WHAT'S SNUBA IN MAUI?
Story by Robert Scheer
Snuba diving offers under-wave thrills
Photos by Linda White
Bright yellow fish darted all around me. With eyes wide open, I seemed to be floating through the world's largest aquarium. The sensation was especially thrilling because I had never tried SCUBA diving, and had only snorkeled once before. Now, I was suspended blissfully between the ocean waves and the coral reef at La Perouse Bay on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
I had signed up for a five-hour snorkel cruise to two of Maui's best dive sites, including the famous Molokini Crater. The price of about US$100 included breakfast, snorkel diving gear, a narrated tour of historical sites and a barbecue lunch grilled on board the 54-foot power catamaran, Maui Magic.
As the skipper went over the details of the trip, he mentioned that, for an extra $49, we could do a Snuba dive. Jennifer, the instructor, explained that Snuba was a cross between snorkel and SCUBA diving. Snuba is easy for beginners to try because, instead of a heavy air tank being strapped to your back, it floats in a raft on the surface. You breathe through a SCUBA-like mouthpiece and regulator attached to a 20-foot air line.
Out of about 25 people on board, 15 of us opted for the Snuba program, and while Maui Magic sailed out from Ma'alaea Harbor toward the Kanaio Coast, Jennifer taught us how to equalize our air pressure while diving and surfacing. She also demonstrated the hand signals we would use to communicate underwater. Many of them referred to the various kinds of fish we could point out to each other: trigger fish, butterfly fish, rays and turtles. Holding the palm of one hand vertically at the top of your head, like a dorsal fin, meant a shark. Reef sharks, Jennifer assured us, were harmless but very cool to watch. Two vertical hands, one above the other, would signal the highly unlikely presence of a large, dangerous shark. It turned out that we didn't need either shark signal, but the butterfly fish and turtle signals did come in handy when we were finally underwater.
It took a few minutes for us to get the hang of the Snuba system. My yellow air hose got tangled up at first, and my weight belt nearly slipped off. But soon I was loving the freedom of swimming and breathing freely in the clear water above the coral reef, surrounded by more tropical fish than I could count.
For a brief moment I recalled the sensation of panic I had felt years before on my first snorkeling experience in Malaysia. Mesmerized by the underwater scenery, I had floated out into deep water. A wave sent me too deep, and I inhaled an uncomfortable amount of salty water. Coughing and choking, I struggled back toward shore until my feet could again touch bottom.
With Snuba diving, my biggest complaint was that, when the air tanks ran out, we had to return to the boat. Later, at Molokini Crater, on my second dive using ordinary snorkeling gear, I realized how spoiled I had been by Snuba. Confined to the surface, I was bouncing on top of the waves instead of gliding smoothly under them.
I was also very impressed by the quality of the prescription diving mask provided. I am quite nearsighted and need to wear glasses, but the mask Jennifer let me use was an excellent replacement for my spectacles, giving me a surprisingly clear view of all the underwater activity.
While we were out enjoying the water at Molokini, the Maui Magic crew had fired up the barbecue, so there were fresh hamburgers ready when it was time to head back to shore. Over a cold can of beer, I talked with Jennifer about the differences between Snuba, snorkeling and SCUBA diving. She said that about 95% of the people who try Snuba want to take the next step and learn how to SCUBA dive.
Besides being a diving adventure, the trip also included cultural and historic information. The cruise began with a traditional Hawaiian chant, accented by the haunting harmonies of two deckhands blowing conch shell horns. We stopped several times along the way to see humpback whales spouting and breaching in the distance. There was a much closer encounter with a marine mammal when a friendly dolphin known as Iris appeared, lazily scratching her back and belly on the boat's aluminum pontoons before disappearing back into the ocean. At La Perouse Bay, Buzz pointed out the lava field from Maui's most recent volcanic eruption, just over 200 years ago. On the way back to shore, we paused to watch a pair of green sea turtles splashing through the waves.
IF YOU GO
From Vancouver, both Harmony Airways and West Jet have two to three non-stop flights per week to Kahului, Maui. Flying time is approximately 6 hours and 15 minutes. For more information visit www.harmonyairways.com or www.westjet.ca.
For more information on travel to Maui visit www.visitmaui.com or call the Maui Visitors Bureau toll-free at 1-800-525-6284.
The Maui Magic "Beyond Molokini" cruise departs daily at 7:00 am from slip #55 at Ma'alea Harbor. It is one of numerous snorkel and Snuba trips that can be booked at hotel desks, dive shops and excursion kiosks across Maui. For more information visit www.mauimagicsnorkel.com or call 1-800-736-5740.
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Three underwater photos: Credit: Linda White.