|IN SEARCH OF THE HULA MOON: EXPLORING MAUI BELOW SEA LEVEL|
|January 14, 2004 12:00 am|
A vacation adventure
by Bill Lundquist
"Under da sea. Under da sea. T'ings is much betta, down where it's wetta, under da sea."
So sang Sebastian the crab in Disney's "The Little Mermaid." He could have been singing about Maui.
If you're planning a vacation to Maui, or anywhere in Hawaii, don't forget that the view under the waves is just as spectacular as the one above.
Even if you're afraid of drowning or being eaten by a shark, or simply don't like to get wet, Maui offers a way for you to commune with the denizens of the deep.
Unless you're in the Navy, or are a research marine biologist, you can't go deeper than on an Atlantis submarine.
The Atlantis company bases its tourist submarines all over the world, and on three islands in Hawaii. The one at Maui operates off Lahaina.
The submarines look a lot like the ones in Disneyland, except instead of riding around on rails in a swimming pool past plastic mermaids, they descend 150 feet down in the ocean. Occupants get to view real tropical fish out the portholes.
We had been considering going on the submarine, but balked at the $75 apiece price tag.
When we won a two-for-one deal during the Pleasant Holidays introductory breakfast, our minds were made up. It would be worth paying full price anyway.
So what is it like 150 feet down at the bottom of the sea? Well, somewhat disappointingly, it looks a lot like being five feet down at the bottom. The same species of fish are much bigger down deep, but that's about it.
The most interesting phenomenon is the way colors change as you descend and lose certain spectrums of light.
It's not completely dark at 150 feet, but red shirts turn blue, and the residual fluoride on teeth looks ghastly.
One warning though: the submarine is not for claustrophobes. They literally pack people in like sardines. You've got to be comfortable with a butt to butt relationship with several total strangers.
My wife is a borderline claustrophobe, so we asked that she be allowed to board last.
That not only kept her out in the air longer, it gave her a seat at the end of the row next to the pilot and his huge window. The entire front end of the submarine is glass.
The pilot and guide, by the way, kept up a running joke script like the guys who run the boats at Disneyland's Jungle Cruise.
They even sang a version of Dean Martin's "That's Amore," only this was "That's a moray (eel)."
Those who want a similar look at the fish and coral, but who would rather die than be shut up in a tin can 150 feet down, can take the Reefdancer out of Lahaina.
The Reefdancer also looks like a Disney submarine, and operates more like one. The only part that is actually underwater is the viewing area below.
It cruises over shallow coral reefs while divers bring interesting sea creatures close to the large windows.
Claustrophobes can get out in the fresh air up top anytime they want. The price is half that of the real submarine.
Both cruises are great for those who want a good look at the real underwater world of Maui without having to swim, or even get their feet wet.
I, however, couldn't resist the free introductory scuba lesson in the pool at the Four Seasons Resort.
Well, at least the brief "ground school" lecture and a few minutes in the pool was free. That led to a shore dive, complete with photos. I just gave them my room number and didn't ask questions about the price.
I'd been to the bottom of a pool with a tank once before, 30 years ago. With modern equipment, the breathing seemed much easier, and I was quite comfortable and confident.
In the real dive, however, I ran into a few equipment problems. I'm so fat that they had to strap on all the weights in the world to hold me under.
I could barely walk, though I didn't notice the weight at all once I was in the water. I believe the sea level rose two feet and flooded 14 villages when I dove in.
Seriously, the big problem was with my fins. They were a bit too large and slipped around on my feet, cutting deep gashes in my toes. I still wear the scars.
I also used the face mask that I took to Tahiti. It has a built in purge valve that works great in calm lagoons.
In Maui, however, the surf was strong enough to stir up fine sand which jammed the valve and made it leak.
All in all, though, I had a blast and even got to swim with a sea turtle. I feel anyone who can swim a little can dive with a some instruction. Just remember to demand equipment that fits perfectly.
As for my wife, she occupied the time with a beachfront massage. That's good too.
She was willing to join me on some shallow water snorkeling expeditions. Free from weights and tanks, snorkeling can be even more fun than scuba, and you can do it in two or three feet of water if you want to. It's even easier than swimming.
The key to safe snorkeling is sun protection. Wear a T-shirt and slather on the SPF 50 sunscreen everywhere else. I even covered my bald head with a swimming cap.
There were nowhere nearly as many fish by Maui as I saw in Tahiti. Still, with a little searching, I found a few blue tropical fish, a moray eel, and dozens of the brightly striped state fish: the humuhumunukunukuapuaa. It's not that hard to pronounce, just don't try it while breathing through a snorkel.
There is also a cross between snorkeling and scuba called snuba. The tank stays up top on a rubber raft.
You breathe through a scuba regulator attached to the tank with a long hose. It's like scuba diving without the cumbersome tank and weights.
Perhaps you're thinking, "Bill, I can tell you where to stick those tanks, weights and submarines. I'm not getting into the ocean no way no how."
Even you folks can enjoy the underwater world at the Maui Ocean Center at Maalaea Harbor, a short drive from just about any hotel on Maui.
One of the world's top aquariums, the ocean center features a large walk-through acrylic tube in its largest tank. You can go eyeball to eyeball with sharks without getting your feet wet.
So that's the lowdown on underwater Maui. The island also rises more than 10,000 feet above the waves. In the next episode, we'll go straight to the top.