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   Dive the Volcano!

manta ray and lava
Manta rays and lava create lasting memories.

Wander past the shops on the Hawaiian Islands and you'll see T-shirts with many colorful and clever sayings. Pick "Dive the Volcano", the one with the mantas and the lava. That sums up our trip to Hawaii quite well.

In September 2003, we took two weeks to visit the big island of Hawaii. A week long dive trip on the Kona Aggressor, off the Kona coast, was sandwiched between a land tour of Hawaii before and a land tour of Oahu afterward. This was our first visit to the Hawaiian Islands.

Getting there

The volcano, the mantas, and the Kona Aggressor are all on the island of Hawaii, a short hop across the water from the international airport at Honolulu. It's easy to get to Honolulu from anywhere, as several airlines run low fare specials from many cities in the USA and the Orient. Hourly shuttles from there to Hawaii are available from two local airlines. Some airlines also fly international routes directly to Kona on the Big Island from the US, eliminating the shuttle.

The island of Hawaii is the youngest and largest of the archipelago which reaches 1400 miles to the northwest. Besides the 8 main islands the chain includes several atolls, the island of Midway and the Emperor Seamounts. Hawaii's active volcanoes are still adding a few hundred acres to the island area each day.

The live aboard dive trip was to depart Saturday night, so our Wednesday evening arrival allowed a few days to see the volcano, and take a local dive trip to the mantas.

Hilo, Kona, and the Volcano

Volcano Country
lava on the road
Lava cut the Chain of Craters Road.

It's a lifetime opportunity to actually see hot lava flowing from up close, so don't miss the chance.

The hot lava is best viewed after dark, by walking a mile or so to it across the older lava flows. You can safely get within a few feet of it. Spend the early part of the day doing a drive around Crater Rim Road in the national park. Visit the centers, stop at every overview. Walk to the crater rim and look over the edge. Take a late lunch, gather flashlights, gloves, and water, and head off to the red hot lava.

The latest eruption is dumping lava to the southeast, flowing at times all the way to the sea. Refer to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park website for daily updates on how much lava is flowing and where it can be seen. The flow in 2003 cut the Chain of Craters Road where it runs along the edge of the ocean, causing the ranger station to be moved over a mile back up the road. It will be a hike to where the hot lava is flowing, so you'll want to be parked and done with the walk across the cold lava before darkness arrives. Allow at least two hours for this walk after you are parked at the ranger station.

flowing lava
Lava flows freely down the mountain.

We recommend you don't stay in Hilo, the likely airport of entry from Honolulu. Hilo receives the most rainfall annually of any city in the US, so even the best kept accomodations are moldy, and the less expensive ones are worse. From Hilo it's only an hour drive to the little town of Volcano, where you can stay at one of the many accomodations in the area. It's close to the park, and you'll be glad it's nearby after your nighttime trip to the lava flow.

Volcano Guest House
The Guest House at Volcano offers pleasant accomodations near the park.

We stayed at the Volcano Guest House, a pleasant bed and breakfast located in the heart of the rainforest. Owners Bonnie Goodell and Alan Miller are friendly and helpful, have cottages and rooms to fit any family size, offer breakfast anytime of the day, and supply flashlights, gloves, and other useful items for the volcano trip to those of us who didn't know they needed them. They also have a reference library of books about local flora and fauna. Make sure you print the map to their location from the website, as you'll need it, and pat Maggie the dog for us when you visit.

 Dive with the Mantas!

If there is a single dive experience that should not be missed in Hawaii, it's the night time encounters with the manta rays. If you can only do one dive, do this one. If you only do two dives, do this one twice.

Other than a reliable location to find garden eels and an occasional manta flyby, Garden Eel Cove is a rather nondescript daytime site. Much of it is shallow and poorly decorated, with a rolldown over a small finger coral forest to a sand flat, where the garden eels are. But its geography makes it a natural plankton trap, and come nighttime, its complexion changes radically.

Manta ray
Manta rays zoom overhead on the night dive.

Strong lights are set out at night on the ocean floor, at a depth of about 40 feet. The lights aggregate the plankton and make them visible to the mantas. The mantas then swoop over the lights feeding on the plankton. Video lights, with their wide angles, are especially effective, and the mantas will zoom directly over the camera, providing spectecular video.

We did the dive with Jack's Diving Locker, a first rate organization that has been doing the manta encounter regularly for 13 years. They usually book a two tank dive to the site, using the twilight dive to orient the divers to the site, then the night dive for the actual manta enounter.

Keller Laros
Keller Laros, the Manta Man.

A particular treat was having Keller Laros as our guide when we dove with Jack's. Keller founded Manta Pacific Research Foundation, which has been researching mantas and educating the public on these magnificent creatures. Since 1991, Keller has named and logged over 70 different mantas that have shown up on the dives, and has a diary of over 2000 appearances. We had 5 mantas when we dove with Jack's, and one, Big Bertha, was there the night of the dive off the Aggressor. We used the identification photographs on the Manta Pacific website to identify the mantas in our video.

The Kona Aggressor II

The boat portion of the trip was from Saturday afternoon, September 27 to Saturday morning, October 4th, 2003, on board the Kona Aggressor II.

We boarded from the Kona harbor dock where we settled into the cabins, and set up our dive gear on the dive deck. It has 5 double cabins, each with bathroom and shower, and one quad cabin, for a total of 14 berths. Cabins were tight, and storage space is minimal.

Kona Aggressor II
Kona Aggressor II

The individual air conditioning in each room worked well, and spacious dining and lounge facilities made for easy living. The captain, Brian Stephenson, is a long time captain for the Aggressor fleet, with many years of experience in Hawaii. The boat was well run, we were well briefed, and he went out of his way to make sure we enjoyed our trip. All food and beverages are included in the price, and they do a a gourmet job with the meals. Despite 4-5 dives a day, with the food and constantly available snacks onboard we always seem to gain a few pounds on these trips.

Diving from the Kona Aggressor is directly off the boat. The diver's BC and regulator are rigged to a tank on a seat on the dive deck, with extra gear stored beneath the seat. Don the gear, head a few steps to the stern, put on fins, and jump in. Cameras are handed down to the diver in the water. Nothing could be easier. When the dive is over, return to the same seat. The tank is filled between dives, with either air or nitrox as required by the diver.

Due to the short length of the Kona Aggressor (85 feet) the dive deck is cramped, and the camera table is outright inadequate. Most cameras were taken to the rooms for between dive service.

The Diving

All photos contained in the following report and more can be found in larger editions in the underwater photos section at: Underwater Photos from Hawaii.

Surgeonfish abound at the upper water levels.

Hawaii is isolated in the central Pacific, with average water temperatures cooler than the Asian side of the ocean. It was 80F in late September. The hardier tropical species survive there, but none of the more fragile ones. Surgeonfish abound at all levels, with the ubiquitous yellow tang seemingly the national fish. Several species of butterfly fish graze the algae and coral fields. Hawkfish sit atop coral and rock formations, looking for the next meal. Small schools of goatfish, grunts, and moorish idols wander about, providing photo opportunities.

Hawaii bedrock is volcano generated basalt, which rises steeply up from depths of nearly 18000 feet. This steep coastline and year round oceanic surge make for several marine habitats. Just off the beach, the surge zone offers little in the way of growth or sea life, but many photo opportunities as the blue water breaks over the rocks. This surge can also create undercut ledges where turtles and white tip sharks can be found.

Below this zone, three species of hard coral fight for space, covering virtually every square foot.

The surge zone
Little can hang on in the surge zone.

Cauliflower, lobe, and finger coral
Cauliflower, lobe, and finger coral abound.

The water temperature ranges in Hawaii aren't condusive to optimum coral growth, so no soft coral is found. However, hard coral is everywhere below the surge zone.

Cauliflower coral needs bright sunlight and thrives in high wave action, so it dominates the shallows just below the surge. Lobe coral shows up at the next depth, and forests of the more fragile finger coral grows safely below the wave action. If local wave action isn't too severe, all three coral species can be found in the same photo, with many small tropicals browsing their habitat.

The coral growth makes for a diverse fish habitat. Large peacock grouper can be found at frequent cleaning stations, and several species of moray eels peer out from the cover. The sandy areas between the corals hold garden eels and peacock flounder, and beneath the many ledges are squirrelfish and blackbar soldier fish.

The randomness of the original lava flows and wave and surge action have created unique arches and lava tube swim thrus for the diver to explore.

lava tube
Several reefs have lava tube swim thrus.
 Turtle Pinnacles
green turtle
Turtles can be found in several of the sites.

Turtle Pinnacles is a good example of the layers of coral inhabiting Hawaii's shoreline. The tops of the pinnacles, rising abruptly to within 20 feet of the surface, are overgrown with encrusting sponges and algae. One of these pinnacles is a turtle cleaning station, and turtles frequent the area.

Large expanses of lobe coral provide peacock grouper with cleaning stations and several species of moray eels peek out from below it. Ornate, Longsnout, and Raccoon Butterfly fish browse over it.

 Manuka Bay

This site is a wide protected bay of lava fingers covered with encrusting corals. Its location on the coast gives this site very high visibility most of the time. There are many arches to swim through, and the sand canyons between them have grunts, goatfish, and peacock flounder. Other residents include frogfish, flame angels, and trumpetfish. Toward the deep dropoff is a wide sand flat with garden eels, and a school of sennets circling overhead. By anchoring in a central location, the Aggressor gets 5 dives on this site, including the night dive, as divers can explore in a different direction on each dive.

alligator eel
An alligator eel waits on prey.

A large pod of dolphins frolic in the bay.

Manuka Bay is frequented by a pod of spinner dolphins. During our stay there, they remained all day long. Pam got to snorkel and video them between dives on two different occasions, and got nearly an hour of video. They seem unaffected by the snorklers, and at times swam by to have a look.

The night dives are awesome on this site, with an abundance of invertebrates including Spanish dancers, coral shrimp, and crabs.

Wall's Wall

This is a vertical wall starting at 45 feet and dropping to 100-150 feet. There are lots of moray eels, an occasional octopus, and the rarer pyramid and Thompson butterfly fish. When on a wall, always look out over the depths, as big pelagics can sometimes be seen. This site produced a manta flyby during the day dives.

The surge zone of this site has a very good photo opportunity of the waves breaking over a pinnacle. Just a touch of strobe on the rocks, to bring out the color, and wait for the right wave to crash for the desired effect.

An octopus hunts the boulder zone.
bicolored anthias
A bicolored anthias darts out from cover.

Ladders is named for the rope/wooden ladders dropping over the cliffs to water's edge. This site is mostly enormous boulders, as big as automobiles, with tight passages beneath, where many morays can be found. It has little coral and poor marine growth. We did find several bicolored anthias here, a rare fish in Hawaii. Also found were the rather skittish flame angels, not shown here because of their tendency to elude the camera with maddening regularity.

The delapidated ladders reaching down the cliffs look to have not been used in years, but some time in the recent past local fishermen had strung a net across an entire reef to catch anything that happened by. This now abandoned net was fouled across the boulders, with several live crabs and morays entangled, and others dead in its folds. We set about freeing them, and after several shuttles back to the boat for more tools or air, everything was back to its natural state. The still living victims were returned safely to freedom and the net was removed.

xanthid crab rescue
An xanthid crab is rescued from a net.
 Black Coral Forest
rope coral goby
This goby lives only on rope coral.

The mooring is to a pinnacle at 50 feet, over a sand chute. Dropping south and west down a lava finger to 90 feet finds the first black coral tree. This solo bush held the only longnose hawkfish of the week. Continuing deeper down the finger, another group of black coral trees appears. On the way down and back, several large schools of raccoon butterfly fish browsed the coral, and several different species of morays were present, including the viper moray. When working back up to the shallows, keep an eye peeled out into the deep. We spotted a hammerhead patrolling the area there.

 Stoney Mesas

Four large bommies rise from 65 to 25 feet, almost like buildings crowded together in a village. Titan scorpion fish, turtles and wire coral with gobies were present. There is a large, heavy duty cargo net caught on the south side of the last bommie. It can make a good wide angle photo opportunity if the sun angle is right. We spent half an hour in the coral plain south and west of the bommies trying to video and photo a juvenile rockfish. We had only modest success, as the little critter is a nonstop hyper motion machine.

leaf scorpionfish
A leaf scorpionfish waits on a meal.
 The Hive
A red frogfish clings to the Hive.

The prominent feature of this reef is a large bommie, rising from 65 to 30 feet, and covered with fairly active chromis making it resemble a swarm of bees. On our two dives there, a red frogfish waited patiently on the side of the bommie as each diver took several pictures. The swarm of divers hovering around the Hive waiting their turn looked more like vultures than bees, but patience prevailed and everyone got their photos. The surge zone has some well developed caverns, and we found turtles in several places. Below 70 feet is nondescript tumble downs of broken coral, so stay shallow most of this dive.

 Paradise Pinnacle

This site is a large bommie rising from depths of about 90 feet to within 30 feet of the surface. The base of the pinnacle is black sand, formed by waves grinding the black basalt to fine sand. A deeper, white sand flat holds garden eels. Hairy hermit crabs and the Hawaiian lionfish can be found in the rocks. Some divers found a crocodile eel in the sand, and cleaner shrimp can be found in several places.

Several species of flatworms frequent the rocks on all the dive sites, and present easy photo opportunities for the observant diver.

orangerimmed flatworm
Colorful flatworms are common on the reefs.
 Rob's Reef
closing anemone
Ghost coral shrimp live on the ceilings and walls.

This site has two pinnacles, some caverns with turtles, and lots of the usual stuff, but will be forever remembered for the suicidal decorator crabs on the night dive. Decorator crabs tend to come out at night to hunt the ocean floor, but scramble rapidly away in a haphazard fashion when approached. They pay little attention to where they are going. Pam was videoing one as it fled across the pinnacle, only to find it leapt off a 30 foot ledge and plunged into the depths. The video follows it as it disappears downward into the darkness. Fortunately, it is nearly buoyant, so landed without mishap and continued on.


A hammerhead, a playful turtle, and two long lava tube swim thrus mark the Ampitheater, the last dive of our week. Just off the boulder strewn coastline it drops abruptly over into the abyss, so the first divers in the water may see hammerheads, or eagle or manta rays. Much of the dive will be done in shallow water, as the coastal ledge is barely below the surface. Blind canyons and two tube swim thrus add to the topography. Large schools of blackbar soldierfish hide beneath the undercuts, and another resident frogfish filled out the resident list.

longnose butterfly
Brown longnosed butterflyfish
are rare outside Hawaii.
Dive the Volcano!

With the limited list of tropical fish and invertebrates, one might tend to forego diving in Hawaii and keep flying west. But the diving is really easy, warm, convenient, and there's always enough different marine life to keep you interested. The nighttime manta ray dive at Garden Eel Cove is world class. Nowhere else in the world can they be as easily and reliably accessed. Volcanos? Where else can you step off a jetliner, rent a car, and be walking beside flowing lava an hour later? Next time you have a few days to spare and need something to do, dive the volcano.