Diving in Oahu
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.
Wow that photo of the butterfly fish is stunning!! All these photos are really nice. How do you like your new camera- did you get the G10?
Ugh they were so amazing! I LOVE my new camera — ended up getting the s100. I need to write a review on it soon because I keep getting inquiries and I want to shout from the rooftops how much I adore it.
I’m sure you’re tired of questions about the camera, but is it a new model of the s100? I tried to check it out, and there are some different looking models, but not sure of differences. any help would be appreciated, because I will be going to Hawaii soon and diving as well =) Thanks!
I have the s100, not the newest model 🙂 You can find my full review here. Just email me if you have any questions!
I love the butterflyfish, wow!
They were one of the highlights of the dive, what a surprise ending!
It looks cold!!! Love the wreck photos, so eery! (And how awesome is that turtle just hanging out there?)
It’s funny how things can look a certain temperature isn’t it? I think its the slightly cloudy water that makes it seem cold for some reason.
AHHHHHHHHHHH I have been waiting for this post…I knew it was coming!! Looks AMAZING. One of my roommates is trying to get work in Hawaii and I can see the appeal (although now that I’m spoiled with diving in a rash guard, I’m not sure if I could do it!) The school of butterfly fish is one of my favorites of your diving photos. We have a lot of turtles here but none are big like that… and so far I haven’t found any in a wreck but that would be the cutest surprise ever!
Well we were in the shoulder season so I think summer diving would be a bit warmer! What island is your roommate looking on? I have posts coming up about diving The Big Island and Lanai as well!
Hi Alex! He was looking at Lahaina Divers on Maui… any info on that? Thanks! xx
I didn’t dive with them specifically but I did stay in Lahaina — fun place! And I went diving on Lanai, which is a day trip from Maui. It was beautiful, post to come!
I haven’t been diving in years but would LOVE to go here.
You’ve gotta get back in that water 🙂 It’s like riding a bicycle, you’ll remember everything right away!
Those butterfly fish are gorgeous.
Thanks Kent! They are one of my favorite fishy friends 🙂
I have just stumbled upon your blog and i cant stop reading it 🙂 I have gone back in your archives to start from the beginning. Im really inspired, im from the UK but left in Sept 2009 and only planned to be away for 6 months….3.5 years later im still away… I went to Bali for 6 months (My #1 love) then lived in Australia for 2.5 years where i met my (now husband)He\\\’s from Bali and i met him in Sydney.. Fate 🙂 We moved back to Bali in May and are now planning on living here for another year. Im am travelling back to the UK in 3 weeks for the first time since 2009 for a month for Christmas and i cannot wait…anyway thats my story, great to talk with you…are u planning on visiting Indonesia / Auatralia ? 🙂
Hi Carla! So glad you found me. I’m actually headed to Bali probably in February and I am so insanely excited. Australia is somewhere in the future but not on my calendar just yet. You have an amazing story, hope mine is just as long and fruitful! Hope you’ll stick around!
You’re killing me lady. I’m dying to go diving. DYING.
You’ve gotta get back in that water Erica! You did your Open Water in Utila, right? Have you been diving since? I can recommend some really affordable ways to get lots of diving in if you are based in the states… email me!
The picture of the banner butterfly fish is amazing! I can only imagine what it must have been like to actually be surrounded by them underwater.
Now I’m regretting not taking video! It was an amazing experience. I’ll have to just cherish it in my mind 🙂
I Will keep reading along…that’s so great your heading to Bali…you’ll fall in love with this place 🙂
Thanks Carla! I can’t wait!
Why aren’t the butterfly fish a photo of the week??? A-M-A-Z-I-N-G ! ! !
I think they were, way back when!
has anyone got a gps location for nautilus reef (ohau)?
Hey Colin, I’m guessing you could find it on a dive map of Oahu!
Stumbled across this while looking at the S100 for diving use. Did you use an external strobe for your photos, or just ambient and on-board flash?
Hi Theuns! No strobe yet, just using ambient light 90% of the time and on-board flash the other 10%! I wrote a full review of the s100 and underwater housing here: https://www.alexinwanderland.com/2012/11/27/the-s100-the-perfect-travel-camera/
Thanks Alex! Glad you had a great time diving with us!
Gabe @ Kaimana Divers
You’re so welcome Gabe… hope I get to see you guys again soon!
This looks really fun. Thank you for sharing your pictures with us.
You are so welcome Shannon! Thanks for reading!