“There’s something funny about putting on a wetsuit and then walking across a golf course,” jokes Tim Rollo, our Maui scuba instructor from Tiny Bubbles Scuba, about our nighttime excursion.
We’re strolling the beach path that’s right next to the Royal Kaanapali Golf Course, clad in wetsuits for our night dive at Puu Kekaa, aka Black Rock. By day, this beach is abuzz with activity as snorkelers, swimmers and paddleboarders enjoy the turquoise waters. Right now, however, the only people we see on the beach are dressed-up couples walking to dinner, and the ocean is an inky black. That’s just the way we want it.
“Night diving,” says Rollo, “is my favorite type of diving since you get to experience completely different marine life than you’d expect to see during the day. And now I have an important question: Is anyone afraid of the dark?”
It’s a valid question, since the mere thought of diving at night can be more than a little bit terrifying. Sure, you’re equipped with a powerful light, and there’s a glow stick attached to your tank, but you still need to trust the darkness since there’s a lot out there you won’t see.
The reward for quelling your fears, however, is the chance to drift through a watery portal to a secret world, where creatures you didn’t even know existed are suddenly inches away.
So what’s the trick to finding that courage and settling the nocturnal nerves?
“Just try and get it out of your head,” Rollo says. “I remind myself if I start feeling afraid that it’s me who’s creating that fear.”
By this point we’re standing on the sand right at the water’s edge, preparing to round the entire Puu Kekaa cliff from the northern to southern end. We’ll be underwater for over an hour, so I try to keep Rollo’s words in my head as stars begin twinkling above. I slip my mask down over my eyes and fins up over my heels, and check my light once, twice, three times, before splashing into the darkness.
To gain a little distance from the sand, we swim on the surface first with vests inflated and kick in the direction of the cliff. When we reach a spot where it’s 10 feet deep and nothing but sand below, I look at Rollo, flash him an “OK,” and take a long, deep breath of air. It’s time to see what’s down there.
Within minutes of dropping down into the deep, we find a phenomenally strange looking creature I’ve never seen in my life. I’d later find out it’s a partridge tun, but at the moment it looks like a sea snail that’s eating a gooey underwater pancake.
Rollo circles his light in the sand, and I notice another tun that’s easily double the size of the first. Known for their spiral-patterned shells, partridge tuns are sea snails that sleep by day and hunt by night, with their preferred meal being sea cucumbers, and these two are out on the prowl.
Shining my light on some nearby rocks, my beam falls on a slipper lobster that’s hopping around like an underwater cricket, and it jumps right past a spiny lobster that’s hanging out in the sand.
There’s minimal chance we ever would have spotted the lobsters or tuns during the day, yet here they are right out in the open, offering a private show.
We leave the lobsters and tuns behind and continue hugging the base of the cliff, always keeping it on our left. My nerves have definitely begun to subside, though that isn’t to say there aren’t some moments of wondering what else is out there.
While scanning for movement and shapes in the rocks, I can’t help but feel like a detective searching inside an abandoned warehouse as I grip my light like a large yellow pistol and point it here, then there, as if searching the rafters for something hiding above.
We peer into a cave and find a turtle, which decides it’s time to swim to the surface and take a breath of fresh air. I stop for a minute to kneel in the sand, and experience a total moment of zen as I watch the turtle gracefully rise and seem to hover in air.
Rollo had mentioned that despite the adrenaline that goes along with a night dive, there’s also an added sense of serenity in seeing creatures you’d find by day lazily drifting through the night.
The same doesn’t go for the “night crew,” however, which is active, alert and everywhere you look.
It’s time to talk about eels.
If you explore this very same spot in the daylight, there’s a small chance you’ll see an eel tucked way inside the reef. Come back here at night, however, and those same eels are slithering ribbons of twirling muscle that dance around as they hunt.
While some eels can be toothy, angry and deserve a fair bit of space, there are others as big as playful puppies and seemingly just as friendly.
Rollo knows that the Hawaiian mustached congers are considered friends—not foes—and takes off swimming after one that has to be 4 feet long. Twisting itself in slithery knots, it gyrates inches away from Rollo’s face and seems completely indifferent to all of his bubbles and hoses.
We lose sight of the girthy behemoth when it swims out into the darkness, but, moments later, it reappears with a half-eaten yellow tang still sticking out of its powerful jaw.
It’s a stark reminder that life on the reef is always in constant motion, and we’re just passive observers to this show that plays out here every night.
There’s another eel, on the other hand, that Rollo gives plenty of space: a light green, undulated moray that’s poking out from the rocks. Later that night, once we’d finished the dive and were discussing what we’d seen, Rollo would say the mustached conger is like the “poodle of eels,” whereas the undulated moray is “more Doberman Pinscher, with an added dose of attitude.”
But in the here and now, we shine our light on the moray’s face from afar, and watch as it bares its razor-sharp teeth as a means of defending its hole. As long as we don’t stick our hands in its home, it’ll let us be on our way.
The show doesn’t stop for the next 30 minutes as schools of golden trumpetfish cruise above our heads, and a sponge crab scuttles across the sand looking like an oversized set of spiny legs wearing a sponge for a hat. It’s another creature we never would have seen on a midmorning dive, and I’m blown away that even though I grew up snorkeling these waters, I never knew this bizarre little thing was here the entire time.
Finally, after 66 minutes of circling Puu Kekaa’s perimeter, we surface in front of the Sheraton Maui and are instantly met by a sky that’s packed with hundreds—if not thousands—of stars. Tiki torches flicker on the cliff face, slack-key guitar plays in the distance, and we have one of Maui’s most popular dive sites all to ourselves.
Besides the eels, the tuns, the turtles, the tangs, the trumpets and crabs, the entire dive was backed by the haunting song of humpback whales. Their moans, squeals, snickers, and shrieks were there the entire time, and now that we’re back above the surface it somehow feels strange that they’re gone.
“That was awesome!” says Rollo, as we kick our way toward shore. “We only maxed out at 30 feet, but that’s where all the cool stuff is hiding—right out there in the shallows.”
Tiny Bubbles Scuba
Tiny Bubbles Scuba, located inside the Kaanapali Beach Club Resort, offers night dives at numerous locations along the West Maui shoreline. Divers need to be open-water certified, although no prior night diving experience is required for booking a tour. Night dives are $109 and include all necessary gear. For more information, call (808) 870-0878 or visit tinybubblesscuba.com.