Kauai delivers on underwater artistry
Dive Kauai offers undersea adventures that boast scenery unlike anywhere else
Ask Michael Gough to recount his most memorable diving experiences, and there's no doubt that petting a 5-foot whitetip reef shark at Tunnels Reef off the northern coast of Kauai will be among them.
Tunnels Reef Shore Dive: Offered daily except Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, May through September. Meet at 8 a.m. at Tunnels Reef, near Haena Beach Park, Kauai. You'll receive directions upon booking.
Cost: $90 per certified diver for a two-tank dive, including tanks and weights. Additional scuba equipment is $10 per item, or a package rate of $25 for all items. Personal gear -- mask, snorkel, fins and booties -- rents for $5. You must be at least 10 years old to participate. There is a two-person minimum; the ratio is one guide per four divers. Kamaaina receive a 15 percent discount on tours and charters.
Call: 822-0452 on Kauai, toll-free 800-828-3483 from the other islands. Reservations required.
Web site: www.divekauai.com
Notes: Noncertified divers can go on this tour as an introductory one-tank dive; cost is $105. Dive Kauai also offers daily boat and shore diving tours and charters at other sites; night and twilight dives; seasonal whale watching, Niihau and Mana Crack (a 10-mile-long submarine ridge on the island's west side) dives; underwater scooter-DPV (diver propulsion vehicle) and enriched air nitrox dives; ocean snorkeling; certification classes; scuba equipment sales and service; and custom vacation packages. Visit the Web site for details.
"It was an unbelievable charge!" he says. "The shark's skin felt like soft suede. Of all the members of the shark family that we encounter in Hawaii, the whitetip reef shark is considered to be the least aggressive."
That said, Gough, a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) master instructor with more than 3,500 hours logged underwater, doesn't advocate touching or disturbing any sea creatures -- especially sharks. "I'm a professional diver who has done many dives with sharks," he explains. "Do not attempt to do that on your own!"
Gough is president of Dive Kauai Scuba Center, a PADI International Resort Dive Center whose professionals teach courses and lead tours according to PADI's highest standards of safety. He considers Kauai to be one of the best dive sites in the world.
For instance, at Brennecke's Ledge off the island's southern coast, a humpback whale swam within 25 feet of him.
"I was so close to him, I could see the barnacles on his fins!" he says.
Another time, Gough and his tour group were gliding through Camp One at Weli Point, along the south shore off Port Allen, when a Hawaiian monk seal appeared. Gough recalls, "He was mimicking our movements and gestures just 10 feet from us -- turning his head back and forth, then using his flipper to cover his eyes like he was playing peekaboo."
Many of Dive Kauai's customers, even novices, have gone on multiple tours.
"They see the marine life in one spot and are so enthralled, they want to know what creatures they might see in another location," says Gough. "When you dive off Kauai, you really get the scuba bug!"
Tunnels reef, as seen from the air, represents an area where lava once met the sea, forming a labyrinth of underwater caves and arches now home to a variety of marine life.
HAWAIIAN WATERS harbor an abundance of marine life, including 680 species of fish, 25 percent of which are endemic, meaning they can't be found anywhere else in the world. On the Tunnels Reef Shore Dive, one of Dive Kauai's most popular offerings, certified divers descend 60 feet to enjoy close-up views of razor and dragon wrasses, flying gurnards, green sea turtles, moray eels, barracudas, lobsters, raccoon and milletseed butterflyfish, and much more.
This site also is known for its dramatic underwater topography -- an intricate maze of caves, cracks, arches and more than two dozen lava tubes formed eons ago when molten lava met the sea.
Says Gough, "The lava tubes are a magnificent sight; beams of sunlight shine through them, creating an ethereal effect. They look like caves with many passages, and certified divers can swim through them! The longest tube measures about 75 feet."
The Tunnels Reef Shore Dive is only offered during the summer, when there's no high surf to create strong currents and poor visibility. Certified divers complete a two-tank, three-hour dive in two different areas, one inside the reef within 25 yards of the coast, and the other outside the reef about 150 yards from shore.
Noncertified divers complete a one-tank dive as deep as 40 feet, but they must first read and sign the PADI Registration/Medical Questionnaire, downloaded from Dive Kauai's Web site.
"Scuba diving is an exciting and demanding activity that involves physical exercise and breathing compressed air," explains Gough. "A 'yes' response to a question on the form won't necessarily disqualify you from diving, but it does mean you have a pre-existing condition that may affect your safety. Therefore, you must seek the advice of your doctor before diving with us."
Tunnels visitors can snorkel close to shore or dive 60 feet into underwater caves, home to 680 species of fish.
DIVE KAUAI'S tours are led by experienced PADI instructors and dive masters, sometimes by Gough himself. His passion for diving dates back 25 years. At the time, he was working for Paramount Can Co. in Southern California, selling a wide range of food and chemical containers to clients including paint, chemical and food processing companies. Hawaii was part of his territory.
One morning in 1981, one of Paramount's vice presidents, a certified diver, described a fabulous dinner he and some friends had enjoyed on the beach in Palos Verdes, Calif., where the television show "Sea Hunt," starring Lloyd Bridges as a crime-solving frogman, was filmed from 1958 through 1961.
"They went for a night dive, came back with lobster and abalone, and cooked them right on the beach," Gough recalls. "I thought, 'Going grocery shopping underwater -- that's way cool,' and started scuba lessons the following week."
Three weeks later he obtained his PADI Open Water Certification, and for the next nine years explored underwater oases across the globe, including Mexico, Guam and Yap.
In the spring of 1990, Gough was reading Dive magazine and noticed an ad announcing a PADI dive company on Kauai was for sale. He had just returned from a sales trip to Kauai, and says, "I immediately thought, 'Wow! I can live in paradise and do the thing I love the most!'"
Within 60 days, Gough bought Dive Kauai and moved to Kauai. For the past 16 years, he's been thrilled to run a company that enables him to share his love for Kauai and for diving with people from all walks of life.
"About two years ago I taught a couple who lived in Kiev," he said. "The oldest diver I've ever taken out was 84 years old. Many of my former students have become professional divers."
Wise stewardship is a key aspect of Gough's business philosophy. For example, eight years ago, in an effort to protect Tunnels Reef's fragile ecosystem, he and other Kauai tour company owners agreed they would only use that area on weekdays, reserving it for the local community on weekends and holidays.
Gough is steadfast in his commitment to conservation: "Diving gives us the opportunity to see a pristine, incredibly beautiful side of nature," he says. "We all need to do our part to ensure it stays that way."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.