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The Big Island's underwater world is the setting for a dramatic diving experience. With generally calm waters, vibrant coral reefs and rock formations, and plunging underwater drop-offs, the Kona and Kohala coasts provide some great scuba diving. There are also some good dive locations in east Hawaii, not far from the Hilo area. Divers will find much to occupy their time, including marine reserves teeming with unique Hawaiian reef fish, Hawaiian green sea turtles, an occasional and rare Hawaiian monk seal, and even some playful Hawaiian spinner dolphins. On special night dives to see manta rays, divers descend with bright underwater lights that attract plankton, which in turn attracts these otherworldly creatures. The best spots to dive are listed in order from north to south; all are on the west coast.
Puako. Just south of Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area is Puako, which offers easy entry to some fine reef diving. Deep chasms, sea caves, and rock arches abound with varied marine life. Puako Rd., off Hwy. 19, Kohala Coast, HI, 96743.
Pawai Bay Marine Preserve. Clear waters, abundant reef life, and interesting coral formations make Pawai Bay Marine Preserve ideal for diving. Explore sea caves, arches and rock formations. Located one half mile north of Old Airport, it can be busy with snorkel boats, but is an easy dive spot. Kuakini Hwy., north of Old Kona Airport Beach Park, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740.
Manta Village. One of Kona's best night-dive spots is Manta Village. Booking with a night-dive operator is required for the short boat ride to the area. If you're a diving or snorkeling fanatic, it's well worth it to experience manta rays drawn by the lights of the hotel property. If night swimming isn't your cup of tea you can catch a glimpse of the majestic creatures from the Sheraton Keauhou's deck as well. Off Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort & Spa, 78-128 Ehukai St., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740.
Garden Eel Cove. A great spot to see manta rays is Garden Eel Cove. At this site you're also likely to spot hundreds of tiny garden eels darting out from their sandy homes, as well as manta rays somersaulting overhead as they feast on a plankton supper. There's a steep drop-off and lots of marine life. Rte. 19, near Kona International Airport, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740.
Equipment, Lessons and Tours
There are quite a few good dive shops on the Kona Coast. Most are happy to take on all customers, but a few focus on specific types of trips. Trip prices vary, depending on whether you're already certified and whether you're diving from a boat or from shore. Instruction with PADI, SDI, or TDI certification in three to five days costs $600-$850. Most instructors rent out dive equipment and snorkel gear, as well as underwater cameras. A few organize otherworldly manta ray dives at night or whale-watching cruises in season.
Jack's Diving Locker. The best place for novice and intermediate divers, Jack's Diving Locker has trained and certified tens of thousands of divers since opening in 1981. This large operation offers classrooms and a dive pool for instruction. The company has four boats that can accommodate 10 to 24 divers. Visiting more than 60 established dive sites along the Kona coast, Jack's has plenty to offer, whether you want to see turtles, manta rays, garden eels, or schools of barracuda. They do a good job looking out for customers while protecting the coral reef. Daytime rates are $55 for snorkelers, $125 for divers. Sunset/Night manta ray dives are $125 for snorkelers, $145 for divers. Charters for whale and dolphin watching for minimum four passengers are $125 per person, while snorkel-only manta charters cost $95 per person.
Kona's best deal for scuba newbies is Jack's two-part introductory dive from Kailua Pier. It costs $85, including pool instruction. 75-5813 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. PHONE: 808/329-7585 or 800/345-4807. www.jacksdivinglocker.com.
Torpedo Tours. Mike and Nikki Milligan specialize in small groups, which means you'll spend more time diving and less time hanging out on the boat waiting to dive. Morning excursions featuring two-tank dives run $110 ($79 for snorkeling). Boat snorkelers and divers can try out the namesake torpedo scooters for $30. The scooters allow you to cover more ground with less kicking. Honokohau Harbor, 74-425 Kealakehe Pkwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. PHONE: 808/938-0405. www.torpedotours.com.
Ocean Eco Tours and Harbor Dive Center. This eco-friendly outfit is eager to share a wealth of knowledge with beginners and advanced divers. It's close to a number of good reefs and other prime underwater locations. Divers and snorkelers head out on one of two 30-foot crafts. Excursions start at $129 for a four-hour daytime dive or for a nighttime dive to spot manta rays. The PADI open-water certification classes can be completed in three to four days for $650. Seasonal whale-watch tours are $95. Honokohau Harbor, 74-425 Kealakehe Pkwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. PHONE: 808/324-7873 or 808/331-2121. www.oceanecotours.com.
Nautilus Dive Center. Across from Hilo Bay, Nautilus Dive Center is the oldest and most experienced dive shop on the island. It offers a broad range of services for both beginners and experienced divers. Owner Bill De Rooy has been diving around the Big Island for 30 years, and can provide you with underwater maps and show you the best dive spots in Hilo. He also provides PADI instruction and likes to repair gear. Dive-equipment rentals start at $35 per day. 382 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo, HI, 96720. PHONE: 808/935-6939. www.nautilusdivehilo.com.
Kohala Divers. The Kohala Coast's lava caves, vibrant coral reefs, and interesting smaller critters make it a great diving destination. Kohala Divers is a full-service PADI dive shop that has been certifying divers since 1984. A one-day intro dive course that will have you in the ocean the same day costs $204 per person. Full certification over four days is $595. The company also rents quality equipment and takes divers to the best diving spots. A two-tank dive is $129, plus $30 for your gear. Night dives are $139. Seasonal whale-watch tours are $75. Kawaihae Shopping Center, Hwy. 270, Kamuela, HI, 96743. PHONE: 808/882-7774. www.kohaladivers.com.