What is the world’s tallest mountain? Nope, it’s not Everest. In fact, measured from base to tip, Everest comes in at 29,000 feet, while Hawaii’s Mauna Kea rises up more than 32,000 feet. But you won’t see this massive Hawaiian mountain in the record books since more than half of its height is underwater. And that’s a good thing for underwater photographers.
The sudden, deep drop-off found on Hawaii’s Kona coast brings otherwise rare pelagics like manta rays, dolphins, whales, and sharks within a stone’s throw from shore. And the island chain’s isolation from the rest of the world is a beacon for endemic species and rare critters that simply cannot be found anywhere else.
The waters of Kona boast an array of endemic marine life such as this tiny Hawaiian spotted boxfish
Diving in Kona
The rugged appearance of the Kona coast continues into the underwater topography. On a geological time scale, the Island of Hawaii (aka the “big island”) is just a baby at a mere 500,000 years. The Hawaiian islands further northwest, such as Oahu and Kauai, are at least 4 million years old. As a result, you won’t find the lush soft coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific, but a combination of volcanic rock and hard coral growth. It truly feels like an underwater realm that should have existed in the Cretaceous era.
Kona's underwater topography features numerous tunnels, tubes and channels carved out over hundreds of thousands of years by lava flow
Top Dive Sites in Kona for Underwater Photography
The Manta Dive: This is the most iconic dive site on the Big Island—and perhaps in the world. When the sun sets, dozens of manta rays feed off plankton attracted to the lights provided by dive boats. There are few better manta ray encounters to be had on this blue planet.
Kona's manta night dive should be on the bucket list for any underwater photographer
Black Water Night Diving: For something completely different and otherworldly, diving at night over 10,000 feet provides encounters with the rarest of deep-sea critters. On a single dive you can see any alien species from the pelagic seahorse to juvenile flying fish.
Spinner Dolphins at Airport Beach: Although technically not a dive, snorkeling and freediving with the spinner dolphins that visit the old Airport Beach is a photographer’s dream. The pods make regular loops around the bay, making a reliable encounter almost guaranteed. Interactions with spinners and other dolphin species are found around the Kona coast.
Kona is a paradise for dolphin photography lovers, featuring resident populations of spinner, spotted and bottlenose dolphins
Where: Hawaii, USA
Time Zone: Hawaii-Aleutian Time Zone (UTC–10)
Water Temperature: 70–80°F (21–27°C)
Air Temperature: 70–85°F (21–29°C)
Visibility: 100+ feet on most dives
Diving Experience Level: While many of the reef dives and famous dives are suitable for beginners, other dives like the black water macro dive are for advanced divers
Photography Experience Level: While a beginner photographer will certainly come home with decent shots of endemic fish and the mantas, it will take an intermediate photographer to capture all Kona has to offer under the waves
It’s not just about the “big stuff” in Kona. Critter photographers will be pleased with the diversity of macro subjects, such as this longnose hawkfish
Underwater Photography in Kona
There is something for an underwater photographer of every ilk in the waters off the Kona coast, from massive manta rays to minute critters on the black water night dive. Here’s just a few photographic highlights from Kona.
- Dragon moray eels
- Longnose hawkfish
- Reefish (butterflyfish, sergeant majors, anthias)
- Endemic species: red lionfish, bandit angelfish, Potter’s angelfish, millesteed butterflyfish, psychedelic wrasse, redstripe pipefish
- Crazy critters on the Black Water Night Dive (seahorses, flying fish, jellyfish, etc)
Redstripe pipefish are just one of the many endemic species found in Kona. They can often be found in cracks and crevices, taking a keen eye to spot
Just when you thought Kona had it all, you stumble upon a less-expected frogfish camouflaged perfectly on the reef
- Manta rays (and lots of them!)
- Dolphins (spinner, bottlenose, and spotted are common)
- Sea turtles turtles (green and hawksbill are most common)
- Lava tubes and tunnels
- Pelagic rarities (oceanic whitetip sharks, whale sharks, pilot whales)
Green and hawksbill sea turtles are common sights in Kona. But a truly desired image is that of a green sea turtle being cleaned by butterflyfish
Bottlenose dolphins have been known to visit the popular manta night dive as well as hunt squid on the black water macro dive
Underwater Photography Equipment for Kona
Kona is one of those few destinations where you’re going to need every piece of gear at your disposal if you want to make the most out of the trip. From 20-foot-wide manta rays to 20mm pelagic critters, there’s plenty to shoot, but you need to have the right equipment.
Compact Camera Users: Using a compact camera in Kona will make interchangeable lens camera users crazy. They’ll have switched on a macro lens to photograph a rare, endemic pipefish, when that pilot whale comes swimming by the dive site. In that spirit, make sure to carry with both a fisheye wet lens and super-macro diopter on each dive.
DSLR Users: Having a diverse lens selection is key in Kona. In a single day, you can go from photographing fish portraits to lava landscapes to multiple manta rays to super macro critters.
- A fisheye lens is perfect for fitting multiple mantas in a single frame or photographing a diver swimming through a lava tube.
- Bringing along a wide-angle zoom is not a bad idea for more-distant, shy subjects like the sharks and dolphins. It’s also useful for capturing a cautious green turtle receiving a cleaning from butterflyfish.
- A mid focal length macro lens (50–60mm) is ideal for capturing fish portraits of the countless endemic species. It’s closer minimum focus distance is also ideal for the black water night dive.
- A longer focal length macro lens (100/105mm) comes in handy for the more timid, tiny critters like the redstripe pipefish.
A mid focal length macro lens (50–60mm) is perfect for capturing portraits of the many reef fish on Kona’s reefs
- A good focus light is a must on this trip, especially for the two famed night dives: The “manta madness” and the “black water macro dives.” The last thing you want to do is have to be using a dive torch in one hand to help your camera focus.
- Consider also a configuration that can be used more easily freediving, such as a fiber-optic connection, where strobes can be removed in just a second. This will be a lifesaver if a passing pod of dolphins or pilot whales comes swimming by and you want to be more streamlined at the surface.
- A large dome port can be used in select surface situations where you can incorporate the stunning form of the Big Island into whatever may be underwater (dolphins, sharks, etc).
Having a fiber-optic connection makes it easy to remove your strobes when a rare pelagic flies by, like this Cuvier’s beaked whale
You never know when you’ll stumble upon a humpback whale (or any other marine mammal) in Kona, so it’s important to have a streamlined system ready to get in the water with at a moment’s notice
Kona Underwater Photography Tips and Techniques
One of the things that makes diving in Kona so fantastic is that each subject and site is different from the last. You could make the argument that each dive you do as an underwater photographer is specialized to capture a specific subject or environment. With this in mind, here are some specific tips for individual dives and subjects you might find on a trip to Kona.
Photography Tips for Kona’s Manta Dives: Without question, Kona’s most famous dive offers even the most novice photographer the opportunity to capture an acceptable image of a manta. But there are a few tips you can use to separate your shots from the crowd:
- Keep strobes positioned as far from your port and angled outward as possible to avoid lighting up the backscatter produced by the myriad casual divers who visit the site on a daily basis.
- Incorporating multiple mantas into a single image will really bring home the message of just how unique this dive is.
- Shooting at a high shutter speed will help eliminate the “spotlight effect” of your focus or dive light on the mantas.
On the night dive, mantas are attracted to the plankton swirling around focus lights, which is why many photographers opt for more powerful focus lights to draw in the rays
Photographing Spinner Dolphins in Kona: It is possible to snorkel with resident spinner dolphins in the very same bay where the manta dive takes place. Keeping up with the spry spinners can be a task on its own, so it’s best to leave the bulky strobes back on the boat and streamline your system. Make sure to have your settings in place by the time the dolphins are coming your way so that all you have to do is freedive down and snap away. Since there’s no strobe light to freeze the fast dolphins, use a higher shutter speed (1/800s) coupled with a more open aperture and higher ISO.
For a more streamlined setup, leave the strobes on the boat and use fast shutter speeds to freeze the fast dolphins
Techniques for Black Water Macro Diving: Getting good shots of rare critters on this dive takes not only a little luck, but a lot of practice. It’s challenging to keep your composure floating in the black of the open ocean and trying to photograph tiny, translucent critters. Here are some top tips:
- Use a shorter focal length lens to expand the minimum focus range, giving you more time to focus and compose an image as the critter passes you.
- Manual focus is the way to go, as even the most advanced cameras struggle to focus in these conditions. Try focus bracketing, whereby you “lock” in a focus point and rapid fire as the subject comes into the frame, hoping one of the images is pin-sharp.
- Wear a wetsuit and hood: The water might be pretty warm, but those box jellyfish do pack a punch when they sting.
Your best chance for a pin-sharp image is to practice “focus bracketing,” where you take a series of images in rapid succession at the same focus point as the subject passes by
Ask the Experts: So much of having a successful dive (or trip) in Kona as a photographer is communicating with the divemaster. They will be able to tell you what endemic species or environment you may encounter on a given dive to help determine the best camera setup. They’ll also be your best shot at a quality encounter with a rarer pelagic species, such as oceanic whitetip sharks or pilot whales.
Planning an Underwater Photography Trip to Kona
When to Go: Kona is a year-round destination for underwater photography. However, water temperatures increase and conditions are calmer in the summer months (May–September). As well, the summer months offer increased sightings of pelagics like oceanic whitetips and hammerhead sharks.
How to Get There: There are many direct flights to Kona offered from the continental United States. However, if flying in from another country, Kona is just a short 30-minute flight from the state capital, Honolulu.
Entry Requirements: No requirements or passport needed for residents of the United States. Visitors from other countries will need a current passport.
Connectivity: There is widespread cell service and W-Fi in and around Kona. Since most of the diving is done within a mile of shore, you can expect to have cell and Internet service even on the dive boat or liveaboard.
Health Concerns and Vaccinations: No vaccinations are required for visiting Kona. The nearest recompression chamber is in Honolulu, Oahu, so it’s important to dive safe.
Where to Stay: If diving Kona land-based, there are countless hotels to meet any budget. The Royal Kona Resort is affordable and within walking distance of most dive shops and activities in town.
Who to Dive With: To maximize your underwater photography opportunities, we recommend diving via liveaboard with the Kona Aggressor. For land-based ocean excursions, make sure to visit the Kona tourism page.
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