I’m 15 feet underwater, eye to eye with one of the largest sea turtles I’ve ever seen, just a few miles off the golden coast of Waikiki.
Out of breath, I reluctantly turn away from the honu (Hawaiian green sea turtle) and swim up for air. The moment is so serene, and a polar opposite of the experience I went through earlier in the day, rushing through traffic and the concrete jungle of hotels and parking lots on shore.
Back on the water’s surface, I spot Holokai Catamaran, a large double-hull vessel anchored nearby, its white exterior offset by a bright orange sail. I’m on its Turtle Canyon Adventure Sail, led by Capt. Rich, a friendly man with a tanned, muscular physique and numerous tattoos. “We’re going to be out at sea for around 2 1/2 hours, unless something goes horribly wrong,” he joked earlier when we boarded. He’s accompanied by Geronimo, a tall ship hand with a wide smile. Most of my sightseeing in Waikiki has been from its busy streets and beaches. But now, looking back at the urban architecture from the ocean, away from the cars, bars and noise, the tourism hub appears quieter, calmer.
Only a 10-minute sail from shore, this fabled turtle hot spot is in fact not a canyon at all, but a finger of reef that a wide array of fish call home. Honu with too much algae growing on their shells come here so the resident fish can swarm their backs and feast on the accumulated residue, feeding themselves and cleaning the turtles’ shells at the same time. Capt. Rich puts it more simply, “It’s like a car wash for the turtles and a buffet for the fish.”
Diving back into the warm waters, I find another gargantuan friend, gazing directly at me if for only a moment. “You can look, but don’t touch,” Geronimo told us, explaining how the honu are protected by state and federal law due to their endangered status. Following along on the honu’s massive back, a school of fish bite and nibble at its shell. Slowly lazing around the reef, wherever the turtle went, so did the fish. Fortunately, as this turtle drifted away from the area, a new turtle arrived, ready to get squeaky clean. During my hour-long snorkeling adventure, there was always a turtle around, much to my, and I’m sure the fishes’, delight.
I break away from the crowd and explore the other nooks and crannies of Turtle Canyon. Deep below the surface, I find small schools of fish spread around the area and various sorts of wana (pronounced vaw-naw, sea urchins) tucked into small holes around the reef. Popping back up for air, I spot my fellow passengers diving off of the boat’s hull, some more gracefully than others, but all having a blast. Swimming closer to the catamaran, I see white sands replace the gray reef and the waters shift to a lighter shade of blue, something you’d expect to find closer to shore. Here, families with children float along without a care, talking story with Capt. Rich and Geronimo.
After a little over an hour of swimming, I climb back on board and hear reggae tunes playing from the boat’s speakers as we prepare to leave Turtle Canyon. Capt. Rich points us east, and we sail toward Diamond Head; the second leg of the tour consists of a scenic, lounge-inspiring cruise. Geronimo takes the helm of the makeshift bar to serve beers and juices, and although the drinks aren’t complimentary, the snacks are. Taking a few packs of peanuts, I stretch out and soak in the sun at the front of the ship, where tight netting tied between the two hulls of the vessel serve as a hammock. I try not to drift asleep as my once busy day slows to a snail’s, or more appropriately, a turtle’s pace.
Turtle Canyon Adventure Sail tours are $60 and depart daily at 9 a.m. and noon from the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, 2169 Kalia Rd., Waikiki, (808) 923-3111, sailholokai.com.