Scuba Diving In Hawaii: The Full Dive Travel Review

Scuba Diving In Hawaii: The Full Dive Travel Review

Amazing blue water with rich marine life and healthy reefs surrounds Hawaii – making it the perfect destination for your next Scuba vacation!

Although to a lesser degree than some of the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii generally has a “laid back” vibe and the “Aloha Spirit” seems alive and well. Most local residents appear happy and smile much of the time. Visitors to the Big Island would do well to adopt the smiles, and the Aloha Spirit and adjust their clocks to “Island Time” while visiting.

☛ Jump directly to Scuba Diving in Hawaii Facts or Boat Diving in Hawaii

The best dive sites in Hawaii

Nesting sea turtles and white tip reef sharks are among the most impressive sights you can expect in the waters around Hawaii.

However, there is also plenty of other large marine life to see as well. Several different whale species often come by and around the islands, as well as sharks of all shapes and sizes.

Top 7 Dive Sites in Hawaii:

  1. O’ahu – known for the wrecks of USS YO-257 and San Pedro
  2. Maui – is known for Black Rock, eagle rays, turtles, and schooling fish
  3. Lana’i – known for superior visibility and cavern diving
  4. Moloka’i – great for drift diving and with an option to spot hammerhead sharks, and rare Hawaiian Monk Seals
  5. Hawai’i – is famous for underwater lava formations and manta ray night dive
  6. Kaua’i – known for Hawaiian green sea turtles
  7. Molokini Wall – here sharks are commonly seen, with plenty of black-tip sharks, white-tip sharks, and gray reef sharks. Manta rays, turtles, dolphins, and schooling fish are also normally seen

Costs of Hawaii

Like most island nations, and due to the fact that most items need to be shipped in, the costs of many things are generally higher than it’s found on continents.

That said, the experienced traveler can find ways to cut costs by seeking lodging with a kitchen and preparing some of their daily meals. Many vacation homes or condos are available for rent and some are reasonably priced.

You may also try Diving In The Philippines.

Ask around to discover the restaurants where the locals eat and you’ll find excellent food and more reasonable prices. Farmer’s markets and roadside stands offer a varied assortment of fruit and produce at more reasonable rates.

The “Big Island” is called that for a reason and a rental car (or jeep) is a great idea if you want to see a large part or most of it. Car rental prices are reasonable as long as one avoids major holidays and activities.

Diving In Hawaii Statue
A statue of a diety from Hawaiian mythology

History of Hawaii

The Hawaiian Islands are what is known from a geological perspective as a “hot spot”. The Earth’s mantle is thin enough in this region to allow the upwelling of lava from under the ocean’s floor.

The cooled lava has created a series basaltic land masses in the form of an island chain as the tectonic plate passes over this hot spot. The islands furthest to the north and west are the oldest and most eroded and the Big Island, called “Hawaii” is the youngest in the chain.

Hawaii is quite active volcanically and it’s a cool experience to walk on earth that is probably younger than you! There are eight habitable islands and scores of smaller islands and atolls in the chain.

Diving In Hawaii Beach
The view of Tunnels Beach on Kauai, Hawaii perfect for scuba diving

The Hawaiian Islands were first apparently colonized by the Polynesian Peoples from the South Pacific using large double-hulled canoes prior to the 1500’s. (Brave explorers indeed!)

Captain Cook was given credit for being the first European to “discover” the islands in 1778 and named them the “Sandwich Islands”.

The Hawaiian people apparently invented the sport/art of surfing and the ocean was extremely important to their culture. The arrival of the missionaries temporarily ended surfing as topless people having fun in the water did not mesh well with the religious beliefs of the time.

Over the next 70 years several countries made a play to claim Hawaii. The Japanese bombed the U.S. Naval Base in Pearl Harbor in 1941 and some 14 years after the end of WWII. And in another apparent example of U.S. “manifest destiny”, the Hawaiian Islands were “annexed” by the U.S.A. in August of 1959.

Scuba Diving in Hawaii

So enough about the surface…let’s get to the diving!

Perform an internet search on the “The World’s Top Ten Dives” and undoubtedly the “Manta Ray Night Dive” off the coast of Kailua-Kona will be found somewhere in the middle of the top-ten. It truly is a spectacular dive and shouldn’t be missed if your travels take you to the Big Island.

The story of the evolution of the Manta Ray night dive that I’ve been told by the locals goes like this.

The Sheraton Hotel built a deck adjacent to the lounge and near a small harbor on their premises and added lighting to assist those using it at night. It was soon noticed that Manta Rays could be seen performing their upside-down barrel rolls in the relatively shallow waters just off the viewing deck.

The explanation for this was that plankton are, greatly attracted in huge numbers by the light and as Mantas are filter feeders, they followed the plankton. From here it was an obvious evolution for the entrepreneurs of the local dive industry to find a suitable spot for a night dive where Mantas had been seen. Then start “habituating” them to the increased plankton source via the placement of artificial light.

Diving In Hawaii Night Dive
Night diving has become a local favorite in Hawaii – Credit: frantisekhojdysz

So, over the course of several years it appears to have worked very well! A half dozen or more dive boats show up every night (when the seas aren’t too large) and set up a sort of “camp-fire” ring of dive torches on the bottom on one or two locations to attract the mantas. On some nights there might be an excess of 20 mantas, some with wingspans of 15 feet or more.

Don’t worry about the fact that there could be 40 or more divers and the same number of snorkelers topside! For this dive, the more the better as each diver is equipped with their own torch and it just seems to make a larger feeding area.

Once you’ve done this dive, you’ll never forget the image of huge gaping mouths and the exposed gill-rakers. Or when, these graceful animals, glide inches over your head (or sometimes just skimming it if they “like” you!) and displacing enough water to keep you swaying about on the bottom like a gorgonian!

The Mantas will continue this graceful feeding dance doing slow, somersaults up towards the surface until the dive-master gives you a tap on the shoulder. Letting you know that the first person from your boat is low and air and the dive is ending.

Upon surfacing you can hear the excited chatter from dozens of divers in the area who have just had the dive of their life! It is worth mentioning, that big swells or other conditions might prevent the mantas from showing, but on most nights they appear, making for one fine show!

It is possible to dive the area near the Sheraton from shore thus saving the “entry fee”, but a good deal of planning and experience is needed to make that one come off and it will not be as easy as from a boat.

Diving In Hawaii Manta Ray
A manta ray up close

“Black Water Dive”

Another notable night dive from the Kona area is called the “Black Water” or “Pelagic Magic” dive. It can be easily coupled with the manta dive for an unforgettable night!

For this one, you head out in a boat about 3 miles offshore from the harbor where the depths exceed 3,000 feet. The boat drops 6 or 8 heavily weighted lines that are about 40’ of length from several different points on the boat. Then each diver hooks into one of these main-lines from a 10’ “tether” line attached to their BCD and over you go. The boat basically drifts with the current as each diver moves up and down the mainline pointing their torch off into the inky waters of the abyss.

Diving In Hawaii Black Water One
Credit: James Olinger

So if you’ve pictured this in your mind, you might think, “Well it sounds like they’re trolling the divers” and if you got that image, that pretty much describes it!

Do you know What is Fluorescence Night Diving?

For the most part, everything you see will be fairly small. And almost everything you see will be equipped with bioluminescence characteristics. Reds, whites, greens, yellows and blues dance and shimmer around the edges of some of the most amazing organisms you’ve ever seen!

Diving In Hawaii Black Water Two
Credit: James Olinger

It is utterly amazing and fascinating to watch these strange looking juveniles from the deep as they make a huge migration every night to the surface waters to feed. Think twice before you do this dive as it isn’t for the faint of heart! (Speaking of which, I nearly fainted when the Divemaster grabbed me by the calf to show me a large Venus Girdle that was behind me!).

Diving In Hawaii Black Water Three
Credit: James Olinger

Calm currents allow you to view the organisms for a longer period of time whereas a fast current will have these strange, creatures flying by like something from a Star-Trek episode!

Minimal current is definitely better for close examination of these strange ocean dwellers.

Boat diving in Hawaii

There are scores of different dive sites near to shore and many that are further away which generally equates to higher dive price. It may be worth doing the boat dive especially when the Humpback Whales are visiting! I was fortunate to have a cow and calf swim about 12 meters under my fins while I was at a depth of 30 meters!

The west coast of the Big Island has some pretty amazing underwater topography created from lava formations and lava-tubes and swim-through dives are plentiful. There are some really good dive charter companies in and around Kailua-Kona so choose your dive operator with care.

After a long day dive boat at rest in sunset off of Kona Hawaii – Credit: Ocean Image Photography

Shore diving in Hawaii

There are many opportunities for shore-diving the Big Island and for the more advanced divers and those on a budget. And the diving from shore is excellent!

Check with shore-diving Hawaii for details on shore diving locations and what to expect.

There a few dive sites on the east side of the island near Hilo that can be accessed from shore diving. You should expect the water temperature to be a little cooler on the east side and visibility can be diminished if the area has been receiving heavy rains.

If you are new to shore diving you can read my guide to shore diving.

If you do plan to shore dive, I highly recommend renting a jeep. Some of the roads into remote dive sites can be quite rough. Take it slow, and respect the locals in the fishing villages and prepare for some excellent diving from shore!

Diving In Hawaii Sea Shore
Opportunities for shore-diving the Big Island are plenty

The UW environment of Hawaii

Hawaii has around 20 (known) species of reef fishes found nowhere else in the world. This makes sense as it’s a long ways to other land masses and coral reefs.

Most of the coral around the islands are “hard-coral” or “Stony” type. Mountainous Star Coral is plentiful and often looks like giant mushrooms and often of various colors of green, red, yellow purple or blue. This easily leads one to think they’ve entered some chapter of Alice & Wonderland!

Some areas have more sheet coral species. There are a few species of soft coral, but most are very small and not readily visible.

Diving In Hawaii Corals
A school of Hawaiian damsel fish stays close to a coral formation

The fish life of Hawaii

Yellow Tang, Butterfly Fishes, Parrot Fishes Triggerfish, Needlefishes, Angle Fishes, Wrasse, Goatfish and Squirrelfish are very common as are green sea turtles (Honu in the Hawaiian language). Frogfish, Lionfish and Scorpion fish can also be seen by those with trained eyeballs. The State Fish Humuhumunukunukuapua’a isn’t as common, but when you see it, you’ll know it (but saying it is something else!). Spotted Eagle Rays abound and can often be found at “cleaning stations” attended by the Tangs.

White Tipped Reef Sharks, Scalloped HammerheadTiger SharksBlack Tipped Sharks and Sandbar Sharks are the most common species.

Diving In Hawaii Shark
The whitetip reef shark is one of the species commonly seen

But to really get the blood pumping, let’s don’t forget the Humpback Whales. They show up every year between December and March to breed and give birth.

From a boat it’s relatively easy to see them spout and breach.

The Humpbacks and some shark species are among the few species that travel the great distance to Hawaii. Even a mediocre dive (if there is such a thing) becomes extremely special when accompanied by the songs of the male Humpback!

If sport fishing appeals to you Hawaii has that as well. Mahi-mahi, Marlin species, Yellowfin Tuna and my personal favorite from a culinary aspect, Whaoo (called Ono on the Islands) frequent the tropical waters of Hawaii.

Diving Temperatures in Hawaii

Low 70’s in the winter and upper 70’s to 80 ºF (21-26 ºC) in the summer so a 3 mm wetsuit is my personal preference in the winter and a 1 mm dive shirt suffices in the summer months.

When to go

Year-round with a note that some large swells can come in from the North Pacific in the wintertime which add a definite challenge to diving.

The high season is around Christmas and during the winter months when escaping the cold and snow sounds like a great idea, but hotel prices are higher during this time.

Also, the Iron Man Final is held each year on the Big Island during the month of October. So if you plan to visit during October, book ahead as hotels in the Kailua-Kona area generally fill up during this event. You might have a change of getting fit for diving.

Diving In Hawaii Manta In Kauai
A manta ray at Kauai

Traveling between Islands

From the Big Island, a flight is the only choice to neighboring islands. Hawaiian Airlines is currently the only service, but there is rumor that this may be changing and most locals are eager for the end of the monopoly. There is one ferry from Maui to Molokai.

To sum it up, the diving in Hawaii is spectacular! If you can plan a trip to the islands, you won’t be disappointed!

Have you ever been diving in Hawaii? Tell us about your diving there and maybe share your favorite dive spot! Leave it in a comment below.


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Rick Richard
Rick Richard

Aloha and thank you for the great article. My family and I did some great shore dives on the North Shore of Oahu. We rented gear at a local dive shop in Haleiwa Town named Hawaii Eco Divers and we dove for an entire week. Places like Three Tables, Shark’s Cove and Haleiwa Trench are among the top dives. We even had a great night dive at Shark’s Cove.


Thanks so much for this Scuba Diving article in Kauai. It helped me discover the best diving sites in Kauai. I’m off to Hawaii in September and this information has been soo epic to read, thank you so much for sharing keep up the awesome work!


Having a choice between Maui and Kauai and being a Dive Master that prefers deep diving and sea life, which will you recommend

April Jardine
April Jardine

Never been to Hawaii but have dived all over the Caribbean. Wonder about currents and which island is best if I want to avoid them. Thanks!

Eric Shewchuk
Eric Shewchuk

I saw the picture of Tunnels and almost had a tear come to my eye. It is the time of year that we’d be diving there if only we could get there. The problem is the highway got washed away in flooding we had in April 2018 and here, in the middle of summer, we are still waiting for the state to complete repairs 🙁

The last word was the highway would be done by October. In other words, right about the time the waves get too big to dive at Tunnels safely. Well, there’s always next year. Contact next summer and I’ll take you on a guided tour for what will very possibly turn out to be the best dive of your life.

Alan L
Alan L

Aloha! I have done the Manta Night Dive in Kona and it is amazing! One of my favorite dives is a shore dive on the North Shore of Oahu at Sharks Cove called “Three Tables”. It’s shallow, packed with sea life and amazing lava tubes that are open and easy to dive through. I love the fact you can stay down upwards of an hour or more due to the ocean depths there. Winter is a no go because the waves are way too big. I use a combination 3/2 millimeter full wetsuit because I’m always the first to get cold!
Great light article on diving in Hawaii!

Christian Wendels
Christian Wendels

Oh this sounds great as well. last week it was bull sharks in Mexico and now it is mantas at night.

I wish for more time and money to go diving all these places.

Thanks for keeping the diving so fresh in my mind. You guys make it worth not diving for a while.

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