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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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January 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 34, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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REEF Field Survey, Kona, Hawaii

tax-deductible “immersion training”

from the January, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Regardless of what those 19-year-old dive instructors say, you can teach an old diver new tricks. Though I have 400-plus dives, I wanted to improve my fish ID skills, so I put myself in the hands of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and their instructors for a week with Jack’s Diving Locker on the big island of Hawaii. My goal: to be able to identify fish I’ve previously passed off as “little red critters.” Call it “immersion training.”

The not-for-profit REEF is more than a teaching organization. It holds week-long field surveys, or fish counts, in U.S and Caribbean waters throughout the year. All the data REEF collects is housed in a public database on its Web site and used by various marine agencies and researchers to monitor reef health and fish abundance.

Fish ID training began before I left home. Christy Pattengill-Semmens, one of REEF’s two PhD-level trip leaders, directed me to good books and online references. Once in Kona, I was given an underwater fish identification card and a pre-printed log with the names of more than 125 fish to check off if I encountered them. So I would be accurate, my dive days included at least two hours of class training at Jack’s shop.

Kona is a great place to do a fish count. Of the Hawaiian Islands’ several hundred fish species, 23 percent are endemic to the Big Island. I started seeing the marine wonders before jumping off the dive boat. The sleek, gray backs of false killer whales broke the surface while motoring to our first dive. They typically inhabit deep ocean and are rarely seen, yet here were nine, bumping the boat and playing chicken with divers entering the water. As we left for the second dive, the pod danced in our boat’s wake. Unfortunately, the first dive site –- Touch of Gray –- was heart-pounding in an unpleasant way. REEF Field Survey, Kona, HawaiiDanny, the captain, put a drop line in at the stern and a tag line to the bow and instructed me and another diver to take it to the anchor line. We hit a blast of surface current so strong and exhausting that we quickly aborted the entire dive. Embarrassing, but a good decision. Other divers used half their air getting to the dive site and thought they were going to be swept past the drop line on return. Not a good orientation dive. For subsequent ones, crew found sites with less current and depths between 45 and 60 feet.

Using REEF’s “roving diver” survey technique, I free-swam my own profile and used the preprinted underwater forms to record all the fish I could identify without guessing, and to estimate their abundance: single, few (2- 10), many (11-100) and abundant (more than 100). This technique made it possible for even novice surveyors like me to collect valid data. Back at my condo, I sat down to hand-transcribe the data onto computer-readable “bubble” forms for REEF to process. Rather than pass out in a hammock, I actually accomplished something worthwhile during my down time.

When not diving, training time was spent in the classroom. As trip leader, Christy used slides and videos to talk about key features of the fish we would most likely see, differences between similar-looking fish, depths at which they lived, behaviors and other details. Every day, we reviewed fish spotted the day before and added new ones to look for. If I couldn’t identify a fish, I’d ask and we’d figure it out. While REEF uses Paul Humann’s books (Paul was one of the REEF founders), he doesn’t have a Hawaii-specific volume so we used the excellent Shore Fishes of Hawaii by John Randall.

While underwater would be the most effective place to learn, there were too many divers, not enough staff, and not the best of teaching skills. Either Christy or her husband Brice was in the water on each dive but with six teams spread out, I only saw them twice during dives. Each time, however, they did point out a fish I didn’t know, which highlighted the need for more teacher/student time. However, 10 of the other 12 divers had worked with REEF before, so they helped me spot and ID fish. (Their ages ranged from 30 to 70, all were American and one woman had completed more than 700 surveys.) Krista, a Jack’s divemaster and professional photographer with a good eye, pointed out creatures like a shy reef octopus waving his siphon like a miniature circus elephant, and a spawning sea cucumber holding itself erotically erect to discharge a smoky red stream of gametes into the water column.

By the third day, I was comfortable with the survey techniques, less dependent on the ID chart and other divers, and delighted in what I was finding underwater. However, the survey materials were awkward to carry and precluded much recreational photography. At Pipe Dream, I took notes, eager not to miss any species I could identify and count. Yellow tangs were sun drops against the gray reef. Blackfin chromis flitted about like mosquitoes. Chocolate dip damselfish, not to be confused with the white tail chromis found at 100 feet with the tinker butterfly fish, looked like they were held by their tails and slathered with chocolate. I hurriedly tabulated the two dozen common species so I could scout for the more unusual ones, especially the Moorish idol. The Hawaiian parrotfish -- bullet head, palenose and redlip -- are less abundant than their Caribbean counterparts, but surgeon fish and butterflies are more abundant. Fourspot, ornate, multiband and raccoon butterfly fish swirled in clouds around me, while two pennant fish cruised toward the blue. A bird wrasse, easily distinguishable by its beaky profile, flitted by like a hummingbird on a mission. I stared hard at what I hoped was a long-nose butterfly but it turned out to be its cousin, the forcepsfish, a fish I would have never recognized without the training.

My one-bedroom corner unit at Hale Kona Kai condo (“House by the Sea” in Hawaiian) was small but clean and comfortable. The kitchen was fully equipped, and the Florida Keys décor wasn’t objectionable. The wraparound lanai hung above the shoreline, and sunsets were spectacular. Spinner dolphins put on a show a few yards offshore, and yellow tangs, pink tail durgons and green sea turtles frequented the tidal basin just below my room. It was a short walk to Jack’s main shop. Its new, smaller shop is on the harbor, where we boarded the boat. Jack’s has 63-, 67-, 72- and 80-cf. aluminum tanks. All five boats, ranging from a six-pack to the 50-passenger Kea Nui, were outfitted with emergency gear, working heads and warm, freshwater showers -- and lots of employees. With the exception of Krista, the crew changed daily. They gave lengthy orientations about gear, tank and boat procedures, but those procedures changed every day. Jack’s took over an hour to get divers, tanks and gear to the harbor and onto the boats, and there were several gear switching and malfunction problems, which led to some serious grumbling.

When I initially checked in, I put my gear into two assigned gear bags and hung them on a numbered hook in the locker room. Mornings, I made sure my bags were not there when the van left for the harbor. At day’s end, I reclaimed gear from the heap on the boat and put it back in the bags. Otherwise, Jack’s handled my gear, including rinses. Crew brought my tank and BC to me before I took a giant stride off the back platform, but I had to climb up one of two sturdy ladders with my gear on. Onboard were two rinse tanks, first used for camera tanks, then mask and fins, and finally BCs and neoprene. There was little dry space and no camera table. Good deli sandwiches and cookies were served between dives.

Jack’s and Hale Kona Kai are just off Alii Drive, Kona’s main drag. The narrow, coastal street is crowded with shops, restaurants and bars, reminiscent of Key West. Eating establishments varied from storefronts like Splashers (excellent burgers and fries) to upscale restaurants like Kona Inn (delicious steak and fish). Java on the Rocks served wraps and omelets in the morning and converted to Huggo’s on the Rocks after sundown with fresh seafood and live music. I was a 10-minute walk from “everything,” but my rental car was useful for schlepping gear to and from Jack’s, shore diving and touring the island. It was a quick drive to the grocery store, and fresh mangoes and lychee for breakfast came from the nearby farmers’ market.

On my day off from training, REEF arranged a group shore dive at the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau (Place of Refuge) National Historical Park, an ancient sanctuary where green sea turtles go to sunbathe. I drove to Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park, two hours southeast of Kona. The Kilauea volcano had been inactive for 24 years until last summer, when it erupted again, a month before my trip. Throughout the two-hour Crater Rim Drive, I stopped to walk up to the caldera or through steaming fissures to view (and smell) sulfur fumes rising from the lava.

Hawaii’s dive sites are a continuation of the rugged volcanic topology, sloping rubble that drops down into steep walls. I swam through arches and small lava tubes as dark and barren as the ones at the volcano. I could dive my own profiles and stay in the water until my tank was dry, usually 75 to 80 minutes. Visibility varied from 25 feet to 75 feet, depending on how much spawning was going on. The water averaged 78 degrees, cold for my 3-mil wetsuit and hood. Local divers wore 5-mil. I warmed up between dives with the warm-water showers and a fleece jacket.

Boat rides varied from 10 minutes for north side sites to an hour-plus for the more desirable south side sites. Hawaii has 80 sites in all, but most of our dives were on the north side, which allowed longer bottom times plus time to get back for evening training sessions and the manta ray dive on the 38-foot Na Pali Kai at sunset.

While the only manta ray I saw during the week was one floating motionless on the surface between dives, the manta ray night dive – no mantas! – at Eel Cove was still unusual. I sat in the circle of divers around a milk crate with floodlights pointed upwards. Above us, snorkelers floated with their lights shining down. The plankton got thicker and fish came in droves, shimmering in the floodlights. Suddenly, an undulated eel slithered into the crate and rose vertically, stretching his body full length, only his tail touching the crate. He continued his mesmerizing dance for several minutes, then swam directly toward me. When I flashed my light in his eyes he went toward the diver on my right and bumped his nose against the man’s light. He moved on to the next diver, coiled atop his head, then draped his muscular body around the diver’s shoulders. The diver remained immobile, and I suspect he forgot the admonition, “never hold your breath underwater.” The eel continued his pagan dance for seemingly an eternity, released his human dance floor, swam serenely back to the lights and again rose vertically for a grand finale.

For divers who want to increase their underwater IQ, REEF programs are just the ticket. My knowledge had advanced from jotting down “a little red shrimp” in my logbook to recognizing quarter-inch-long wire coral shrimp, and my counts helped advance the monitoring of Hawaii’s fish population. By trip’s end, I could accurately identify more than 120 of Hawaii’s species. Overall, my group documented 213 species. Compared to most Caribbean and South Pacific sites, Hawaii’s dives were colder and had more current. There were fewer species of vertebrates and invertebrates, and no soft coral. The survey kept me from using my camera and, at times, things were pretty chaotic both on and off the boat. Regardless, I saw multiple fish species found nowhere else. And wherever I take my next dive, I will study up and learn more. With the skills I learned, the sea has become more friendly, familiar and compelling. And writing off trip expenses as tax-deductible –- yes they are -- only added to the pleasure.

-- C.M.D.

REEF Field Survey, Kona, HawaiiDiver’s Compass: REEF offered various packages with and without lodging; the former package was $1,720 and included a $300 program fee, five days of two-tank dives, training and lunch, but booking my condo directly saved me $426 . . . The Hale Kona Kai condo was $184 per night, including tax . . . Out-of-pocket expenses included breakfast, dinner, $15 Nitrox fills and a rental car . . . To write off trip expenses, I had to keep accurate records of my volunteer time and out-of-pocket expenses, and also keep my cancelled check or REEF trip receipt; REEF doesn’t give tax information but suggested talking to a tax advisor . . . Wintertime flights to Kona recently ranged from $440 (West Coast) to $678 (East Coast) . . . The nearest decompression chamber is in Honolulu . . . REEF’s Web site:; Jack’s Diving Locker Web site:; and Hale Kona Kai’s Web site:

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