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Scuba in Hawaii, Made Safe and Easy
Tom Koppel - Click to Enlarge
Tom Koppel

A hideous green face locked eyes with mine, its jaws opening to display needle-sharp teeth.  The moray eel guarded its nook in the reef.  I hovered in shallow water and went no closer.  My dive companions were drifting away slowly on the current through muted sunlight and clouds of brilliantly colored tropical fishes.  A few vigorous kicks with my fins and I caught up as they swept along, flying weightlessly over a sea floor festooned with coral, sea urchins and algae.  We were exploring the exciting undersea world of sheltered Maunalua Bay, east of Honolulu, Hawaii.  And for most of the people in our small group it was the very first taste of scuba diving.

The day began at the Outrigger Waikiki hotel, where the introductory poolside lesson was free.  A dozen winter season visitors, ranging from teenagers to retirees, gathered to listen and decide whether they really dared to take the plunge.  Eric Weber, a youthful but confident teacher with a company called Aqua Zone, introduced us to the equipment and the principles of breathing compressed air under water.  I had taken an intensive four-day scuba course the year before, and had qualified for the certificate required to rent tanks and dive without an accompanying instructor.  But I had not been scuba diving since.  So, even for me, it was good to be reminded of the basics and to re-acquaint myself with the gear.  After a brief written quiz, Eric took us into the pool and drilled us in the use of mouthpieces and air regulators.  A few people gasped and sputtered, or found it hard to adjust to swimming with masks and fins.  Some decided not to continue. 

The rest of us piled into two vans and headed off for our open-water dives.  From a small yacht basin, a roomy dive boat took us out into the bay, where the skipper tied up to a mooring buoy.  Donning our wetsuits and tanks, we flopped into the water and tested the breathing apparatus.  When Eric gave the signal, we followed the mooring line down, pulling ourselves hand-over-hand while gulping to adjust our inner ears to the increasing pressure. 

The water was only 25 to 35 feet deep.  When we reached bottom, the shimmering surface—and our boat—were reassuringly visible just above us.  If we had problems breathing or clearing the pressure from our ears, we could reach the surface quickly and safely by exhaling slowly during the brief ascent. 

Eric herded the group together, checked that we all were breathing normally, and led us away among patches of sandy bottom and protruding heads of coral.  The fish species—fat spotted puffers, bright parrotfish, long needlefish and exotically shaped Moorish idols—were abundant and spectacular.  Dappled light produced a kaleidoscope of shifting shadows and subtle colors.  Several people snapped flash photos with disposable underwater cameras.  Even at this depth, the ocean swell sloshed and gurgled, generating intermittent surges and stirring up little dervishes of sea floor sediment.  Marveling at the sights and sounds, I lost track of time.  All too soon, Eric checked our air supply gauges and led us back to the mooring line, where we ascended to the boat. 

Everyone was exhilarated by the dive.  Bobbing in the warm sunshine, we high-fived each other, exchanged impressions and relaxed for brief snacks and drinks of juice or water.  The skipper moved the boat to a different buoy nearby and asked who wanted to go for a second dive.  One or two gave it a pass, but the rest of us were eager to strap on fresh tanks and go back down.

This time Eric led us straight to dens favored by one of the most fascinating animals that frequents the local waters.  He peeked under some overhanging rocks and waved us closer.  There, tucked in the shade with its head nearly retracted into its shell, was a green sea turtle about four feet long, an endangered (but now protected) species that often weighs over 1000 pounds.  When resting, they can remain underwater for two hours. 

Soon, another turtle emerged from behind a cliff, swimming slowly in our direction.  We let it pass and followed along, fluttering with our fins only 10 or 15 feet away from the huge beast.  It eyed us occasionally, but seemed unperturbed as it cruised gracefully through the tranquil undersea domain.  A couple of other turtles could be seen, but just barely, out at the very limit of visibility.  Heading back to the boat, we were again surrounded by vast schools of tropical fishes, but tagging along with the turtle would remain the high point of a very satisfying day. 

Several of my companions were now really hooked on scuba. One, a teenage boy from Texas, told his dad in no uncertain terms that, on their next seaside holiday, he wanted to take the full scuba certification course.  This would allow him to make much deeper dives.  As for me, I realized that I had no such ambitions.  In my qualifying course we had gone down 100 feet, where the light dims, colors nearly vanish, and it can be dangerous if anything goes wrong.  I was content to limit myself to the much safer and relaxing experience of these shallow-water beginner dives.  And happy just to spend a glorious afternoon now and then sharing the ocean with the fishes, turtles and other exotic creatures.

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Aqua Zone charges $ 89.00 for a boat outing with one dive, and $ 120.00 for two dives.  In Honolulu I stayed at the fine Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach hotel, .  The hotel offers combined accommodation and dive packages with Aqua Zone. For rates and further information, see

I flew to Honolulu with Harmony Airways, which offers excellent service between western Canada and Hawaii.  See

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I flew to Honolulu with Harmony Airways, which offers excellent service and fares to Hawaii from western Canada.

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Email: (TOM KOPPEL) 

Tom Koppel is Canadian freelance writer and author with more than 15 years of travel writing experience, including features in Travel Holiday, Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, Historic Traveler, Beautiful B.C., Western Living, Country Inns, Reader's Digest, Georgia Straight, Porthole, Islands etc. Tom is now working on his third book as well. (More about this writer.)


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