Mark Twain once described Hawaii as the “loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.” Many seasoned world travelers are quick to confirm Twain’s description. From land, sea, air, and underwater, Hawaii presents one jaw-dropping view after another. The archipelago is varied, rugged yet inviting, lush, elegant, colorful and majestic. From flat calm azure seas to towering waves and crashing surf, from sandy beaches filled with palm trees to snow-capped peaks, from lush forests to expansive open fields, from near barren lava beds to stunningly beautiful flower fields and waterfalls, and from cloudless skies to double rainbows, Hawaii’s sights, sounds and fragrances are unique and unforgettable. And then, there is the diving!

I have been fortunate to make almost 20 trips to the islands. As a result, I have become familiar with the various islands, their history, and the diving. This article is the first in an ongoing series about our distant Pacific neighbors.


The Land and Climate

Hawaii is the northern point of a vast triangle of Pacific Ocean Islands known as Polynesia. The other two points are Easter Island and New Zealand. The Hawaiian archipelago lies within the tropics in the central portion of the Pacific Ocean about 2,396 miles southwest of San Francisco.

The landmass of the 132 islands in the Hawaiian archipelago consists of eight main islands and 124 islets. The island of Hawaii, often referred to as “the Big Island” is the largest and geologically youngest of the major islands. Heading northwest from the Big Island, the other major islands are Kahoolawe, Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu (home of Honolulu), Kauai and Niihau. As the crow flies, Hawaii stretches for approximately 1,523 miles, making it the world’s longest island chain. The state encompasses 10,932 square miles. Approximately 41 percent of that area is water.

Any discussion about the geology of Hawaii centers on volcanoes. The islands are the peaks of massive shield volcanoes that formed during the past 6 million years. While that might sound like a long time ago, in terms of geological time the islands are relatively young. In fact, the 15 volcanoes that comprise the eight main Hawaiian Islands are the youngest in a chain of approximately 125 volcanoes that stretch for roughly 3,600 miles across the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Muana Loa and Kilauea, both on the Big Island, continue to add to the island’s landmass.

The peak of Mauna Kea, also on Hawaii, rises to an astonishing height of 33,476 feet above the floor of the Pacific Ocean, making it the tallest mountain on Earth. When measured from base to peak, Mauna Kea eclipses Mount Everest by more than 4,000 feet.

Surprising to many, Hawaii is home to one of the more concentrated collections of ecosystems and climates on Earth, with sandy and rocky beaches, coastal deserts, snow-capped peaks, lush rain forests, alpine lakes and some of the wettest spots on the planet.

Many species of marine animals that occur in other parts of the tropical Pacific are absent from Hawaiian waters. So, it is accurate to think of Hawaii as being somewhat “species poor.” On the other hand, more than 20 percent of the fishes found in Hawaiian waters are found only in Hawaii. The same is true of many species of invertebrates. The high percentage of endemic species helps explain why so many divers are so captivated by Hawaiian diving.

Hawaii’s climate is generally consistent and mild throughout the year with moderate-to-high humidity, northeasterly trade winds, and significant differences in rainfall within rather short distances. At sea level the average daytime summer high temperature is 85 degrees F. The average daytime winter high is 78 F. Nighttime temperatures are often cool enough to warrant a sweater. Temperatures drop significantly with altitude, and weather is often localized.


Meeting the Locals

While the origin of Hawaii’s earliest settlers remains unverified, the general consensus is that Polynesians migrating throughout the Pacific in sailing canoes were likely the first inhabitants. Their migration probably originated from Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

Evidence suggests that early Hawaiian visitors likely arrived in two waves. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth century the first Marquesans, people from far eastern Polynesia, first set foot in Hawaii. For about 500 years their descendants lived peacefully in the new land. However, sometime around 1200 A.D. the Tahitians arrived, and they subjugated the existing population. The customs, legends and language of these new arrivals became the pillars of a new Hawaiian way of life.

From that time until the arrival of Caucasians in the late 18th century, traditional Hawaiian society was distinguished by a rather complex religious, governmental and cultural system that reflected harmonious relationships between the people and natural world. The body of laws that governed Hawaiian society at that time was known as kapu. The kapu system outlined activities and actions that were appropriate and inappropriate for people of different ranks within society.

The kapu system separated Hawaiian society into a hierarchy of four groups, the chiefs, priests and craftsmen, commoners, and outcasts. Holding the power of life or death over those in their domain, the chiefs ruled territories, holding their positions according to family ties and leadership capabilities. Hawaii was a matriarchal society, and one’s rank as a chief was determined by the mother’s lineage with the highest chiefs being treated as gods. Priests and craftsmen performed important religious ceremonies and served as close advisers to the chiefs. The largest group, the commoners, raised, stored and prepared food, built houses and canoes, paid taxes to the chiefs, served as soldiers when necessary, and carried out many daily tasks. The outcasts were segregated from the rest of society. The kapu system also addressed the use, protection and conservation of many natural resources.

Early Hawaiians worshipped many gods with the four principal ones being Kane, the god of life; Ku, the god of war; Lono, the god of agriculture; and Kanaloa, the god of the ocean. The gods occurred in many forms. In addition to these higher gods there were dozens of demigods who ruled over the natural world. Among them were Pele, goddess of volcanoes; Hina, goddess of the moon; and Laka, goddess of the hula.

Another fundamental belief in ancient Hawaiian society was that when people died their spirits lived on as guardian spirits to the living. These spirits take on the forms of other living creatures such as sharks, birds, geckos and even some inanimate objects. Recognizing this belief makes it easy to understand why so many Hawaiians feel a strong connection with the natural world.


The Third Wave

By accident in January 1778, British explorer Captain James Cook and his crew “discovered” Hawaii when they sighted the island now known as Oahu. The word of Cook’s discovery spread rapidly throughout Europe and America, and soon whalers and traders from many nations including America, England, Russia and France came to Hawaii. Operating in a manner consistent with human history, the various representatives from these foreign lands all had self-serving ideas about the value of the Hawaiian island to their homelands.

Unfortunately, the foreigners also brought many new diseases to the islands. It is estimated that when Captain Cook first arrived the population in the islands was approximately 500,000, and by 1875 the native population was less than 50,000.

Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1898 and in 1959 became the 50th state in the United States.

But even 59 years later, some people that live in the continental United States think of Hawaii as a foreign country rather than a state in our union. Hawaiians are both offended and humored when mainlanders ask if they can spend U.S. dollars, which side of the road to drive on, and the official language of Hawaii etc. Conditions of entry for Americans are the same as they are to cross any state line in the continental United States, and you can rest assured that you will be greeted by your fellow countrymen and women upon your arrival into Hawaii. For non-U.S. citizens, requirements vary according to whether Hawaii is the first port of entry into the United States or whether you have already legally entered the country and are simply crossing state lines. Canadians only need to show a passport if Hawaii is their first destination of entry into the United States.


The Waters of Aloha

Hawaiian diving provides divers encounters with creatures that run the gamut from rainbow colored nudibranchs and fishes to sea turtles, sharks, spinner dolphins, manta rays, and even humpback whales. Whether swimming through lava tubes, enjoying the seemingly unlimited visibility, or taking in the opportunity to explore shipwrecks and cave-like lava tubes packed with colorful schooling fishes, or observe wonderful collections of invertebrates like the day octopus, you will quickly discover that Hawaiian waters have much to offer divers of all experience levels.

Hawaii’s underwater visibility routinely exceeds 100 feet. The excellent visibility is not all that surprising considering the proximity of many popularly dived reefs to the clear-blue waters of the open ocean and the dramatic fashion in which the seafloor plummets away from the landmass of the islands.

Year-round water temperature tends to range from the low 80s F during summer to the low 70s F in winter. When the water is at its warmest, typical tropical wet suits are all that most divers require. However, when water temperature dips most divers desire added thermal protection.

Hawaiian reef communities are rich with surgeonfishes, butterflyfishes, and angelfishes, and some species are seen on almost every dive. The flipside is that Hawaiian reefs hold less than one-third the number of species found in the prolific waters of the Coral Triangle, the area roughly bounded by the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands that is known as the center of the world’s marine biodiversity. The primary reason that Hawaiian waters are not as species-rich as the Coral Triangle is that many larval organisms do not remain in a pelagic, larval stage long enough to be carried by currents running from the Coral Triangle to the remote reefs of Hawaii before the larvae settle out. Most larval creatures perish long before they ever reach Hawaii. Thus, it should come as no surprise to learn that species that have long larval stages are far more likely to be found in Hawaii than those that have short larval lives. For example, on the whole moray eels have long larval stages, and many types of morays inhabit Hawaii’s reef communities. By contrast, anemonefishes have rather short larval stages and are absent from Hawaiian waters.

In addition to its population of endemic species, Hawaiian waters are blessed with abundant populations of creatures commonly seen in other parts of the Pacific including the previously mentioned green sea turtles, manta rays, butterflyfishes, and angelfishes along with jacks, snappers, groupers, goatfishes, soldierfishes, cardinalfishes, and more. Observant divers will often see groupers cooperatively hunting with moray eels, goatfishes hunting with jacks, a variety of colorful shrimps, lobsters, crabs, sea stars, cup corals, and more.

Sometimes, when the seas are flat and conditions are favorable Hawaiian dive charter boats take divers out into the blue during their surface interval where they encourage those that want to hop in for a deep-ocean snorkel. It is common to see oceanic whitetip sharks and a variety marine mammals, especially pilot whales. But even if you don’t see another living creature, watching rays of sunlight dance through the water column in the clearest water you will have likely ever seen is enough to provide an unforgettable experience.

There are plenty of great shore dives as well. In many locales, you can enjoy swimming through massive lava tubes. During the frequent sunny days, dancing shafts of sunlight often illuminate the lava tubes, creating spectacular settings for underwater photographers.

In winter and early spring, the buzz among Hawaiian divers centers on visiting humpback whales. Figuratively speaking, the whales seem to be everywhere. No one can promise an underwater sighting, although they certainly occur. But in many dive sites you will be treated to an underwater serenade of singing males.

As small as Hawaii might seem to be, it is far too vast to experience in a single weeklong visit. Each island is unique and has much to offer, and in that respect Hawaii must be visited more than once if you really want to see and experience all there is to enjoy both topside and underwater. The ease of travel and the selection of professional dive and tour operators make Hawaiian adventures readily accessible to all.

If Hawaiian diving suffers from anything it is a lack of accurate information. Some people seem to think of Hawaii as a “stopover on their way to the good diving in other parts of the Pacific.” Those of us who have experienced the aloha spirit and explored Hawaiian waters are well aware that we can never get enough of what Hawaii has to offer.