10 June 2013

Diver Down: The Forbidden Isle

[click pics to embiggen]
Ni'ihau is a small island near Kaua'i, Hawaii. It is populated by about 150 Native Hawaiians. The residents speak the Hawaiian language and have as little contact with other Hawaiians and Westerners as possible. Entry, without express invitation of the residents, is strictly forbidden. Ni'ihau is a two-hour boat ride from Kaua'i, the wildest of the four major Hawaiian islands.

Just off Ni'ihau is a tiny comma of land jutting up out of the Pacific. Lehua is an uninhabited crescent rim of an extinct volcano. It is noted for its diving. And it was for that purpose 11 of us, not including dive leaders, set out on Friday morning, May 24.

There is nothing between Lehua and the Aleutian Islands, and it was the morning after the full moon.
Lehua and Ni'ihau
I am a fairly experienced diver, with nearly 100 dives under my belt over the last 30 years. A couple of years ago, my mask strap clasp broke under water. I made a safety ascent from 40' up to the boat, grabbed a new mask, put it on, and completed the dive. On an earlier dive on Kaua'i, my mask fogged up and I couldn't see, so I took it off, pulled out my regulator, licked the inside of my mask, put them both back on, cleared them out, and finished the dive with restored vision. All by way of saying, I am comfortable under the water and know how to handle myself. For the most part.

I was aware that this dive at Keyhole, a magnificent spot on the eastern, smaller prong of Lehua, was going to be a challenge. There would be some current, so we would do a drift dive along the edge of the volcano rim at about 85'. We would have the opportunity to see up to five kinds of sharks, manta and eagle rays, tons of large (ubiquitous) sea turtles and friendly, tropical reef fish, and possibly endangered Monk Seals, plus magical underwater topography.
Keyhole. Lehua.
Accompanied by two dive masters/instructors, we went down in two separate groups. My team of six included Wisdoc, Wisdaughter, Wesdom, and Wisdomie (my Scuba Instructor son) and his girlfriend (they live in Honolulu and were diving on vacation). All of whom are good, experienced divers. The other group had five divers of varying skill levels, none of whom we knew. Both groups were accompanied by experienced Dive Masters who were knowledgeable about the site. The boat captain and a bubble spotter remained on the boat.

I had no trouble equalizing the pressure in my ears and descending, and before I knew it I was down about 65' and in contact with my group alongside the wall. The current pressed us on. But, and this is the point about the full moon, a down-swelling current pushed me down to over 100' before I knew what was happening. I was below the group and had to work to elevate. The next thing I knew, however, I was above them. I checked my depth gauge and found I was at 40'. Now I was behind my group. I had never had such trouble with my buoyancy. I tried to swim swim back down to the group, even kicking my fins, but couldn't make any progress against the upswell. And all of a sudden I found myself surfacing.

Never, NEVER, had I had such a lack of control. I'm a strong swimmer and experienced diver, but a hinky, upswelling, full moon, Pacific current probably sweeping down unimpeded from Alaska and bouncing around within the concave walls of Lehua that morning, pushed me up to the surface against my will in what felt like an instant.

I have to say, I was intimidated. The Pacific is a big, strong ocean. But it was my first dive of the day, and I hadn't been down long enough to have to worry about the bends.

Visibility was great, about 120' or better. I looked down and could see my dive group about 80' below me and swimming away. At the surface I could see the boat. I gave the bubble spotter the 'Okay' sign, and she indicated they would come over. She offered to give me more weight (I was already carrying 14 lbs of sand in my BCD). But I told her I was afraid I would have to work too hard to catch up with the group against the up current. She said they could drop me on top of them. I declined.

I scrubbed the dive. First time ever. The lesson being, I guess, if you're uncomfortable with some aspect of the dive, it's not worth risking going on. Diving is an inherently risky activity. Dive again another day, or even later that same day—as I planned to do at a shallower, more protected site.

I clambered back into the boat—swells were growing and were 5'+ at this point—and waited for my group to ascend. Wisdoc and Wisdaughter were concerned because they thought they'd lost me somewhere down there. Wisdomie and our Dive Master had seen my ascent and knew I was okay.

But my bailing on the dive due to some freaky current was not the reason we made the newspapers that day. Nor the reason the Coast Guard had to scramble helicopters from all the way out of Oahu. As I said, 11 of us went down that morning. Only 10 came up.

[to be continued]


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Looks like a pretty place. I've made it to Kauai, but no further.

I like snorkeling...the lack of dealing with equipment and support group makes up for the fact that you can't get very far down. Some of the prettiest things I've ever seen snorkeling I saw off Kauai's sun coast (a very small section at the southern side).

Randal Graves said...

Mayhap you're just getting old. More pictures!