Snorkeling, Exploring Maui's Underwater World

Snorkeling boat off the coast of Maui; credit Maui CVB

Exploring Maui’s Underwater World

Jeanette Valentine, Soul Of America

“Jacks,” a slender brunette treading water in a wet suit, is giving my snorkeling group a tour of a Lana’i reef. She ducks under the water and then re-surfaces with a huge grin. “I can’t believe it,” she says breathlessly. “It’s a trumpetfish shadowing a grouper. I’ve never seen this before. You’ve got to see it!”

She disappears again, motioning for us to look as she swims down to point. We see a skinny, long-snouted fish following a less weird-looking, gray grouper, the pair moving in perfect synchronicity. Spotting such a duo is rare, an occurrence we would have missed without the expertise of Jacks. She is one of five naturalists onboard this Pacific Whale Foundation excursion. Their knowledge and enthusiasm make the afternoon an adventure with a liberal dose of marine education. Such is a day Exploring Maui’s Underwater World.

That morning at 8, my best friend, Surlene Grant, and I board the foundation’s 65-foot catamaran with dozens of others, mostly families and couples. Once settled in, either at dining tables down below or comfy seats on deck, Captain Becca Johnston introduces herself and her crew.

With a nod to the Maui spirituality I’ve come to love, she takes a moment to bless our voyage as we depart. A continental breakfast of fresh fruit, assorted breads and bagels with cream cheese takes the edge off our hunger.

It’s the kind of day Maui is known for, a clear crystal blue sky laced with puffs of cotton clouds. The sun shines brightly and the ocean air is crisp as I stand on the front deck looking toward our destination of Lana’i.

Twenty minutes before we lay anchor, a little boy spies a dolphin jumping in an arc and “spinning” a few hundred feet away. It is soon joined by another one, then another and another until a Sea World-worthy Dolphin Show plays right before our eyes. One woman calls out, “Flipper, Hey Flipper!” (She then acknowledges, “These kids have no idea what I’m talking about,” making a few of us feel our age.)

We lay anchor in a cove off Lana’i, and the eager, experienced snorkelers pull on gear distributed earlier and climb down a ladder into the water. Because my swimming skills aren’t what I’d like them to be, I join a separate group for snorkeling lessons from Captain Becca. We learn to put on our mask, to breathe, and to stay buoyant with the help of a long tube-shaped floating device. You can wrap these colorful, flexible “noodles” under your arms or around your waist.

Fish Guide to Snorkeling in Maui

I’m the last to jump in and probably the only one with a death grip on the floating device. My nervousness lifts with a glance at my fellow snorkelers, bobbing on gentle waves. Holding multi-colored noodles they look like aquatic soldiers brandishing purple, red, orange and green styrofoam swords.

Any snorkeling veteran knows the magic of that first glimpse down. The sounds of laughter and splashing disappear as your head slips into the hushed fluid home of coral and fish. In a world of bluish-green, the reef is a city of textures: Globs of cauliflower and finger coral (so named for their appearance), lumpy boulders, miss-shapened rocks, plants with waving tentacles or smooth cape-like leaves fluttering in the currents.

Pacific white-sided dolphins common to Hawaii

Pacific white-sided dolphins common to Hawaii

Thanks to direction from Jacks, I spot a host of fish, including a blue boxfish and a school of Yellow Tang.

The smell of barbecue lures us back on board. A crew member has set up a huge grill and is tending to chicken, veggie burgers and hot dogs. Following lunch, one of the naturalists holds a mini lesson on marine life, providing more information about what we saw while snorkeling at the reef. But after a morning of treading water and a meal that hit the spot, many of us snooze on the ride back. It is a deep, restful sleep after a beautiful day in the water.

Pacific Whale Foundation

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