Sunday, November 7, 2010

Snorkeling with Seaquest

After about 20 minutes of sitting poolside (or lakeside) at any given resort, I need to explore. Hence the name of my blog. Anyway, said nervousness erupted at the Waikoloa Hilton on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and I needed to hit the ocean for some snorkeling. Annette recognized the signs and told me to hit the road and bring the big boys with me. A little snooping online produced a decent-looking operation, Seaquest, snorkeling and rafting adventures out of Kona. Price was OK, especially if you booked online (like $15 off per person) so it came to about $200 for the three of us. That was for the four-hour Deluxe Morning Adventure tour. That’s steeper than I like to spend on a half-day’s entertainment, but the tour offered great access to arguably the two top snorkeling destinations on Hawai’i: Kealakekua Bay and Honaunau Bay.

Boys and I took off around 6:45 a.m. so we could reach the operation south of Kona by 7:45 for the 8 a.m. launch. (We got there early.) Parking was odd, and the whole area felt a little seedy, but it ultimately was safe. A bunch of water-access operations are clustered along the same bay, so you’ll see lots of folks getting geared up for a day on the water. We covered ourselves in sunscreen (Logan was thrilled), then loaded onto a big inflatable raft with two 150-horse Yamaha four-stroke outboards. There was the three of us, a 30-something couple from O’ahu, and about 10 aging babyboomers. Logan offered a clever nugget as we boarded: “I think we’re with a bunch of old, rich people trying to finish up their bucket list.” Cripes, who’s he been hanging around?

Captain Steve eyed the boys somewhat warily as we exited the cove, then we cruised about a half-mile offshore and headed south along the Big Island’s west coast. Fun fact: We were immediately over deep water, like 1,000 feet plus, because there’s no continental shelf off Hawai’i. These are volcanic islands that rise off the sea floor rapidly, and the drop-off from the land is even steeper than the volcanoes on shore. Consequently, some of the greatest near-shore “deep-sea” fishing in the world exists right here off Kona. We could see several fishing boats a little father offshore.

Bouncing along, I could tell Logan was a little concerned about seasickness. He’d developed some airsickness during the five-hour flight from LAX, and this was on his mind. I encouraged both boys to monitor the horizon and breath deep, and they were fine. Calm seas didn’t hurt.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at Honaunau Bay, the so-called “Place of Refuge” among the Hawaiians. The history of this ancient safety zone, almost a purgatory for those who violated the Kapu laws, is fascinating. A national monument now, its history is available here.

Captain Steve smiled as my boys were the first ones in the water and took off snorkeling without any whining or direction. He apparently deals with a lot of kids who want no part of being on the water but are pushed into the “adventure” by their parents. Not a problem with the Drieslein lads. Snorkeling was very good, though to be honest I recall seeing a wider variety of colorful coral and fish during my dives in the Bahamas. I suspect these sites in Hawaii get pounded with snorkelers and divers so they’re not in the greatest of shape. Nonetheless, we kicked around admiring the brain coral and parrotfish for 30 minutes before Alec swallowed a little too much seawater. He’d also become a little spooked at the currents that pulled us toward some rocks a couple times. I pulled him away and brought him to the boat where Captain Steve, his terribly personable first mate, and several of the boomers who’d already returned fussed over him and stuffed him full of cookies and fresh fruit. Logan and I continued snorkeling until Captain Steve called us in. A couple times we swam through a group of fish nibbling on a piece of apple someone had thrown from the boat.

Firing up the raft, Steve then headed back north along the coast, swinging the craft into sea caves and lava tubes multiple times. Most had names I can’t remember and my photos don’t do them justice (lighting was tough.) You’ll see very few seabirds along the Hawaiian coast. There are few offshore islands for nesting, and a nest has virtually no chance on the main island because of the cats, rats, and mongoose. Very odd being on the ocean and seeing no seagulls.

Our second snorkeling destination, Kealakekua Bay, also has a fascinating history. Also on the National Register of Historic Places, Kealakekua Bay has a monument commemorating this as the location where Captain James Cook of the U.K. became the first European to discover the "Sandwich Islands" on January 17, 1779. Read about its history here.

To Seaquest and Captain Steve’s credit, they insisted that we avoid the rocks and not climb up to the monument. Feet and snorkeling equipment destroy the coral, and – even though they’re ultimately taking care of their cash cow – I give Seaquest credit for stressing ethics. The same could not be said for people renting kayaks on the far side of the bay, then paddling over and kicking the hell out of the site.

Diving was better here. A wider variety of fish and the coral was close-up, so close that we needed to be careful not to touch or kick it. I started diving down in some areas for a better view of sea urchins and other spiny critters (don’t touch!) hiding in the crevices of the coral. Both boys soon were testing their diving skills as well. They did great, going down 8-10 feet. Logan headed back to the raft about 10 minutes before last call, and Alec and I were the last ones to load.

A few more stops at some sea caves, and we returned to our launch site four hours after we’d left. Logan couldn’t believe how quickly the time had passed. Captain Steve complimented me on having great, non-whining kids. “No one cried,” he said. “That always means we’ve had a good day.” Then he qualified, “I don’t mean to suggest just your kids didn’t cry. You’d be surprised how many adults get upset on these trips.” I can see that. If you’re inexperienced with snorkeling, swallow a little water, get seasick, or maybe the whole jumping into the cold ocean thing overwhelms you, then yeah, someone might get emotional. We had no problem, however.

I’d highly recommend Seaquest as an efficient way to safely see two of the top snorkeling sights in all of the Hawaiian Islands. Send Cap’n Steve my regards.

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