Hawaii: Small town, deep sea

We’re only on the Big Island for a few more days. Cliché though it may be, the month has gone by so quickly! It has been a good mix of interesting sights and laid-back doing-nothing. Most of the time we work in the apartment, with the windows and screen door open to catch the breezes and birdsong; when we get hungry, we go out to Foodland or one of the excellent local burger places. In the evenings the hot tub awaits, and (when the clouds clear) so do the stars.

Village Burger

Not that it’s always idyllic. Lately the wind has been so strong it’s woken me up at night, as loud (and almost as regular) as waves crashing on rocky cliffs. The other day we drove near the shore and the entire blue-and-turquoise surface of the ocean was flecked with the white crests of waves, as far as I could see, and a gale blew a plume of spray high into the air. Here in Waimea, there is an intermittent misty rain all day long, and wind spreads the fine droplets everywhere (blurring my ink, for instance, when I dare to write my morning pages outside). Lack of exercise makes me irritable, so today I went out for a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood and came back smelling of wet wool. In a way it’s rather romantic, like Scotland or something, the distant mountains hazed grey as if through sentimental soft focus.

Anyway, I came to tell you about a couple of weekends ago. Our friend Angela had come to visit, and we spent the day out around the island. That morning the whole town was out for the Waimea Cherry Blossom Festival, an event held annually on the first Saturday of February regardless of whether the trees are in bloom (some were, but not spectacularly). Saturdays in Waimea are already pretty exciting if you like food, thanks to the two farmers’ markets selling everything from coconut candy to quail eggs to mac nut chocolates to hot laulau. But the festival attracted still more local vendors, artists, and performers. (Mouse over for details.)

Okinawan taiko group at the Waimea Farmers' Market

Cherry blossom-themed sweets at the Parker Ranch Center

Beautiful Japanese garment (yukata?)

Hawaiian quilt show

When we bought our plate lunches from Aunty Kana’i, she told us there were 10,000 people in attendance at the festival — 3,000 more than the population of the town. “If every one of those people donated a dollar,” she said, indicating her tip jar, “we could add on to the hospital.” We made our contribution and brought our takeout boxes to the grass, where we ate teriyaki pork and chicken ($9 got me three chicken thighs, two scoops of rice, and macaroni salad) while watching the hula dancers.

Later that afternoon we drove an hour to the other side of the island, near Kona, for a five-hour boat charter to a cove where manta rays swim. This was Angela’s idea and it’s just as well I didn’t do any research before we agreed to join her. When she said “snorkel with manta rays” I had a vague picture of going down to the beach, sticking my face in the water, and visiting with some dainty little creatures like the ones in the petting pool at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Actually I don’t like water sports, the deep ocean freaks me out, and I’d never been snorkeling before, but I figured if Angela could go to Afghanistan (she’s an Army surgeon) I could give this a try.

We registered at the dive shop and were fitted with our gear by the very dive master and snorkel guide who would be taking us out later in the evening. I was pleased they had adjustable fins (the non-adjustable ones hurt my feet) and prescription goggles; I totally hadn’t thought about the goggle issue, but if they hadn’t had prescription, I wouldn’t have been able to see anything. Then we drove to the boat dock and kind of sat around for awhile before the boat was ready to go out. We were amused by the signage:

Signs warning of danger of humpback whale collision

Many people do their manta excursions around sunset, because the rays feed after dark and it’s easier to see them then. But we chose the longer charter so we could get in some snorkeling/diving before the sun went down (Erik and I did snorkeling, Angela did diving). This proved a very good decision, because when we got started, I found myself badly panicky. First, though we stopped at a cove within easy view of shore, the whole notion of “we are on the ocean” made me very nervous. The water seemed so inescapable.


Then the water was choppy, so I was a little nauseous in spite of the medication we’d taken before setting out. Also, this meant that the boat wasn’t much of a refuge. See? Rocking a bit here:

Boat on choppy water

It was a small craft, too, with just enough space for benches and standing around. (There was no restroom. To pee, we hung off a ladder at the back, with our bottoms in the sea. This was surprisingly convenient — if cold — once I got over the weirdness of it.)

There was very little guidance beforehand. We were told how to use our snorkel masks, which seems mostly to entail breathing in and out through one’s mouth: easy enough, but there’s a bit of an adjustment process while one’s body figures it out, and acclimatization is considerably hampered by panic. Basically as soon as we were in our wetsuits and all equipped, we jumped into the ocean and away we went.

Oh, I was scared. I am a slow swimmer, and in any case there was nowhere to go but more of the same. Zane had given me a pool noodle, as a sort of security blanket, and I clung to it as if it were dry land. The first time I stuck my face underwater I almost screamed into my mask, not because there was anything to see, but just because there was so much SEA. It strikes me in retrospect that there is no occasion in normal life when we ever lie on our stomachs and look down into a fifty-foot drop. I guess if you’re very at home in the water, all that expanse is exciting, because you can explore at will. But for me it was as frightening as outer space. After awhile I mostly gave up on swimming, and let everyone else do their thing while I stayed in one spot and focused on breathing. A few times I got up the nerve to put my face back down, and was sufficiently calm to appreciate the sight of Moorish idols swimming about below. Zane brought up an urchin for me to touch, and once Erik spotted a manta zooming by and I was able to stick my head down quickly enough to catch a glimpse of it.

The first session lasted about an hour, and I was very glad when it was over. Here I am with my wetsuit half-unzipped, looking like I’m not quite sure whether I’m enjoying myself:

Lisa on the boat

I was so ambivalent, I actually considered not even going back down for the evening round. I felt a bit queasy and I took another seasickness tablet, in flagrant disobedience of the package label (1-2 per day they said, and I’d already had 2). (It’s a good thing I did, too.) The guides fed us wrap sandwiches and popcorn and pretzels, and the dive master, Jonathan, gave us a little talk about manta rays. All the while the sun was setting.

Sunset on the ocean

I’m not sure when or why I decided to do the second session. I felt better after the seasickness pill, and after eating, and I was also comforted to know the rays had names — they’re all identifiable by markings on their bellies, and have different personalities. Jonathan also assured us that not only would they not hurt us — they only eat plankton — but that in this particular part of the ocean, they don’t even have any of their own predators who would hurt us. I think it wasn’t so much that I decided to go back out, but that I didn’t decide to stay, and so when everyone started getting back into their wetsuits, I just followed along.

The concept of the night dive is pretty simple. If you shine strong lights into the water, they will attract plankton, which will in turn attract the creatures who feed on plankton: mantas and other fish. The dive guides put together floating “rafts” of plastic pipe and powerful lights, and snorkelers hang onto those and stay as still as possible.

Snorkelers with powerful lights to attract plankton

Meanwhile, the divers go to the bottom and shine lights upward from there.

You would think that I’d be more terrified of going into the water after dark, but strangely enough, I was not. Many more boats had arrived by this time, so the sea was full of people, all with lights. We didn’t have to swim, so I didn’t have to worry about getting separated from the group. All I had to do was hang on and watch the show.

Manta ray and fish
Manta ray and snorkelers

Manta ray swimming by

Gaping mouth of manta ray

Manta ray from underneath

For an hour I floated on my stomach, shivering and breathing through my mouth, as the fish enjoyed their buffet. It was surreal. There I was, on top of the ocean, surrounded by dozens of other people all wearing identical dark suits and masks (I wasn’t even sure I knew which one was Erik). Thanks to the lights, I could see movement clearly, but otherwise everything was dark. Silvery fish circled up and down in column formations, and every now and then slim green water worms — like blades of grass — wriggled through my sight. The plankton were out in full force and they fogged the water like dust particles in air. And the mantas, with wingspans wider than I am tall, swooped through the whole scene, turning cartwheels, combing the water with their gaping mouths. They came close enough to touch, though we’d been warned not to (“you can’t touch them, but they can touch you… this isn’t the only place that rule applies, ha ha”). For such enormous creatures, they’re so graceful, and I couldn’t help but think how perfectly they’re designed: giant mouths on wings, with tails.

A videographer named Martina took footage of the swim — she has been doing this almost every night for 15 years — and it’ll give you a sense of what it was like:

(You get more of a snorkeler’s view around 12:45, and you can see how close the mantas got to us!)

It was a weird, magical, fantastical experience. Jonathan said it was an “above average” night, and I knew we were lucky because my sister Sarah had tried the same thing (with a different company) last year, and been disappointed: “The mantas didn’t come out. And people got seasick and puked in the water.”

We drove back to Waimea still a bit high from the experience, and got home exhausted. We got into the hot tub and sat for awhile, then realized that all three of us had been falling asleep independently. “Dangerous,” we decided, and climbed out and went to bed.

I would say this is something I’ll remember all my life, but honestly, I find that the more dreamlike an experience is, the more elusive it is in recollection. Two weeks later, I can still call to mind the feel of floating in the dark sea: the chill, the watery rhythm, the sound of my own breathing (like Darth Vader), and out of the blackness, the shocking pale hugeness of the mantas and their natural grace. But if I don’t seek out the memory, I won’t find it close at hand; the more accessible memories are the ones that are nearer my everyday experience, like hill climbs in Scotland and Iceland, or cooking in the apartment kitchens in Toronto or Paris. This is the thing about “once in a lifetime” encounters: the more tightly they connect to my daily life, the better I remember them, whereas the most unique among them drift quickly into the realm of fantasy, as far removed from what it feels like to be me as scenes glimpsed momentarily in a movie. This is partly why I write posts like this — to help me remember.