A day to remember.
Disclaimer: you may not believe what you are about to read, though it is all true.
Real News Bulletin: Contrary to what you are hearing in the media, the vast majority of the population of Hawaii is not running from lava flows with their hair on fire. In fact, we are enjoying beautiful days with ocean breezes and all that this amazing place has to offer.
Today was our boat trip day. It’s a nice way to travel to our southernmost swimming spots rather than on windy roads in a van, and nothing beats jumping off a boat for a swim. So, yes, even our only land-based trip comes with a boat.
Captain Taylor and deckhand Nakai welcomed us aboard the Ocean Encounters, an older 38 foot fishing vessel that has been repurposed into a snorkel tour boat. We steamed out of the marina, went for about 100 yards, and saw a pod of spinner dolphins. Some of them rode the bow wake, others jumped and spun. Babies stuck close to their moms. The pink-bellied ones are 3 days old or younger and ridiculously cute. We steamed on, happy to have checked dolphins off of our list.
Kealakekua Bay is one of the wildest places we swim. Massive cliffs run along the inside, coral gardens dot the corners, and there’s an energy to the place that you feel the second you hit the water, a microcosm of the whole island chain. Captain Cook met his demise here. We had higher hopes than that for our swim.
The coral garden in the northeast corner of the bay was dazzling, and a small, resident white-tipped reef shark could be seen tucked under a coral head. Fresh water springs that bubble up from the bottom cause a visual distortion in some spots, as well as a chilly blast. The trumpet fish are huge in here. Swimming along the cliffs, we were joined by a spotted eagle ray, then a turtle.
We fell into a nice rhythm, until we started being interrupted by even more animals. First, the resident manta ray, named shaka for his belly markings, came up for a visit. We couldn’t quite catch up with him, but caught glimpses beneath the surface and even saw him breach. That was exciting!
Heads down and back on track, we made it to the other side of the bay. I heard the tell-tale squeals and pops of dolphins, but none were immediately in sight, though a slow, deep and silent pass of a black-tip reef shark caught our attention. Turning around to head back, we found them - or they found us: several pods of spinner and bottlenose dolphins. They rest in the bay after hunting all night, and do slow, lazy circles as half their brain sleeps. Occasionally, a spinner dolphin wakes up enough to do a big leap, like one did right in the middle of our swimmers. Paul was surrounded on all sides by them. I watched as our guests swam among the pods, and it seemed like they invited us into their world if only for a brief moment. To be in the presence of these intelligent, powerful animals is humbling and awe inspiring. One tiny flick of their tail and they are moving faster than Phelps could ever dream to. You’re changed after an encounter like this.
A few hundred yards later, Shaka the manta ray came up again, this time doing big upside-down loops. They’re plankton feeders, and today the bay was full of the tiny organisms they feast on.
Ryan celebrated these encounters with a belly flop, not quite as graceful as a spinner dolphin but almost as entertaining.
Delirious from all of these animal sightings, we climbed aboard and headed for Honaunau, also known as Two Step for the way the lava cooled into a handy staircase that eases entry from shore. Happily avoiding the crowd on the steps, Nakai gave us the go-ahead to jump from the top of the boat.
We swam a lap around the bay, which has some of the healthiest coral I’ve ever seen. There are some old Hawaiian family camps right on shore here that consist of only a single-wide trailer with a tin roof and a picnic table. We see this kind of thing in Maine sometimes, as well. It’s a rare and wonderful thing when regular people occupy a beautiful spot rather than a mega mansion with Keep Out signs everywhere. Bravo, Hawaii.
Before I get into the next part of our day, I want to state clearly that our vessel was about 1.5 miles out to sea, where none of our guests were or would be swimming. We we headed straight for a bait ball - a massive stew of fish and birds, large and small, swirling and bubbling in the sea. As we reached this maelstrom of ocean life, Heather spotted a very big dorsal fin. Big. A smaller tailfin soon appeared probably about 8 feet behind it. We realized they belonged to the same animal, a 14-foot hammerhead shark, the boss of a school of perhaps dozens or hundreds, perhaps feeding on bluefin tuna which were feeding on smaller bait fish, with sea birds swooping down to pick up the scraps. Captain Taylor swung the boat around, gave the wheel to Nakai, donned a mask, and stuck his face in the water. I was right behind him with my goggles on. The scene was unreal - 4 hammerheads were about 20-40 feet below, with more even deeper, and the school of tuna and bait fish off the stern in shallower water. The hammerheads seemed docile, going about their shark / keystone predator business. I slipped into the water. Heather joined with her camera, just as the whole scene cleared. Poof - gone in less than a minute.
In Hawaiian culture, hammerhead sharks are considered to be Gods of the sea, protectors of people from other, more aggressive sharks. Fun fact: there have been no human fatalities as a result of the only 17 human / hammerhead shark encounters reported since the earliest records in 1583. So while this all may sound like we were swimming with man-eating sharks off an island with a dangerous erupting volcano, we were all completely safe and having the time of our lives without being eaten by an apex predator or having our legs burned off by a lava flow. Really, this was the experience of a lifetime. The excitement of our seasoned boat crew reaffirmed that what we had just experienced does not happen every day, and we were very, very lucky to see it.
The crew threw some fishing lines in, and we were soon catching bluefin tuna, 1, 2, 3 of them in quick succession, with Heidi, Frances and Paul landing them.
As we steamed into the marina, I went below to change out of my swimsuit, thinking we were done with creature sightings. I heard a big whoooaaaa from above as everyone spied a massive sea turtle among the docked boats. Even more wildlife? Good grief, Hawaii.
With such a high test day behind us, I only remember dinner because it was so tasty: a deep water snapper, or O’pakapaka, that was mild and flaky. Guest and resident wine expert Lisa pulled out a bottle of South African wine that had relevant history - it was a favorite of the late Captain Cook, among other notables. It also paired with our key lime pie in exquisite fashion. As I sipped and nipped the remainders of the meal, I was crashing from the many adrenaline highs of the day.
To be in the presence of so much sea life today was an honor, and a day I won’t ever forget. We saw more species today than most people will see in a lifetime. It’s also a thrill to share these experiences with a group like ours, 8 people who are totally game, don’t bow to myth and fear, and are completely willing and able to soak up every minute. Some of the most majestic creatures in the sea showed up for us today as this Baby Island continues to be born. How lucky can we be? Imagine the dreams of our swimmers tonight. We’ll immerse again tomorrow.
PS. Today's Wildlife Tally
2 species of rays
2 species of turtles
3 species of shark
2 species of dolphin
So many species of fish and healthy corals
10 swimmers, awed and honored.