Originally published: 8/3/2003; 12:03:19 AM

Woke up early this morning in order to make a 7:15a check-in at the dive shop. Sitting in the parking lot of the dive shop, I checked my voice mail and got one from the dive shop’s travel agent saying the morning dive wasn’t happening–somehow the “manifest got deleted.” At least the Manta Dive was still on.

So, Christy and I headed to the laundromat behind Firestone Tires to do a load of whites. As always, there were some interesting folks hanging out there. There’s a used b ook store behind the laundromat (across from the Kona Brewing Co) if you need to replenish your reading supply.

After that we grabbed breakfast at the hotel (sweet breads, fruit, and juice) and then headed south on highway 11.

Our first stop was Kealakekua Bay, to pay homage to Captain Cook’s landing–and later, death–spot. The little cove where you park was hot and somewhat litter-ridden. Not a great place to hang out. It is a popular kayak and snorkel spot, though.

There’s a white obelisk to commemorate Cook but it is not easily accessible. You’ve either got to kayak or swim across the bay, or you’ve got to hike down the ridge.

Next, we made a quick stop at Painted Church to see murals painted at the turn-of-the-last-century to help with the conversion of the locals.

Puuhonua O Honaunau

We then visited Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park. It’s a sacred 16th centry stie where royals and tabu-breakers lived and sought refuge. They’ve done a great job restoring the site. It’s also a place frequented by green sea turtles but we didn’t see any. It looked like a good snorkel spot and was also mentioned by the dive shop as a great place for shore dives.

Tired of driving, and seeking relief from the heat, we drove back through coffee country to the hotel to relax. (We grabbed lunch at Wendy’s in Keahou which must be the best view from a fast food restaurant in the country).

At about 3:30 I headed down to the dive shop to check in for the Manta Dive. The dive boat was large and comfortable with an upper- and lower-deck, a shower, and a head. There were about 8 divers and 4 snorkelers but we all had plenty of elbow room.

After an hour boat ride we came to Garden Eel Cove, at the tip of the Kona airport. After briefings by the Captain and both dive masters, we hit the water.

The first dive was to about 60 feet. Unlike the Carribean, here the corals are hard rather than soft which I didn’t find as interesting. But, I did see a variety of eel, shrimp, flounder, and razorfish. [The cove’s namesake was an expansive black-grey sand flat starting at about 60 feet populated by hundreds if not thousands of garden eel. They looked like black candy canes waving in the surge.] I also saw a crown-of-thorns sea star which wraps its stomach around the coral and devours it. [In large numbers, these can be devastating to a reef.]

We spent an hour at the surface, waiting for it to get dark. We got another briefing (don’t touch the Mantas, don’t freak out if an eel makes himself at home in your lap), suited up, and jumped in.

All of us had added weight to make it easier to stay on the bottom while the mantas fed around us. My extra 6 pounds felt much heavier–I was thankful the swim from the boat to “Manta Heaven” wasn’t any longer than it was.

We arrived to find the show already in progress. Two mantas were busy sucking up plankton attracted by the dive lights. I estimate each was in the 12- to 14-foot range.

I sat on my knees on the rocky bottom and shined my dive light upwards, joining my beam with the others in an effort to attract as much plankton as possible.

It wasn’t long before I was being dive-bombed by the giant fish. They would fly right at me, mouth gaping. Just when I thought collision was inevitable, they’d pull up–sometimes executing a back roll, other times grazing right over the top of my head.

The plankton grew thicker–it was now like a snowstorm–and we were soon joined by a third and possibly a fourth manta.

Before long, the early birds had to end their dives which left us alone with the still-feeding mantas. A couple of times, I had to hit the deck–I didn’t want to scratch the fish with my face mask or tank valves.

Despite a second wet suite I pulled on for added insulation, I was getting pretty chilly about the time the dive ended. The swim back to the boat warmed me up, though. We didn’t go alone. The manta’s “flew” alongside us the whole way.

Bottom-line on the Big Island:

Die-hard hikers and/or lava nuts will love Volcanoes National Park, but the park is 40 minutes from the nearest food once you’ve exhausted the options in Volcano Village.

Not much to do or see in Hilo.

Kona is a good place for beach-goers–there’s plenty of sun.

Kona Tiki would be a good place for a longer stay because of the friendly folks who run it and the low rates.

Waimea seemed interesting and worthy of more exploration, but it is at altitude so it wouldn’t be a good home base if you’re diving in Kona.

The Manta Ray night dive is a must for divers. It runs on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights, at least with Eco Adventures. Next time, I’ll plan for additional day dives, but I’d think twice about Eco Adventures because of the screw-up on my morning dive.

On to Hawaii Day 10 — Kona and Oahu