feet long, but others easily top 14 feet long. The famous “Laverne” is so long and so round that she appears more like a submarine!
Wild, unfed tiger shark encounters range from a distant shape to a close encounter. They are far from a guarantee, but your first encounter with a tiger shark is one you won’t forget
4. Blue-Water Cruising
The idea is to find a boat with a good set of spotting eyes and head out into the expansive Pacific Ocean looking for some giant or wildly dangerous animal—and then jump in on snorkel with it. I’ve been here for a while now, and this is still my favorite thing to do on my days off. Encounters really depend on what is swimming past on a particular day, but the hit rate is incredible! Subjects range from tuna, mahi, oceanic whitetip sharks, pilot whales, beaked whales, or if you are incredibly lucky, whale sharks and even sperm whales. You never know what will show up, but if you are shooting anything but the widest lens in your collection, you will be disappointed.
One of the animals that has become easier to find in recent years is the oceanic whitetip shark. Unlike the reef-dwelling whitetips, oceanic whitetips are constantly swimming and can be overly nosey and even excitable around divers
During the late winter and spring, schools of female hammerheads can be found at select locations. The assumption is that they are thermoregulating and heating up during the midday sun, but the truth is that nobody knows for sure. Large schools offer the rare opportunity to get really close to this otherwise shy animal
This is every diver’s dream! 2019 was a huge year for whale sharks with some lucky swimmers being treated to two whale sharks at a time. Kona’s whale sharks are especially fun because they are often interactive and will stick around for hours. Combined with Kona’s legendary visibility, this is a wonderful photographic opportunity
5. Black Water
Kona is the birthplace of this now worldwide movement. The idea is to travel far offshore at night and drift dive over 3,000–6,000 feet of water. Unlike with blue-water cruising, where the goal is to find megafauna, black-water diving is more like a muck dive sans muck. Tiny, cryptic creatures abound, and they are joined by incredible predators such as squids, lanternfish, pelagic seahorses, and even dolphins! You will witness very strange animals interacting with other strange animals in ways that would surprise you. I’ve seen swordfish. I’ve seen an octopus on a seahorse’s head. I’ve seen two squids fighting over who gets to eat a third. Dragonfish, anglerfish, snake mackerel, squids with extendable necks—anything is possible! And every night, something new awaits.
The vast majority of the fish on the reef, in the midwater, and gamefish go through a larval dispersal phase that develops whilst drifting around the surface of the ocean—exactly where black-water divers go! They make for endlessly stunning photographic subjects. But when you start asking, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” they become an exploration of one of Earth’s last frontiers
Black water is designed to take you out of your comfort zone and show you something you’ve never seen—like this 20-inch-long diamond squid
About the Author: Jeff Milisen is an underwater photographer and biologist who has spent hundreds of hours drifting around the distant open ocean. His photos featuring black-water creatures from his home in Kona, Hawaii have won over 14 international awards. He is the author of the upcoming 288-page book, “A Field Guide to Blackwater Diving in Hawaii,” to help you identify over 250 different species of plankton and micronekton. The book is available for $19.99 from Mutual Publishing and at iphotograph.fish.
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