A Guide to Diving on the Big Island

Diver with scorpionfish Hawaii Big Island

Whether you have never tried scuba before or you are a seasoned diver, Hawaii has something for everyone and Kona offers some of the best scuba diving in the islands.

At approximately 900,000 years old, the Big Island is the youngest in the Hawaiian Island chain and has amazing lava structures both on land and below the water. These formations can include arches, lava tubes, canyons and more. This lava substrate creates the perfect environment for coral to settle and establish reefs which provide shelter and food for a host of marine organisms.

The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated archipelago in the world, and more than 25 percent of the marine life is unique to the islands (the highest rate of endemism in the world!). If this is your first time to the islands, you may see some new underwater faces.

Hawaii offers an abundance of reef animals such as green sea turtles, butterflyfish, eels, wrasse, surgeonfish, parrotfish and puffers. Seafloor drop-offs are often close to shore, which provides opportunities for lucky divers to see dolphins, sharks, mantas, or eagle rays cruising by. Divers with a keen eye also have a chance to find camouflage predators like scorpionfish, frogfish, and octopus. If you’re here between December and April, you may even see the spouts and flukes of humpback whales.

Octopus on coral Hawaii Big Island

Shore Diving or Boat Diving?

The Kona Coast has a variety of dive sites in the local range, but because much of the coastline is composed of sharp lava rock, entry and exit points can be hard to access.  As such, boat diving is highly recommended on the Big Island as it will provide access to many more dive sites without the need for a long trudge with dive gear over unforgiving lava rock.

However, if you have a dive buddy, navigation skills, an adventurous spirit, and agreeable ocean conditions, there are some great dive sites that can be accessed from shore. Ocean conditions may prohibit access to certain dive sites during particular times of year (especially during big swells). Get seasonal recommendations from a local dive shop about where to go and current conditions, but conduct your own thorough assessment before attempting any dive. Be sure to wear dive booties and open-heel fins (full-foot fins are fine for boat diving) to protect your feet from lava rock and urchins. Full wetsuits are also highly recommended as temperatures in Hawaii are colder than most people expect (ranges from 72-80 ° F depending on the time of year).

Choosing Your Dive Itinerary

Kona has so many dives to choose from, it may be difficult to decide what to do during your stay. These two dives are not to be missed:

  • Manta Ray Night Dive: Kona is one of the few places in the world where divers (or snorkelers) can be in the water at night with manta rays. Manta rays are gentle giants with no stingers, barbs, or teeth. On some nights, mantas may come quite close to divers and snorkelers, whooshing overhead or barrel-rolling underneath as they feed on plankton. This dive is open to snorkelers and certified divers of all experience levels, but if you are a newer diver or it has been a few years since your last dive, a day-time refresher is  recommended prior to the Manta Ray Night Dive.
  • Black Water Dive: A dive unlike any other. This charter leaves after dark and takes you a few miles offshore into water +3,000 ft. deep. You will be tethered to the boat as you drift below the surface and spotlights will be turned on to attract pelagic marine life. A wonder to behold, creatures that spend their day in the deep come to the surface at night to find food. Critters may include transparent larval fish and invertebrates, jellyfish, siphonophores and even cephalopods such as octopus or squid. Seasoned guides for these dives still see new, exciting, and even undescribed animals. Due to the advanced nature of this dive, most operators require a minimum number of logged dives, recent experience, and excellent buoyancy skills to participate.
Manta ray in the ocean off Big Island

Choosing a Dive Company

When choosing a dive boat, there are several operators to choose from. Most go to the same dive sites and offer similar underwater experiences for comparable cost. For operators with fewer people on their boats and an emphasis on customer service, Kona Diving Company and Pacific Rim Divers have smaller boats (max 6-12 divers) with smaller diver-to-guide ratios (max 5-6 divers per group). For more spacious boats, Kona Honu Divers and Manta Ray Dives Hawaii have room to spread out and the stability of a larger boat can be better for people prone to motion sickness. Jack’s Diving Locker and Big Island Divers are the biggest shops in town with the most boats and generally the most availability if you’re booking last-minute, though prior reservations are always recommended.

If You’re Not Already Certified

Scuba diving is an extreme sport and requires training and skill to do safely. If you are a confident swimmer, have already tried snorkeling and are interested in learning to scuba dive, there are two options:

1.) Get Certified

Open Water Diver Certification involves taking a class with an accredited agency (PADI is the most accessible) and covers dive theory, skills training in a pool, and in-ocean practice with an instructor. This process takes a minimum of 4 days, but with planning, portions of it can be completed at home prior to your trip to Hawaii. Costs vary, but you can easily anticipate +$1,000 for student materials and training. Open Water certification is available at most dive shops in Kona, but reservations should be made well in advance.

2.) Do an Introductory Dive

If you want to try diving without investing a ton of time and money for certification, you can do what is called Discover Scuba Diving. This allows you to try scuba diving on a shallow reef under the constant supervision of an accredited instructor, without any prior coursework. Costs vary, but anticipate ~$250-300 for guide, gear, and boat charter.

Whether you’re new the islands or coming back again, there’s always wonderful sights to see above and below the water in Kona! Contact concierge@holualoainn.com for assistance in planning your Big Island adventure.