There aren’t many things that get me out of bed before the sun rises. I’m not a late sleeper, but normally a 7:15am start time would be enough to make me take a pass on just about anything. But I do make an exception for diving — especially scuba diving in Oahu.
While there are many excellent reef dives on the North Shore, those staying in Waikiki and other south shore areas will be able to experience what Oahu diving is really famous for — wreck diving. Not only does the wreckage of ships, planes and barges provide fascinating history, it also acts as an artificial reef and over time becomes a haven for sealife.
This is true urban diving, something I’ve never experienced before. Our first dive site with Kaimana Divers was less than a ten minute boat ride from shore, and I loved suiting up with the sun rising over the Honolulu skyline behind us. Heather, my travel and dive buddy, was a little less enthusiastic — she was having a hard time focusing on anything but the water temperature. In preparation for the cold, she donned three wetsuits. Considering my last dive destination was Iceland, I was far less concerned.
Our first dive was at the wreck of the Sea Tiger, sunk in 1999 to a depth of 120 feet. The wreck itself was stunning and matched only by the vessel’s short but fascinating history. In 1992, the Sea Tiger was a Tawainese shipping vessel caught smuggling 93 Chinese immigrants into Honolulu Harbor. It was impounded and later bought by Sea Shepard for $40,000, with plans to use the boat to prevent illegal drift netting off Hawaii. Unfortunately plans fell through and the vessel passed hands once again, this time to a Vietnamese fisherman who christened it The Sea Tiger.
His plans for the boat turned sour as well when it started leaking oil and fuel into the harbor. Eventually abandoned at the pier, the Sea Tiger was given a new life when Voyager Submarines bought the ship for $1 (yes, one dollar) and sank her in Honolulu Harbor. Of course, they then spent a quarter of a million dollars preparing her as an artificial reef, so it wasn’t exactly a steal. The next year, Voyager Submarines went out of business, but the Sea Tiger is thriving.
Photo by Heather Holt
The ship is massive and impressively intact, allowing for many points in which divers can penetrate the wreck. It’s a popular site, meaning you are sharing the dive with other divers, but luckily also with plenty of fish. We saw morays, huge schools of bright tropical snappers, and the largest trumpetfish I’ve ever laid eyes on.
But the highlight, by far, were the sea turtles. I’ve been lucky to dive with turtles frequently in Southeast Asia and almost daily when I was in the water in the Cayman Islands, but I’ve never seen anything that could compete with these in the size department. I almost spit out my regulator in shock when I first turned a corner on the wreck and saw one. It’s not hyperbole to say it — these creatures are majestic.
All too soon it was time to go up. Everyone on the boat was an experienced diver, but our small lady lungs meant Heather and I lasted the longest, and I loved that Kaimana Divers didn’t pressure us to come up with the others when we still had air in our tanks. Which meant we had the privacy to enjoy the most hilarious safety stop I’ve ever experienced. Two girls, two cameras and an underwater slate — let’s just say I had a few brief moments where I wondered if it was possible to die from laughing underwater.
And just as we were about to ascend, we were bid farewell by an endless school of banner butterflyfish — again, the largest I had ever seen. Watching them was like an optical illusion come to life — it was the perfect finale to a beautiful dive.
After a snack-filled surface interval, we were off to our second dive site, Nautilus Reef. For those of you who aren’t divers, all these various stops and intervals we take are to let nitrogen decompress from the body slowly and safely to avoid the dreaded “bends” — also known as decompression sickness.
Nautilus Reef is a shallow site with a maximum depth of 50ft. We were sad to learn that the site is named not for an abundance of nautilus (though I did see one at the Waikiki Aquarium!) but rather for a similarly named glass bottom boat that used to patrol the area. Still, there was other sealife to spot.
Photo by Heather Holt
The reefs were relatively healthy and colorful, but visibility was a little cloudy. Supposedly, small reef sharks and rays are often spotted here, though our dive was more about the small stuff.
My favorite finds of the dive were a shy octopus, two nudibranchs saying “hi!” and a spotted eel that blended beautifully into the coral.
So how did Heather’s fears about the water temperature hold up? Well, she was still freezing under her 15mm of neoprene, but I think that girl is crazy (love you Hez!) Water temperatures in Oahu range from 71-79 degrees and I felt fine in a 3mm shorty over a bodysuit. It’s not the Caribbean, but its comfortable.
Our temperature discrepancies aside, we both enjoyed diving with Kaimana Divers. While they teach courses at all levels, we enjoyed being on a small charter with other experienced divers. The boat and gear were in top condition and the staff were friendly. Best of all, they offer a very small and personal experience at the same price as the big busier boats — $99 for a two tank boat dive. And don’t forget to always tip your dive crew!
My goal was to dive on each Hawaiian island I visited, and Oahu was a great start! I loved the sensation of city diving — descending right off the shore from downtown Honolulu. And while our reef dive was average, it was more than made up for by the spectacular first dive. Wreck diving is the real star here, and you’d be crazy to leave Oahu without diving it a try!
Photos by Heather Holt
Have you been wreck diving before? Which photo is your favorite? Leave me a note in the comments!
Many thanks to Kaimana Divers for extending a discount to us. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.