The island of Hawai’i is home to an astounding number of ecosystems. There are beaches, rainforests on the windward side, a desert on the leeward side, the active volcano Kilauea, and an alpine climate at the summit of Mauna Kea. On Hawai’i, I needed clothing ranging from a swimming suit to a down jacket.
Back in the day, before the Americans annexed the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Hawaiian royalty made the island of Hawai’i their home base. Nowadays, the island of Hawai’i is often called the Big Island to avoid confusion with the state name Hawaii. Even before our plane touched down, the island felt different from Oahu. The remains of lava flow spread out across the ground into black and grey rocky formations.
We stayed at Waikoloa, but on future trips, I want to stay near Kona. Kona is closer to awesome snorkel and dive sites and the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, the home of Kilauea. Although we didn’t make it down to Kilauea during our limited time on Hawai’i, we did take a trip to the summit of Mauna Kea and we went on a night dive to watch manta rays feed.
The Mauna Kea tour didn’t start until 2 pm so in the morning, we drove to the north. Our destination: Pololu Valley. There’s a lookout point where on clear days you can see Maui. We were told that there was a set of stairs that led down the side of a cliff to a dark sand beach. Along the way, we stopped by Keokea Beach Park. The surf was huge due to an oncoming storm and the sea looked formidable. When we arrived at the Pololu lookout, we couldn’t see very far. The rain had increased and the climb down to the beach was muddy and slippery.
In the afternoon, we met our tour guide Jim from Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. As Jim drove up the mountain, he told us about the Hawaiian myths describing the land we saw. I would relate them here, but I got sleepy and fell asleep for part of the drive…I do remember this: Mauna Kea is the world’s tallest mountain from base to summit. (Mount Everest has a higher altitude above sea level, but Mauna Kea’s base starts 20,000 ft below the ocean.) Once we got to the visitor’s center (2800 m), we had a lasagna dinner and walked around a short nature preserve trail where we saw silverswords (an endangered plant species).
From the visitor’s center, we continued the drive to the summit. On the way, we passed a site that NASA used to test the moon rover in the 60s since it was one of the most moon-like environments on Earth. From the summit, we saw a sea of clouds, or “mer de nuages/mer de brouillard” in French. It felt surreal to be standing so high above everything else and looking down upon the clouds. We watched a breathtaking sunset before setting out for lower altitudes to stargaze. I didn’t have altitude sickness, but I tried running (just to see what it would feel like) and ran out of breath after 10 strides.
The following day, we kayaked in the morning. When I jumped out of the kayak to snorkel, I accidentally tipped over the kayak, dumping dad and all of our things into the ocean. I quickly grabbed dad’s snorkel and mask before they filled with water and sunk. We had a waterproof box containing our cellphones and the car keys. At first, I couldn’t find the box anywhere. I panicked and started scanning the ocean floor (about 40 ft deep) knowing there was no way Michelle nor I could free dive that far down. Thankfully, the box was on the other side of the kayak, still floating at the surface.
In the afternoon, we went diving with Big Island Divers. We went to Garden Eel Cove. Volcanic rock covered the ocean floor where we moored the boat and entered the water. As we went deeper, the rocks slowly morphed into a reef system. There was a slow drop-off before we hit a partially sandy/partially rocky bottom. Michelle and I got 60 minutes of bottom time and max depth of ~75 ft. We saw quite a few trumpetfish, some moray eels, and two scorpion devil fish!
After a surface interval including the sunset, we went back in for the manta ray night dive. The DMs provided each of us with a dive light (aka fancy flashlight). The ocean pitch black at night and it’s impossible to see anything. Thankfully our flashlights lit the way. We sat at the dive site for about 15 minutes before the first manta showed up. These creatures first started appearing around this site because of its proximity to the Kona airport. The airport has huge floodlights that shine on the surrounding area. Inadvertently, some of the light shines on this part of the ocean, which stimulates the growth of plankton. Mantas started showing up for the food and have been coming ever since. The mantas we saw were about 10-12 ft in wingspan. (They weigh about 100-200 pounds per foot.) It’s crazy that they’re made only out of cartilage. They’re like giant, graceful swimming ears! When they swim, they look like they’re flying. I’m always amazed by how large sea creatures can grow. Buoyancy really helps animals put on bulk.
On our last day on Hawai’i, we drove over to the windward side to see Akaka Falls. Again, another climate! This one was wet, wet, wet! Before catching our plane out of Kona, we stopped by Kaloko Honokohau, a small beach park where there are a ton of honu feeding on the nearby rocks.
- I love the feeling of being on open water! It feels fresh and freeing!
- The ocean is so, so, so dark without lights. I know I said it above, but I’m saying it again for emphasis. It’s absolutely terrifying. Incredible how big of a difference there is between night and day. An ocean of a difference, if you will.
- There are no street lights in Waikoloa. I wonder if that’s to reduce light pollution for the Mauna Kea observatories.
- The 30 m telescope is currently in the middle of legal battle. Mauna Kea is considered the most scared place on all of the Hawaiian Islands amongst native Hawaiians. Many don’t want yet another observatory cluttering their place of worship.
- Hawai’i is such a beautiful place. There’s extensive beauty from 13,796 ft above sea level to 70 feet below sea level.
- Future trips: visit Kilauea and kayak to Kealakekua Bay to see dolphins and snorkel!