Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hawaii Guide: Shore Diving

Diving in Hawaii is expensive, so when we planned the trip, we planned for shore diving.  Shorediving.com had several sites listed, and the reviews sounded pretty good, so we made a reservation with Big Island Divers and picked up tanks and weights our first day.  Our first dive was at a site called 4 Mile Marker, which is right next to the 4 mile marker on Alii Drive.  The entry itself wasn't bad, but our navigational skills were pretty poor and there are supposedly awesome caves and swim throughs at this site, but we didn't find any of them.  The entry wasn't bad, but the current underwater picked up and started pushing us towards the shore. 
Just a little rocky.

After that, we tried to do the Old Airport, which was listed in every guidebook as a good shore dive.  When we mentioned it to the woman at the shop, she looked outside and said, "check the entry first, then decide if you can do it" because the entry gets really rough when the wind picks up.  We checked the entry and it looked okay, but by the time we got our gear on, the swell had picked up and I lost my footing and stepped on an urchin on the way in (I just got the last bit of the spine out last week).  Not wanting to repeat that experience, we decided to go to the harbor, which was supposedly protected.  Not only is the harbor protected, it involves a rocky lava pile to get to it.  Walking with all your gear over the loose lava rocks is challenging at best, but the entry was totally worth it - it was a very easy beach entry, no rocks.  However, we got lost in the harbor and wound up surfacing on the wrong side of the boat channel, which meant we then had to go back down and swim across.  We called our first day of shore diving a disappointment, but decided to try again. 

A lot rocky. This was taken from one of those giant boulders.

The next morning, we decided to try 4 Mile Marker again.  We had a dive plan, a depth plan, and followed the instructions to go to the left.  It was a nicer dive, but we wound up swimming back in about 12 feet of water and getting pushed very hard against the reef by the current.  Swimming out further to do a deeper dive didn't seem like an option, so I'm not sure what we should have done to make it better.

Once we got out of the water, swearing about the current and our general failures, I suggested we go to Two Step for the second dive.  Two Step was where I had done most of my dives when I was here with my family, and I knew the entry was easy and the dive was beautiful.  It was a long drive (30-40 minutes) down there and once we got there, I made a wrong turn (or rather, a failure to turn) and we wound up driving down a one lane road for four miles.  (I remembered the entrance not being part of the park, but you have to turn where the sign for the park is, and then make a right.)  After the dive, we went for a hike that our guidebook recommended where there are lava arches that look down on the water.  We planned to go to the park, but were pretty exhausted and wound up just driving home. 
Arches

The next day, we decided to go to the Airport again, but the entry still looked rough (and I was so freaked out by stepping on an urchin that I was chicken about it) and we wound up doing the harbor again.  That night we had the two tank manta ray dive with Big Island Divers and we got to see what we were missing by not doing boat dives.  The dive shop set up our gear for us, and then rinsed it at the end of the night.  They provided sandwiches, juice, and snacks, and helped us in and out of the water.  The dive guide found us all kinds of neat stuff underwater, which was just awesome, and overall, we both wound up deciding that in the future, we will boat dive.  The next day, we did a single tank dive at Two Step, and then we decided we didn't need to do a final day of diving.

What are the take-aways?
1. Boat dive.  It is worth the money to do fewer boat dives than more shore dives.  We probably could have gotten as much out of as few as 2 two tank morning charters and the manta ray night dive. 
2. Rent gear.  I was really shocked when I realized that Big Island Divers rents the same WSD BCD that I use (SeaQuest Diva) and that if you were on the boat, they rented you a dive computer free of charge.  We spent a lot of time stressing over the weight of our single checked bag, which had all of my gear in it, and I spent a lot of time cold because my wetsuit fit poorly due to recent weight loss.  I honestly think I would have been the same/better off if I had rented gear, and I would have been able to bring home a giant suitcase of Caramacs and Volcano wine.
3. If you do shore dive, don't go through a single shop - find tanks closer to where you are going to be diving, so you can swap them out between dives if you don't take two at once.  If you shore dive and you are not a regular rugged-terrain shore diver (that is, you have shore dived but only in Bonaire or places with a beach/pier entry and little to no surf, you do not have enough experience), this is my suggested schedule for shore dives:
Day 1: Rent 2 tanks, drive to Two-Step. Do the southern route first (early, so you can see dolphins), then the northern route.
Day 2: Dive the harbor, then hang at the beach for lunch and then catch a boat for the Manta Ray Night Dive.  Do the two-tank, it is worth more than the extra $10 it costs.  I'm going to write a whole separate post on the importance and value of the Manta Ray Night Dive.
Day 3: Dive 4 Mile Marker, but try to get a map first.  If you have a map, you might be able to figure out where the lava tubes and everything else are.  Then maybe check out one of the other sites reviewed on ShoreDiving.com like Kailua or Ke-ei (I think we did not do that one because it looked like the entry would not be good in our Crown Victoria.)
If you try to get in more than 3 days of shore diving, you are really gambling on the winds and the swell.  Puako and Mahukona are supposedly great, but they are pretty far north, so if you are going to do them, I would recommend staying up near Puako for a night and hitting them super-early.
You should also rent something with a hatchback.  We "sprang" for a midsize car and got upgraded to a Crown Vic, which had a trunk so deep we could dive in that.  This is impossible for shore diving.  Get a 4WD or at least a Nissan Versa, which seemed to be the most commonly rented hatchback at our rental car place.

The relative cost of shore diving is significantly cheaper than boat diving, but it isn't worth it. What you realize pretty quickly is that mostly locals shore dive - people who are just looking to get in a couple dives on a weekend.  There aren't maps of the dive sites readily available (although Big Island Divers had some, which were extremely helpful), and it's kind of dangerous to be on your own if you don't know the area.  The total cost for shore diving for two of us for five days was around $260.  The total cost of boat diving would have been something like $130 per person per day.  But since I think if we had done boat diving, we would have been satisfied with 3 two-tank charters, the relative expense would have been worth it to really enjoy our vacation - the first two days of shore diving were really stressful and also so exhausting that we just went home and ate cold pasta salad instead of walking around Kona and enjoying ourselves and vacationing. 

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