Exhale. Inhale. OK, now, relax.
I’m feeling a little flustered because I’m hearing my own breathing—and little else—through my snuba-diving regulator. That, and I sound like Darth Vader.
Stifling an impulse to hum a few bars of The Imperial March—the dark lord’s background music in the Star Wars films—I shift my focus to my instructor, Keala Swain. As I bob in water just off the south shore’s Lawai Beach, he checks the status of my 20-foot, low-pressure air line, which connects my diving regulator to an air-supply tank floating on a small pontoon raft.
Convinced that the gear is seaworthy, Swain turns to me and a half-dozen other aspiring divers assembled for Snuba Tours of Kauai’s late morning lesson and asks loudly: “Everybody got air?”
My ears now adjusting to rushes of respiration, I flash the “OK” hand signal, which is used as both question and answer between diver and instructor. (Thumbs-up is reserved for communicating that you intend to swim to the surface.)
Snuba, a portmanteau of “snorkel” and “scuba,” aims to bridge the gap between skimming just below the ocean surface while breathing through the short, curved tube of a snorkel and plunging into the depths with a tank strapped to your back. While the latter requires diving certification, snuba, like snorkeling, does not.
"Getting comfortable with underwater breathing is the biggest snuba challenge," says Kevin Cram, who owns and operates Snuba Tours of Kauai with his wife, Kathy. Though basic stroke skills are helpful, “the swimming part isn’t really essential,” says Cram, who, for the past two decades, has been leading tours in these turquoise-tinted Kauai waters.
Developed by California-based Snuba International, the snuba air-supply apparatus we’re using is made available only to certified instructors. Snuba Tours of Kauai is part of a network of snuba recreation centers that offer dives in more than two dozen tropical locales around the world.
Cram says would-be divers sometimes question how descending 20 feet on a snuba tour could feel much different than standard snorkeling. To that, he responds: “You’ll feel the difference once you’re down there, breathing just like you would in scuba.”
My group is now ready for our half-hour tour. We slip into swim fins and adjust our weight belts and light harness straps in the waist-deep water. Anxious to begin exploring, some of us are already dipping our diving masks underwater for a sneak peek at rainbow-colored fish.
As we slowly make our way toward deeper waters, Swain directs us to keep a hand on one of the three small rafts carrying our air-tank cylinders. Snuba Tours participants swim out from the beach rather than drop in from a boat or fixed platform at sea, because, protected by an outer reef, Lawai Beach’s waves are gentle and its shoreline filled with fish.
“Your job today is to blow bubbles,” Swain says, smiling. He signals that we can let go of our handholds. Already fixating on the fish below, I just nod before diving into the brine and swim downward. At about 12 feet under the water’s surface, I laugh when my 8-pound weight belt neutralizes my buoyancy, plunking my bottom unexpectedly on the ocean’s sandy bottom.
I then quickly learn that laughing—along with, I’m told, underwater smiling and screaming—can cause a bit of water to leak into the gear. After attempting quick fixes to expel it, I swim to my nearby pontoon raft to more easily readjust my gear. One of Swain’s assistants instructs me to try a more pronounced pucker on the mouthpiece. Done.
Back under the sea, I’m relaxed and trying to keep my mouth closed when I suddenly find myself almost nose-to-pointed-nose with a moorish idol, known in Hawaiian as kihikihi. A few strokes away, a school of yellow-and-black-striped convict tang, or manini, dart by a grazing humuhumunukunukuapuaa. The Hawaiian trigger fish has been Hawaii’s official state fish since 1985.
Always close by, Swain is filming our group’s get-together with swirling fish and more sedentary creatures, such as sea cucumbers and delicate coral. When he finally signals that we’re to head back to the beach, everyone seems reluctant to leave the water.
An hour earlier, I had noticed the same reluctance in the snuba group that preceded ours. Their tour then wrapping up, a lingering diver called out: “Hey, guys! There’s a turtle! Awesome!” That was all it took to prompt Swain—camera in hand, of course—and some of the others to dash back in for one more underwater tête-a-tête.
For more information on Snuba Tours of Kauai, call (808) 823-8912 or visiti their website.
This story originally appeared in the December 2011 print edition of HAWAIʻI Magazine.