Flying Above and Swimming Under the Deep Blue Sea

Humpback whale fluke at sunset West Maui

Getting back to nature is best experienced in the tropical seas surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, especially in the aquamarine waters around the islands of Maui County … Molokai, Maui, Lana‘i and Kaho‘olawe. The clear, calm ‘Au‘au Channel flowing between Maui and Lana‘i can be a magical mystery tour of marine life delights.

One of the first unusual tropical fish encounters I had was the helicopter rotor whirl of the malolo, or flying fish.  When you’re plying the waves in a windswept catamaran out in the channel, you may get a fleeting glimpse of these remarkable fish that launch out of the wave crests, whir in the air, and submerge again. It’s very cool to see several of them in motion.   Malolo flying fish off West Maui

Another acrobat of the sea is the graceful spinner dolphin. One evening close to sunset, I was dipping my canoe paddle in the waves as part of a six-person outrigger canoe paddling team when I noticed that a school of spinner dolphins was taking a joy ride with us. The beautiful leaps and bounds of their sleek bodies kept time with the motion of the humans’ paddling, and they stayed alongside our Spinner dolphin off Mauicanoe for several minutes. It was one of those magical moments I’m not likely to forget.

The underwater world of the tropics also offers amazing encounters with marine life. When snorkeling in West Maui, you can almost always meet up with the Hawaiian Green Sea turtle. These unassuming gentle giants cruise among the reefs and pop their heads above the waves along the shoreline to feed on limu (algae) between the rocks. They are protected as an endangered species, so swim along with them but please do not touch or feed them.

Green Sea Turtle off MauiIf you’re lucky enough to witness the extremely endangered ‘ilio, or Hawaiian monk seal, you should know to keep your distance and observe them from afar, about 50 yards away, whether you’re on a beach or in the ocean. Their sweet, puppy-like faces prompted the Hawaiians to name them “dog” (‘ilio) while their solitary behavior and bald look gave them their “monk” moniker. They’re known to dive deep in the sea but when at rest, they love to bask in the sun on a sandy beach.

Monk seals in Hawaii

Rays and reef sharks can also be spotted among the coral or on a sandy bottom when you’re snorkeling or diving in Maui’s protected waters. They’re pretty shy and usually flit away when they get close to a snorkeler or diver. If you keep still and watch, you’ll notice the natural beauty of the sting ray’s and manta ray’s wings flapping to dislodge sand and the zig-zag flow of the white tip reef shark swimming between corals.

Sting rays underwater in Hawaii

Of course, the biggest celebrity of the Pacific among the Hawaiian Islands is our loyal visitor, the humpback whale. Also an endangered species, the humpback population has prospered and grown from 4,000 who came to Hawai‘i in 1993 to approximately 12,000 wintering in Hawai‘i today. Not only can you get a personal encounter with these elegant leviathans from a kayak, raft or catamaran, but they’re easily seen from the shore. Look for a blow (water vapor spout) against the horizon or a splash of white water exploding from the sea. When driving along the coastline, be sure to look out for other vehicles and safely pull off the road to do whale watching (December – April).

Whether you’re watching from above or swimming under the deep blue, cherish your experience!