SNUBA TOURS OF KAUAI
Snuba Tours of Kauai offers ocean newbies an opportunity to explore the undersea world while safely tethered to an air hose and raft.
Snuba tours open underwater world to everyone
Add the thrill of scuba to the simplicity of snorkeling. Voila! You have snuba -- a patented shallow-water diving system that allows even avowed landlubbers to comfortably explore the wondrous world beneath the waves.
Snuba Tours of Kauai
Meet at: Lawai Beach, Poipu, Kauai (look for the company van)
Tours: Offered at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon and 1:30 p.m. Mondays to Fridays
Cost: $69 per person. The minimum age is 8. Groups range from four to eight people.
Call: (808) 823-8912
Web site: www.snubakauai.com
Notes: Wear a swimsuit and bring a towel and sunscreen. You don't need to know how to swim, but you should feel comfortable in the water. Those with cardiovascular or respiratory problems might not be able to participate. Your snuba experience will be filmed; you can purchase it on DVD for $35.
"Snuba is safe and easy," said Kevin Cram, who owns and operates Snuba Tours of Kauai with his wife, Kathy. "You don't need to know how to swim or snorkel. You don't need to be certified or have prior diving experience. All you need is a desire to discover some intriguing marine life and what it's like to breathe underwater."
Since he launched the business 17 years ago, Cram has hosted many who'd never been in the ocean. To rid them of their jitters, he devotes about 30 minutes of the 90-minute tour to an orientation, demonstration and practice session.
"We practice in waist-deep water so everyone feels comfortable," said Cram. "There's no heavy gear; you'll be wearing fins, a mask and a weight belt to offset your buoyancy in the water."
Your body composition determines the weight of your belt; they range from 5 pounds for children to 30 pounds for large people. Most participants wear a 10- or 15-pound belt.
It won't take long to get the hang of breathing through the regulator, a mouthpiece attached to a hose connected to a scuba air tank.
The tank is mounted on a 5-foot raft floating on the sea's surface. The apparatus allows you to move about freely, and you're never more than 20 feet (the length of your air hose) away from the raft.
Explained Cram: "The raft follows you as you go along, and if you ever want to take a break, it's there for you to hold on to. Some people start out holding the raft until they feel confident enough to dive. Others want to stay as far down as they can the whole time. You go at your own pace."
TOURS TAKE PLACE off Lawai Beach, which Cram lauds as Kauai's best spot for snuba. The south side spot offers calm waters and a protective reef surrounding a pretty bay that's home to turtles, eels, octopi, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and all kinds of fish.
Once, a monk seal frolicked underwater with tour participants.
"Because it's an endangered species, we kept changing directions to avoid disturbing him, but he kept following us," recalled Cram. "He swam above us, poking his nose in the bubbles that appeared as we breathed. He was such a friendly, playful guy!"
In Cram's opinion, the best thing about snuba is the fact that just about everyone can do it. He has welcomed grandparents in their 80s, children with life-threatening medical conditions and people with disabilities.
A 25-year-old paraplegic recently booked the tour. After he got accustomed to breathing through the regulator, Cram strapped on a weight belt and watched as his guest began propelling himself through the water with his hands.
"He was so amazed, excited and happy," said Cram. "He didn't think it would be possible for him to do the tour, and I felt great seeing him enjoy the experience."
The amount of time participants have to snuba depends on the amount of air in their tanks. If you're nervous and anxious, you'll breathe faster and, consequently, use up your air faster. The supply lasts longer with relaxed, slower breathing. Most people are in the water about 30 minutes.
Cram estimates he's led about 15,000 dives since he became affiliated with Snuba International, Inc. (www.snuba. com), which developed the innovative dive system. Snuba Tours of Kauai is one of Snuba International's 65 licensees operating 100 Snuba Recreational Centers around the world.
While their family was living in Utah, Cram got the diving bug from his older brother, Greg, a PADI-certified scuba instructor. They moved to Kauai to start a scuba business in August 1988.
Working as a scuba instructor at the Islander on the Beach hotel in Kapaa, Cram became acquainted with a man who had started a "scorkeling" tour operation. Although it wasn't affiliated with Snuba International, the concept was similar.
"He needed a guide for his tours and I did that for a couple of years," recalled Cram. "Since the activity was just being introduced in Hawaii, business was slow, so he sold it to me and a partner in 1991."
A year later, Hurricane Iniki hit. Tourism on Kauai plummeted.
"My partner was making more money in construction than diving, so he sold his half of the business to me," said Cram. "I did roofing and plumbing jobs until enough visitors came back to Kauai for me to do the tours full time again."
For him, the greatest reward comes at the end of the tour, when participants gather on shore and proclaim how much fun they had.
"There's nothing like hovering in the water, surrounded by incredible marine life," said Cram. "I love sharing that with people, especially those who don't have the chance to enjoy the ocean every day as we kamaaina do. The tour lasts only 90 minutes, but most participants tell me it's something they'll remember forever."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.