Hawaii's Kona Coast
An Underwater Photographer's Guide
By Jeremy Cuff/www.ja-universe.com
Hawaii’s “Big Island” is some of the world’s newest land. It’s geographically remote and still volcanically active. In the Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea is still erupting as it has done for the last twenty or more years, and just after our visit, we heard news of a major earthquake that sparked fears of a tsunami, which fortunately didn’t happen.
There are a few dive centres in the main population centre of Kailua Kona offering day trips, but few boats regularly ply the waters of the entire Kona Coast. To get to the best areas, mostly in the south, a liveaboard is the only real option. We booked a week with a group of UK photographers and found our time to be very enjoyable.
Once underway from Kona, we briefly headed north. We visited Turtle Pinnacle, which isn’t so much a pinnacle but an area of unimpressive coral with a few bommies. But there’s a turtle cleaning station there and if you’re lucky you may encounter several turtles and occasionally mantas. In fact, the winning “turtle grooming” image from the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2006 was taken at this very place. So, the photographic potential is there.
Nearby, is the site of one of Hawaii ’s “signature” dives – the incredible manta ray night dives. There are very few places in the world where you can dive with mantas in such close proximity. The history of these encounters dates back to the Kona Surf Hotel (now the Sheraton) to the south of Kona where lights were installed to illuminate the water for the benefit of the guests. The lights attracted plankton, which attracted mantas, which attracted divers, who put in even more lights. This unique "symbiosis" has happened ever since, although many of the mantas “migrated” to the current site when the Kona Surf Hotel closed. Now that the hotel has reopened, and the lights have been switched back on, some mantas are returning to the original site.
At dusk, we surveyed the sea from the deck, as a few other dive boats gathered nearby. Occasionally, something would disturb the surface waters – it was the gathering mantas. Buzzed with anticipation, we were soon kitted up and in the water, finning excitedly along a trail of glow sticks laid by the crew and into the manta’s “arena”, a nondescript area of rubble and coral with submerged lights.
Usually, you’ll find mantas described as “graceful” and “peaceful” and so they are, but there was an intensity, perhaps even aggression about this encounter. It was a fantastic experience as eight or nine mantas swirled in a “plankton feeding frenzy”, bumping and jostling for the best lit areas where the food was most concentrated. Literally “lights, cameras, action!”
Diving with mantas at night presents photographic challenges. As a rule, photographers tend to shoot macro on night dives, rather than wide angle or fish eye, so prior to the dive there was much discussion about how to best capture them. Nobody had any previous “benchmark” with which to draw from, so it was a case of trying something logical and seeing if it worked. The instant feedback of digital helped us understand the photographic conditions which I described in my notes as “dark, chaotic, lots of plankton and suspended particles, lights, mantas everywhere, stray fins, composition difficult.” But it was great, and we were pleased with some of the results.
After the mantas, we headed back south, past Kailua Kona and down the Kona Coast away from the main areas of habitation. The seas were generally calm, although the skies became gradually more overcast, which we learned was quite common feature of the weather in this area.
Along the Kona Coast, geologically recent lava flows are numerous, providing clues about the underwater topography we would be exploring. Instead of walls festooned with innumerable gorgonians and soft corals, we found rubble slopes, dark volcanic sands, submerged craters, pinnacles, archways and lava tubes.
We visited several sites during the week, spending the most time where the photographic potential was greatest, instead of ticking off as many dive sites as possible. This enabled subjects to be “worked on” over the course of two, three or even four dives.
We spent a lot of time at the Hive, a varied site with plenty of macro life and an interesting archway and lava tube area, which was great for wide angle work. Rob’s Reef was also a site full of photo opportunities, especially the lava tube close to the shore, although the surge made steadying yourself with a camera very difficult. Never Never Land was also a good site, where a submerged crater provided an effective “frame” for modeling divers against the surface, with the moored boat adding to the composition.
As the week progressed, opinion on the boat was divided about how “good” the diving was from a photographic point of view. Certainly, the lack of typical wide angle subjects such as gorgonians, colourful soft corals and anemones made the sites more of a challenge photographically. Personally, I thought that was a good thing. Instead of being overwhelmed by photographic potential, which can create a “comfort zone”, we all had to work harder and perhaps be more inventive in order to find good subjects.
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