The waters off the Kona Coast of the Big Island of Hawai’i are renowned by divers for their excellent visibility and the abundance of coral and marine life found just offshore. The possibilities for dives sites are endless, and it was very difficult to choose which five would make it onto this list. Here are our top picks (in no particular order):
1) Honaunau Bay
Location: South Kona, Next to Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park
Access: Shore or boat
This location is better known as “Two Step”, a popular South Kona snorkeling site. There is an abundant coral garden from 10 – 40 feet that extends several hundred yards offshore where even inexperienced snorkelers can see anything from yellow tang and triggerfish to green turtles, rays, octopuses and black tip reef sharks. Far fewer, however, venture beneath the surface to see what lies in the deeper north end of the bay. Sloping walls drop down into a horseshoe-shaped sandy bottom starting at 70 feet. Here divers may be treated to the sight of the elusive Tinker’s Butterflyfish or a pod of spinner dolphins overhead. Navigation is made simple by following along the curvature of the wall. On the south side of the bay divers can explore underwater architecture created by centuries-old lava flows from Mauna Loa. Water entry is a breeze thanks to the two-tiered lava formation from which the site gets its nickname. You can spend your surface interval relaxing on the beach or exploring the neighboring Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, home to a 400-year old place of refuge and the palace grounds of the chief of the ancient Honaunau Ahupua’a. Be sure to bring a dive buoy as fishing boats make use of a slip on the inside shore of the bay.
2) Manta Ray Night Dive
Location: Kona Coast
Access: Boat Only
This is possibly the only dive in Hawaii where you will be glad to don an extra-thick 8-millimeter wetsuit. Extra weight on your vest will make for a speedy descent to a sandy bottom at about 30 feet. It is here you will spend the next hour watching mantas glide overhead with effortless grace, illuminated and attracted by the spotlights of the boats above. Keep an eye out for Big Bertha, whose 16-foot wingspan will rival the length of some of the dive boats. The Night Manta Snorkel is one of the most popular activities in Kona, but you can avoid the crowds by slipping beneath the waves. The shallow depth and lack of movement make for a dive profile that will allow even inexperienced or infrequent divers to comfortably stay under for an hour, but the extended exposure will make you appreciate a boat with a hot shower for afterward. Local wisdom says that it is best to avoid this tour during the larger phases of the moon, since the ambient light draws plankton (and hence the mantas) elsewhere. Most dive operators keep a nightly manta sighting tally on their websites, so you can consult these and draw your own conclusions.
3) Crescent Beach
Location: Mouth of Honokohau Harbor, just north of Kona
Access: Shore or boat
The author was once surprised here to find that he had attracted the attention of all the other divers in his party, only to realize that they were actually awestruck by the 12-foot pregnant female tiger shark swimming by just twenty feet behind him. Such shark sightings are quite common at this site, likely due to the fact that inbound fishermen tend to dump their leftover chum directly above. On a serendipitous dive you may even experience a close encounter with Laverne, Kona’s most famous 14-foot tiger. Crescent beach is not, however, a barren prowling ground fit only for large predators. From just off the beach to depths of about 80 feet there exists a thriving marine ecosystem where you will find tropical reef fishes, nudibranchs, octopuses and eels living among the vibrant finger corals and lava architecture. Dolphins, turtles, rays, barracudas, black tips and tigers also frequent this area. Water entry is easy — once you have made it to the beach. Access to the entry point requires a 150-yard hike over rough lava terrain. It is highly recommended that you bring a buoy since you will be within the boat channel of a busy harbor.
4) Black Water Dive
Location: 2-3 miles off the Kona coast
Access: Boat only
Dangling off a tether 45 feet beneath a boat in 3,000 feet of water in pitch darkness is a place typically reserved for bait. If, however, you are the type of diver for whom this sounds like the epitome of fun, then the Black Water Dive is for you. On this dive you will venture far beyond the flourishing reefs of the Kona coast, beyond the point at which the shelf begins its steep descent to -18,000 feet, out into the pelagic abyss. Despite the fact that this may sound like the stuff of nightmares for some, most who embark on the Black Water Dive report it as a serene experience. Below the surface you and your fellow divers will float in a formless void and watch as archaic creatures drift by, momentarily illuminated by the beam of your dive light before slipping back into the inky darkness. This dive is a unique opportunity to view the nocturnal activities of larval stage marine creatures, as well as the occasional larger nighttime feeder. It is not for the inexperienced; dive outfits generally require you have at least 25 prior dives, including several night dives, before you will be allowed to participate. If you do meet the requirements and are interested in trying something a little off the deep end, it is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.
5) Four Mile
Location: Mile Marker 4 on Ali’i Drive, just south of Kailua-Kona
Access: Shore dive
The rocky bay across from Mile Marker 4 on Ali’i Drive is the entry point to a local-favorite dive site. It is important to consider conditions beforehand; if the water is surging and waves are breaking onshore it is unlikely you will be able to exit without receiving a few scrapes and bruises. If, however, the day is calm and you enter carefully, you will be treated to one of the most enjoyable dives of your trip. Visibility is excellent here on most days, but you may be too busy playing among the underwater architecture to notice what is going on around you. An excellent lava tube drop is just to the south of the entry point. When you do get around to viewing the marine life, you will find an array of reef fishes as well as eels, sea stars, crabs, conches, and occasional white tips. The reef stays relatively shallow, to about 40 feet, so you should have plenty of bottom time to explore. Exit the water the same way you entered: carefully!
All of these dives can easily be fit into a single trip and are no more than a short drive away from the Holualoa Inn, so there is no need to have to choose which will make your list. The reefs off the Kona coast are home to beauty that is as fragile as it is breathtaking. Please help us preserve it by leaving no trace. Do not touch the coral or marine creatures and do not leave anything behind. If you do wear sunscreen be sure that it is free of oxybenzone and other harmful chemicals. Mahalo for your kokua and enjoy your dives!