One can’t fly all the way to Hawaii and not get in the water. High on our list of things to do on our vacation was snorkeling. Tropical fish, turtles, dolphins, eels, sharks, octopus, and even whales; the guidebooks (and the ad-laden tourist magazines) promised all. The Spyglass House, a bed and breakfast in Pa’ia that we had booked online for our first three days in Maui, had inviting waters right out front. While the lava rock entry appeared slightly intimidating, I had a hunch that the rocky shores would harbor more underwater life than your average sandy beach. The owner confirmed that the snorkeling was good, but only in the mornings before the wind kicked up. Great! I was already thinking about myself as Magnum P.I., swimming in the lagoon, Hawaiian beauties all around in desperate need of swimming lessons… Only problem was that we didn’t yet have any snorkeling gear. Didn’t seem like it would be much of a problem. Alamo had thrown in one of those tourist magazines with our rental car and there were only about a million ads for snorkeling and diving discounts. $7 a week to rent a mask and snorkel – with a free trip to Molokini crater thrown in for free (Note: For the purposes of this advertisement, free actually means that a $7 “ticketing fee” is required.) Or, $7 a week for two sets! Just come on down to Boss Frog’s! After flipping through the whole thing, the 2-for-1 deal seemed like our best bet. On our second day in Maui, Oksana and I drove to the other side of the island to check out one of their dive shops. We found it in a strip mall, entered, and did NOT fall for the old bait-and-switch. Yeah, those prices held up – if all you wanted was a truly awful mask. “Military style,” they called it, though I doubt any military has used that round-faced design since World War II. If you want a regular mask, with a “special silicone seal,” hey, you’re going to have to pay $20 a week. Want a better snorkel? $30/week. And the “free” Molokini trip? Only on Sundays. Plus, their discount coupons were day-specific, as well. Anything that would actually be convenient was full price, and definitely not mentioned in the magazine. The guy behind the counter tried to pitch different tour packages to us, but Oksana and I wouldn’t be rushed. We quizzed him for a good 15 minutes before deciding on a $50 Molokini tour on a small and fast “adventure” boat. Basically it was much smaller than the big catamarans that typically hauled tourists out to the crater (the ones with water slides, on-deck barbeques, etc) and typically only held about 15-20 people. As soon as we committed to that package, Counter Guy’s attitude changed. “You’re going to love this,” he confided, “You’ll be outside the circus looking in. Those big boats are a madhouse.” Gee, thanks. Might have mentioned that before, when we were still thinking about booking one of those “bargain fares.” With tickets in hand for a Thursday morning departure, we were ready to go. They would have happily provided us snorkeling gear for that particular day, but plenty of the beaches around Maui have off-shore snorkeling, too, and we wanted to sample it sooner rather than later. The gear bait-and-switch left a bad taste in my mouth (no hook, though), so instead of renting our gear, I suggested that we drive up to the Costco in Kahului to see if they have any deals. They did, $40 each for a full set of fins, mask, and snorkel. K-mart, right next door, had a wider selection and we skipped out of there with everything we needed for about $25 each. $5 more than a 1-week rental. Take that Boss Frog! The next morning, Oksana and I got up at 6am and took a look at the ocean in front of our room. Unfortunately, the trade winds woke up earlier still, and the water was already choppy. I wasn’t worried about the wave action pounding us into the rocks or anything, but rather that the sand that would be kicked up into the water. Snorkeling with low visibility pretty much sucks. We went back to sleep. Later that morning, though, while we were waiting to check out from our room, I decided to try out the new gear anyway. While Oksana shot some video from above on the lawn, I picked my way across the rocks and down into the water. After ten minutes or so, I only saw a handful of fish and some colorful seaweed. Not enough to drag Oksana in after me.
We left the Spyglass House that afternoon, without ever really having the opportunity to see underneath its waters. Fortunately, before we drove off, we met another couple from Arizona that was just wrapping up their time in Hawaii and had all sorts of recommendations for us – most of which, with their foreign Hawaiian names, went in one ear and out the other. We left the Spyglass House for our new place, a Kihei condo on the southwest side of Maui. Once checked in, we spotted a great map tacked to the wall that listed all the snorkeling and diving points of interest for the whole island. Many of them were right in the area, too. Having used up most of the day already, we only had time to scout out a likely snorkeling spot for the next morning. Our trusty map confided that, at the end of the road, a large bay with the strangely French-sounding name of “La Perouse” was a frequent hangout of spinner dolphins. Fair enough. We packed our cameras and drove on down. We actually drove too far down, because we missed the parking lot for the bay. Before long, we were meandering slowly through a residential area of expensive seaside homes (Speed bump; 5mph! No sight distance! Blind hill, single lane!) Realizing that we had probably gone too far, I pulled off into the sandy shoulder next to some lava rocks jutting into the sea. While Oksana and I sat in the car and consulted our maps, a minivan parked in front of us and ejected its picture-perfect, nuclear family contents. The kids immediately started climbing on the lava rocks and, a moment later, started pointing and shouting. We thought they were just excited about some colorful fish, but it turns out there were turtles in the water. We grabbed the cameras, locked the doors, and joined them on the slippery rocks. Sure enough, there were green sea turtles all around – at least four of them. Amazingly, they came right up to the shore, repeatedly, and literally right beneath our feet. I couldn’t quite tell if they were trying to eat the seaweed off the rocks – the wave action that close to shore tended to obscure them with frothy white bubbles – but they sure didn’t seem afraid of us. I got lots of shaky-cam video before Oksana and I departed, psyched about getting up early the next morning and swimming with turtles. Which we did, though it turned into an ordeal. We set the alarm for 5:45am, managed to get out of the condo right around 6:15am. Though we probably didn’t get back to the turtle spot before sunrise, we certainly arrived before the sun had cleared the mountain behind us. The water was rough, though, and Oksana didn’t think she could get into the water. I did my best to encourage her, trying to show her that the waves crashing into the lava rocks were much less powerful than they looked. Unfortunately, after donning her fins, her coordination faltered and she couldn’t convince herself to go for it. Frustrated, we decided to drive back to the La Perouse Bay beach access (we had found the parking lot on the return trip the previous afternoon). Perhaps there would be turtles there, too, accompanied by an easier entry. When we pulled in, there was only one other car, a new-model VW Bug, in a huge parking lot. Many signs, the first of their kind we’d seen, warned of frequent break-ins and cautioned us against leaving anything of value in our car. It was definitely the wrong day to have brought my digital SLR, miniDV camcorder, laptop, and all their related accessories along with us. I felt comfortable leaving them in the trunk when we could have kept an eye on the car from the water, but not in a parking lot set away from the beach. Oksana, feeling as though she was ruining our day, said that we could try the lava entry again – perhaps she could do it after all. We drove back, locked the car, and suited up on the rocks… just in time for her to, well… to chicken out again. Poor thing; I could tell she was almost ready to cry, and not because she wasn’t able to go snorkeling, but that I wouldn’t get in without her. She tried to convince me that I could go by myself while she sat in the car, but what fun would that have been? Back in the car, she broke the frustrated silence by suggesting that we continue driving down the residential road, just to see what was around the corner. It looked like more houses to me, and more importantly, no place to park, but I grudgingly admitted that there were no better options. Two turns down the beach, we passed a sign that announced the entrance to the Ahihi-Kina’u Natural Area Preserve. Another curve shortly after that was a protected bay with easy, if not sandy, water entries all around. Score one for Oksana! We found a parking space – one of the last – and, for the third time that morning, donned our fins, masks, and snorkels. We slid gracelessly into the water next to a couple from Tacoma that asked if we had snorkeled here before. We hadn’t, but they had. Without them, I’m not sure we would have found the turtles, 200 yards off the point, in deeper water.
It was instantly apparent that the snorkeling there was great, and also that Oksana’s equipment wasn’t. After 10 minutes of her playing catch up, constantly emptying water from the mask, we hauled her out on a tiny lava-rock island and examined the situation. Sure enough, the silicone on both sides of the mask had been bent over – it almost looked as though it had been melted. There was no way she could get a seal around her face; had I seen that before we had jumped in the water, we probably wouldn’t have even gotten this far. I traded masks with her and we swam back to shore.
We couldn’t both swim with only one good mask; the only thing to do was drive back to K-Mart and exchange Oksana’s. It was about 30 miles away, though, and with traffic in Maui, it would take quite a bit more than an hour to get there and back (especially considering that we had to drop off the camera bag back at our condo). With the wind scheduled to end the morning’s snorkeling at some undetermined time, we figured our day was already over. Still, we drove up to Kahului, exchanged the mask for a new one, and drove all the way back down to Ahihi-Kina’u, just for a look-see. When we got back, the water was choppier, but there were people snorkeling in it, so we figured it must still be worthwhile.
And it was. In the next hour or so, we saw plenty of tropical fish, various coral formations, and plenty of sea urchins. It would have been fairly average fare if not for the turtles resting on the bottom, protected by the colorful coral outcrops. Not many of them were active, but occasionally we’d find one swimming by and follow it for a few minutes. They didn’t seem to pay us much attention, and we were able to watch them surface, dive, and interact with one another. That alone made all our troubles worthwhile.
Not all of those troubles were forgotten after our swim. While cruising around in the water, I noticed that my fins were a little loose and the rubber was rubbing a bit up on my Achilles tendon. Sure enough, once I got out of the water, there were little flaps of skin hanging off of raw circles of pink skin. I don’t know if they had blistered first or if the skin had just been abraded away, but I can tell you that just looking at the injuries made them hurt even more. The big question was, would I be able to continue using my fins later? I tried, but shouldn’t have – more on that later. At any rate, we enjoyed that spot in Ahihi-Kina’u Preserve even more than the paid snorkeling tours we took to the Molokini Crater and to Turtle Town. On our last day in Hawaii, Oksana and I made a point to come back to it one last time. We were in the water for perhaps two hours that day and saw everything from sea cucumbers, schools of needlefish, puffer fish, and turtles from – literally – arm’s length. If it wasn’t for the cramped muscles in my neck (we’ll get to that later, too) and the threat of a major sunburn, we could have stayed in the water all day!