Story by Teya Penniman | Photography by the Cesere Brothers
“EVERYTHING OK?” MY SCUBA INSTRUCTOR ASKS.
“Yes,” I reply. “Why did I wait so long to explore this other world, when there are awesome dive spots a few fin kicks off Maui’s beaches? I am having an amazing experience!” Or at least that’s what I’m thinking, but suspect that the “O” formed by my thumb and forefinger has only conveyed “Okay,” in scuba language, in mirrored response to her silent, inquiring, “Okay?”
We are thirty feet down, some distance off Ulua Beach on Maui’s south shore and, by the air gauge on my tank, about halfway through my first-ever dive. I am following the extremely capable fins of Rachel Domingo, co-owner of Maui Dreams Dive, who knows this underwater landscape and its denizens like a second home. It’s billed as an introductory dive, so those who are curious or short on time can try diving without committing to the full certification process. After a short land-based orientation and demonstrated mastery of a few basic skills under water, I push to release air from my buoyancy control device and start sinking.
Our journey is slow and peaceful as Rachel introduces me to her world. She draws my attention to the shadowed pocket at the base of a coral-crusted rock: a two-foot whitetip reef shark stares back, unfazed by our bubbly inspection.
The head and neck of a moray eel protrude from a rock crevice. A row of sharp teeth lines the milky white mouth for which it’s named.
A green sea turtle has backed into a crevice and keeps an eye on our movement, slowly opening and closing its mouth. We keep a respectful distance, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Rachel is on a first-name basis with this individual and a few others on the reef.
She’s been sharing her enthusiasm for diving with Maui residents and visitors for the last ten years and it seems like a perfect match for a person as ebullient as the bubbles she sells. The orientation includes a basic vocabulary of underwater sign language. Rachel taps her shoulders twice, an in-house gesture lacking international recognition. It translates loosely as “Giggles.” It can be awfully hard to see a huge grin behind all that gear.
I had expected to be awed by closer looks at coralline gardens and mesmerized by colorful fish. I had imagined the joy of cruising under water without worrying about where my next breath was coming from. But I wasn’t ready for the shift in perspective that came from getting comfortable sitting on the sandy sea floor, an occasional pair of snorkeler’s legs on the surface the only evidence of that other world I inhabit. I couldn’t really comprehend how much life there is in the same waters I had blissfully traversed from above, only dimly aware of the riotous party going on below. This, I think, must be why people get hooked on diving; there’s so much to see when you slow down and look. And it’s not just simple identification—this fish or that coral—but weird adaptations, intriguing behaviors, unexpected relationships.
Not all is obvious. As friend and veteran diver Philip Thomas explains, “The more you look, the cooler it gets.” Philip can spend two hours at one rock. “The fish get used to you after awhile and start coming back.”
Rachel and I glide across a patch of open sand and I almost miss it: a four-inch green leaf marked with dark bars and white speckles undulates in place. It’s a dragon wrasse. I learn later that this wraithlike fish is a juvenile and, like most of the rest of us, will fill out as it ages and be practically unrecognizable as the same creature when it reaches adulthood.
An almost imperceptible mound in the coral rubble gives away the peacock flounder’s disguise. The developmental migration of one eye over the top of its head is key to its flattened shape, allowing it to blend in so well with its sandy blanket that unsuspecting prey don’t see this ambush predator until it’s too late.
It’s not all about competition on the reef. A scoop of sand the width of my hand is home to a fish-shrimp combo. The Hawaiian shrimp goby, a mere 2 ½-inch, patchy-sided fish, has taken up residence with a slightly smaller snapping shrimp. The almost-blind shrimp is busy with home maintenance—clearing out rubble from the entrance to their shared flat—while its bigger buddy stands guard. A twitch of the goby’s tail will signal the shrimp that danger is near, causing a dash to safety. Apparently, we pose no threat and the tiny crustacean labors on.
I discover that maintaining the desired depth takes a bit of practice and suspect that regular yoga practitioners would have a natural advantage. Several times I inexplicably find myself near the surface. “Exhale fully,” Rachel calmly instructs, using a small writing slate, and miraculously I descend again. I ease into slow, full breaths, getting used to the sucking sound of air in, and gurgly sound of air out. As I come close to the end of my tank, I’m ready to feel the sun’s warm rays, but I’m happily destined for another dive.
Three days later, I head out to the open waters on the Maui Diamond II, a dive boat operated by Rachel and her husband, Don. All but four of the sixteen guests are certified divers; the company provides tanks, gear if needed, and transportation to two dive spots, the first at Molokini islet. Our smaller group will be limited to snorkeling at this crescent-shaped volcanic cone. Only certified divers are allowed at the marine reserve, a restriction designed to protect this spectacular reef area from damage caused by people like me—inexperienced divers.
Molokini is justly renowned for its diverse reef habitat and marine life. The islet’s waters support more than 250 species of reef fish, 38 species of corals, and a hundred different algae species. Divers can explore the protected center reef, edge up to the inner rim, or drop off the steep back side to their personal depth limits—the outer wall plunges to 310 feet.
I wistfully watch as our dive group steps off the boat one by one into some of the clearest water in the state. On the plus side, it’s a lot easier to ask questions without a regulator in my mouth, and I badger our snorkeling guide, Chris Quarre, to tell me what I’ve just seen. My “life list” of eel species doubles when he points out a yellow-margin moray eel. As the divers return and are helped out of their gear, they query each other: Did you see the manta rays? The frogfish?
We anchor off Wailea Point and practice some basic dive-safety skills: tossing aside and retrieving our breathing regulators and removing water from our masks when we’re submerged. I am in awe of the young, East Coast couple in our group whose first and only snorkeling experience was our stop at Molokini. Less than an hour later they become the most recent entrants to the club, as our foursome trails our guide past Moorish idols, explores a jauntily decorated nudibranch (sea slug) and checks out a resting sea turtle.
It’s a different experience launching from a boat right into the ocean, and the morning is more social, especially given the high degree of crew camaraderie. I ask about favorite dive spots, and Quarre says, “The tourism agencies don’t do enough to promote Maui as a world-class dive destination. There is so much variety here.” Three dive sites, Molokini, Hulopo‘e on Lāna‘i, and ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u past Mākena, have legal prohibitions against collecting or fishing, helping to ensure healthy reefs for future generations to enjoy. Another favorite entry point for divers is Māliko Gulch; the wind- and wave-battered reefs on the north side support entirely different communities of marine life.
Want more variety? Try exploring the sunken ship Carthaginian in the waters off Lahaina, or strap on a headlamp for a night dive. “You get completely different species and behaviors at night,” Philip says. “Even the colors are different.”
I begin to wonder what kind of diver I will become—a contemplative observer or sprinting explorer. Either way, after two dives I’m ready for more. Plus, I’ve got the basic language down: “Okay!” Tap. Tap.