Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Coming Up For Air

There was something we noticed many people we met on Maui had in common. They had gone to Maui on vacation, fallen in love with the island and cancelled their return ticket. Several of the boat dives we went on had crews that were "formers". Here is how the captain introduced the crew - "This is Kate. She used to teach biology at Georgetown. She is in charge of the lunch counter on board and will be helping with the snorkel gear. This is Chris. He was a trader in Chicago. He is my first mate and is great at maneuvering the boat on rough water. This is Rachel. She was a housewife in San Jose who ran a catering business out of her home. She will be showing you how to use the underwater cameras and making a film of the trip. This is Frank. He was a neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic. He now keeps our bathrooms clean and functioning."
As I talked to these people, I found some had been here for a year, some for 5, some for longer. Most of them work several jobs, not always ones they like, just so they can stay on the island, go out on the water and enjoy the beautiful landscape. I asked,"Does anyone ever get tired of this paradise?" Most of them say it never gets old, but they will probably stay another year or so, then move back to the mainland and get on with their real life.
No, Mike and I aren't canceling our ticket home.
This has been an amazing vacation, but I don't want to see it as an escape from real life. I love my life - with all the ups and downs, joy and sorrow, excitement and mundaneness. I want to see this trip as part of my real life. A really amazing, stunningly beautiful, beyond thrilling part of my real life. That way I know I can fit it in again.
So we are done with all the dives. We went snorkeling one last time. It is time to check out of the hotel and hope the wet suits and swim suits don't mildew on the long trip home.
Quite a few of you have been asking about specifics. While so much of our experience was miraculous serendipity, there were also people who helped us with "I know a guy who knows a guy" information. Here are a few tidbits for those who don't want to rely on chance for a great experience in Maui.
- The best time to go is March. The height of whale season. Photos and video can't come close to seeing them in person. And Todd the dive master wasn't kidding when he talked about the difference in whale song underwater when they are close. On Monday we did a shore dive at Black Coral reef. As we were gearing up we saw whales only 100 yards off shore, the closest ever. They were about 20 yards from the edge of the rock point where we were heading. By the time we got in the water and out there they were gone, but the whale song we heard while diving made my bones vibrate.
- Always talk with locals about the best places to dive, snorkel, hike, golf, eat, enjoy the sunset, whatever else you are interested in. Many activities don't have to cost money, or cost a lot of money. Also, once you have a referral for services that do cost, use the internet to check on specials. If you can't find someone who can say "I would do that again" or "I would go to that company again", don't waste your time and money.
-If you are going to pay to get there, set aside at least 10 days to stay there.
- When locals tell you to stay away from the black sea urchins because they bite back, they're not kidding. Mike accidentally brushed against one on his last snorkel swim. It really hurts. He now has a new scar on his leg that looks like a cluster of little dots. Use vinegar to clean, then shaving cream to help remove the needles, and antibiotic ointment to follow up. It should heal eventually. At least that's what the locals tell us.
- The "Don't Touch It!" advice goes for anything else in the water. Look and enjoy. You can get quite close to things, but don't touch or harass. You could get hurt, or fined or arrested. Mike took all these great photos and videos with a Canon G10, and used the underwater casing for it.

-For something different, go to Warren and Annabelle's Magic show in Lahaina. No matter how much you wonder if something like this is for you, trust me. This is a great show and well worth the time and money. Don't worry about including the dinner. Just make sure you fit in the show. It reminded me of when my cousin (a world renowned magician) would perform magic for us at our dinner table, just inches from our curious eyes. These guys are good and funny.
-Wailea for golfing. I am taking other people's word in this one.
- If you only do one hike, hike to Waimoku Falls at the top of Pipiwai Trail. There are not enough superlatives to describe the experience of walking through that bamboo forest.
-Save up your money and splurge on the Alii Nui catamaran cruise to Turtle Point. It is better than a spa treatment. If possible, add on the scuba dive option. Maui Dive Shop handles those and they do a great job with it. Ask for Nicole to be your dive master.
- Lahaina Divers has a great multiple dive package. All their divers and equipment are excellent. On my first dive, I had a moment of panic because all my certification dives were in calm water, very different from the open ocean. The dive master did a great job of talking me through that first minute until my brain could override the panic, and everything started to be amazing. After that, it all clicked. They gave us the best experiences of this trip.
-Don't ever sacrifice the experience for the sake of a picture. We saw the most amazing creatures and were closest to the whales on the dive where Mike did not bring his camera. No regrets. If you want to bring back incredible photos, Maui Digital Imaging sells the best ones at the best prices. Dan has been able to get the best underwater shots of whales and dolphins and anything else you would want on your wall. All the photos on my blog were of course taken by Mike.
-There are easy shore dives, and hard ones. Do the easy ones - Olowalu and Makena Landing. Boat dives are the best. Lanai's First Cathedral was my favorite. Thanks again to Lahaina Divers.
-South Pacific Kayaks for sea kayaking. We love their Makena Landing outings.

-Watch the sunset from Big Beach at least once. Any where on the west side the rest of the time. If you are willing to be one of the few people still wearing clothes (Or not - I won't tell), there is a sunset celebration on weekends at Little Beach, which is clothing optional. You never know how the people there will be celebrating the sun, but all the pre-sunset activity seems exuberant and innocent enough. I won't vouch for the after dark activity.
Have the kind of life that you will want to come back to. Live so that a trip to Maui is just another way to experience paradise in your life.
Now excuse me while I go give Mike a big kiss.

Monday, March 15, 2010


My brother-in-law, the dentist would have loved the things we saw on our dives yesterday. Many of them had teeth, none of which were aligned or fit within the creature's mouth. We saw plenty of open, or gaping mouths that had one or more very hard, sharp objects as part of them.
But the only thing that bit us was the coral. That only happened because we bumped into it when we weren't paying close attention. A little coral rash isn't bad on us, but not nice for the coral.
Back to the jaws.
I am fascinated by all the ways marine life consumes its food. Unlike humans, who will eat anything, at any time and in front of anyone, I have not seen many sea creatures actually having their meal. Except on National Geographic specials, and that is what most of them are about. Okay, actually they're about creatures multiplying and replenishing, hunting, killing and eating.

We did see some nudibranchs having kinky sex (mating if you are reading this to little kids), but we also saw lots of mouths hunting for something to eat.
We saw more and bigger eels today, one of them, a viper eel caught my eye because it was like seeing a rottweiler who needed braces staring out of a large hole in the reef 60 feet under water. Unlike other morays, this guy can't close his mouth because the teeth are so large and jagged. Quite a looker. For some reason it makes me think of a guy I once dated.

We came across a huge shell animal called Triton's Trumpet. It was consuming a very large sea star by slowing sucking its inner flesh out. Kind of like watching a can collapse from change in air pressure. Okay, now the kids can say "Eeeeew, gross!"

We saw a very rare Hawksbill Turtle. Its mouth looks guessed it, a hawk's bill. It was nestled in among the reef chomping away at the coral as if it were a crisp green salad. I didn't know turtles ate coral like that. It made my teeth hurt to think of it.
We found a large 6 foot reef shark under a collapsed wharf. The poor thing was just trying to take a nap, and we kept swimming around it taking its picture. Mike practically laid down next to it trying to get a close up. Our dive master saw it had a hook in its jaw, with fish line trailing out. She tried to get the line untangled and follow it up to the hook so she could remove it. She got to where she was trying to roll it over to get to the hook, when it woke up and decided that was enough. She figured it was time for us to back off at that point. It probably felt like any of us when our naptime is interrupted...grumpy. Reef sharks are usually non-aggressive, except when they're not.

There was a frog fish that likes to hang out on this wharf as well. It looks exactly like the coral around it. Even the little dangling lure on its head looks like coral. We found out that when it grabs any fish that goes for the lure, it is one of the fastest movements in the natural world. Less than 1/30 of a second. Frame by frame it looks like this - frog fish and fish, frog fish and fish, frog fish and no fish. That is how fast those jaws work. It reminds me of our kids eating dinner after a long swim meet. Now that was frightening.
I'm getting hungry. Think I will go eat now.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Road to Hana

Long day. We got up at 5:30 and spent the day seeing things along the Hana Highway. It amazes me to think that over 50 years ago my dad was traveling along that road on a horse and on foot as a very young missionary, but that is another story.
Many amazing things we were able to see and enjoy, but I will just touch on two highlights.

The last time we were here, we learned that the spirits of the ancestors dwell in the lava rocks. Mike took a small lava rock from one of the black sand beaches so he would make sure to return to Maui and bring the spirit of this ancestor back. Then he planned on taking another rock so he would need to return again with that one. We visited that black sand beach today. It was unexpectedly moving for him to return the rock to its home, and then choose another that would live with us until we return. He will keep it in his office, and look at it when he needs a reminder of why he goes to work every day.

Our other unexpected highlight was on the 4 mile hike to see Waimoku Falls. This waterfall is 400 feet high, and is in one of the canyons on the east side of Haleakala Volcano. We started at the coast and ascended through different kinds of woods, crossing over the gorge with many smaller falls and pools. Then we were in a dense bamboo forest. It was as if there was only us and the rich, green plants. That bamboo forest scene in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" could have been filmed here. When there was a breeze, the trees would whisper above, and as the trunks bumped into each other, we were surrounded by the rich, deep percussion melody like giant bamboo chimes. It was beautifully haunting.
The waterfall was also stunning.

Tomorrow we get to dive some more. For now, we relish the unique beauty of this day.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Detecting Monk and Turtle Love

I know I am sounding like a broken record, but today - like each day so far this week - has been the best day ever.
We went to a dive site on a beautiful, new catamaran. Now for the shameless commerce part of our show. If any of you ever make it to Hawaii, and you are willing and able to set aside some of the budget for a "I deserve to be spoiled" experience, then take one of the cruises offered on the Alii Nui. The one we went on is a morning sail to Turtle Point, where most of the passengers went snorkeling. We took the option to go scuba diving beyond Turtle Point and out to the edge of the reef to the wall where whales swim by and scrape off the barnacles accumulated during the long journey to Maui. The crew takes care of everything, including breakfast and lunch buffets prepared on the boat. The boat is large and even in rough water gives a smooth ride. It is much quieter than most boats, and we were able to see many whales that came quite close to us. We even had dolphins surfacing with the whales around the boat.
One of the whales we saw was a very young one with its mother. It stayed on the surface and seemed to be trying to learn how to do an impressive fluke slap on the water. It kept flipping its tail up and slapping it down, again and again. But it would flop around and come down at an angle, and sometimes the slap would make the little whale flip over.

It reminded me of little kids in the middle of a growth spurt - all arms and legs and not quite knowing how to handle the total yardage of their limbs. It was a tender thing to watch.
My best friend and dive master for the day was Nicole. Ask for her when you book the cruise. We saw some great stuff. The best was the "Who could have anticipated this" stuff.
I have mentioned that we were in Maui a few years ago, and we went snorkeling with our kids, and we saw a Monk Seal playing with a sea turtle at the edge of a reef, and our guide was amazed and told us many of the people who actually live there and study marine life have never seen that, and we were beyond lucky. We have heard from others that they might see a Monk Seal out on land, in secluded areas. But there are only 1100 of them left in the world, the population is declining, and only a couple hundred at any given time are in Hawaii, and no one ever sees them underwater, much less with a turtle.
Did I mention that seeing a Monk Seal is rare?

Today, we saw a Monk Seal, playing with a sea turtle, under the boat when we were diving the reef.
When you look at the picture, I want you to keep in mind that the Monk Seal is about 8 feet long, because the turtle is about 4 feet long. We know this because later, when the Monk Seal was gone and we were able to approach the boat (we are not allowed to approach a Monk Seal), the turtle came and hung around for a very up close and personal experience.

I think she (yes, it is a girl turtle, I can tell because of her eyelashes) has a crush on Mike. She would not get away from the diver's weight line. Then she swam right to me as if I weren't there. I moved aside and she swam to Mike and kept swimming around him, within inches of him. She finally moved away long enough for us to get in the boat. She hung around on the surface by the ladder while we ate our lunch, but Mike didn't get back in the water. We were off to see more whales.
I hope she gets over him. I am not willing to compete with such a strong swimmer.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Clutch of Eggs, A Cove of Dolphins, A Pod of Whales

More diving on Maui today. No offense to my many friends who love golf (which I think is a severe addiction for some, but it happens to be legal), but why would anyone come to Maui to golf when there is so much to see in the water? It is obvious that many do because there are a number of golf courses along the shoreline here. It is one of the unexplainable mysteries of the universe.
Actually we took a boat ride from Maui to dive at the next door island of Lanai. One of the whales we saw on the way was slapping its flukes on the water repeatedly. Huge splashes and a booming sound with each slap. One of the dive masters said that could at times go on for a very long time.
My best friend and dive master for the day was Todd. He told us about one of the times he was diving with a friend at Lanai. They were in a sand channel below a reef when a tiger shark came toward them and plunged suddenly into the sand, then shot out of it with a fish in its mouth. Right after that, his friend sat there checking the images he had on his digital camera. Todd looked up and from the deeper blue water emerged a whale and her baby, swimming right over both of them. He frantically tried to get his friend to look up, but he kept looking down at his camera. It was only when the whale was almost past him that he looked up, and got a picture of her tail as she swam away. Now that is quite a dive. Todd also told us that when we can hear whale song under the water, the whales are usually miles away. It is only when you hear it at the level of 160 decibels, and can feel the vibration to the core of your bones that you start looking over your shoulder for that whale. But they only sing when the are not moving. That might be painful, but what a way to go.
The opening act for today's dive was a section of reef wall covered in fish eggs. A variety of reef fish were going at these eggs like it was their last meal. It was like seeing an underwater all-you-can-eat buffet.
We were able to swim through several caves and caverns, one called the Cathedral. It is shaped just like one, complete with intricate patterned openings that look like a stained glass image of moving fish.
In between our dives, we boated through a cove that was full of spinner dolphins. They swam all around the boat, flashing under the water, leaping out and spinning like a corkscrew in the air. Shaun White has nothing on these guys. There were dozens and dozens of them, shooting under and over the surface, jumping everywhere. The captain anchored a little way off and let us get our snorkels on and get in the water. We were hoping the dolphins would come closer, but they didn't. It was still a treat to see.
The finale for the dive was on the way back to Maui. We came upon a whole pod of whales, at least eight of them. They were all moving very close, jostling and jumping over each other. It was like watching a bunch of college age kids playing basketball. It amazes me how creatures that weigh over 40 tons can move in such a group and still be so smooth and graceful.
Now for the encore. Mike and I were walking along the beach tonight, watching the sunset. Then just beyond the waves, we saw a small whale leap out of the water and splash back down, then again, and again. We saw its mom behind it, following closely. It was as if she was giving it lessons, and encouraging it to practice.
All day I kept looking at Mike's face, and I saw so much enjoyment there. I think his batteries are recharging.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Turtles and Sharks and Whales, Oh My!

Today we went sea kayaking. I thought we were going to paddle the kayaks along the coastline, then stop at a few places to go snorkeling from the kayaks. But that would be the routine at any other time of year. We did something differently because........
Our guide is probably not much older than our kids, but he was very knowledgeable. We also saw the guide we had a few years ago. He remembered us because when we went snorkeling from the kayaks with him, we saw a monk seal (extremely rare) playing with a sea turtle next to the reef (never happened before within sight of humans who actually talked about it). He still seemed so excited to recall that moment.
Anyway, our guide told us that we would first paddle out to open water and look for whales, then we would go snorkeling. Kayaks? In open water? Looking for whales? How cool is that?
Let me just say - and I can now say this from personal experience - seeing whales close up from a kayak is almost indescribable. So I won't try.
After that moving experience, we went snorkeling into reefs that formed over fingers of lava flows, with caves and swim through tunnels. I prefer staying near the surface with a snorkel, but Mike likes to dive down and swim through the holes and under ledges and get closer to the coral and marine life. I kept an eye on him as he dove down 30 feet to get pictures of a reef shark, and check out a sea turtle that was sitting under a ledge. I didn't want to take the chance he wouldn't come back up because his current life insurance isn't enough to enable me to travel to Hawaii every spring. There were scuba divers down looking through one cave, and I saw them do a double take when Mike swam by them with only a snorkel. I could practically see the thought bubbles along with the air bubbles over their heads saying, "Where is his scuba gear?" and "How is he doing that?"
He made it back up, with great pictures, too.
We were also able to hear the whale song at the surface when we were snorkeling, so they were quite close. I kept looking out to the deep water beyond the reef, expecting a whale to come to the reef. Not today, but there is always tomorrow.
So today we kayaked with the whales, swam with the turtles, and photographed the shark.
Enjoy the photos.

Take Me To The Volcano!

"Take Me To The Volcano!"
This is another favorite movie line, from "Joe Versus The Volcano". If you haven't seen it, go find it on Netflix, or Ebay, or somewhere. It is a must-see-before-you-die movie.
Before I get to todays installment of the Maui Chronicles, I need to backtrack.
Over three years ago we brought our three kids to Maui for a Thanksgiving vacation trip. We had a great time. I had been waiting years for the opportunity to use the "Maui is what bwings us togethow today" line on them, and I did as soon as we were in the rental car heading away from the Maui airport. The kids rolled their eyes and groaned at my Mama Joke. But they couldn't hide the fact that they were excited too.
The next day we dragged them out of bed very early to drive up to the top of Haleakala, a 10,000 foot tall volcano, to see the sunrise. As soon as we got everyone in the car and pulled out of the parking lot, I turned to them and said, "TAKE ME TO THE VOLCANO!" in the same vocal inflection Tom Hanks used in saying that line in the movie. More eye rolls and groans, some muttering and murmuring, then they got back to the business of going back to sleep until we got to the top.
Now I need to refer back to the first time Mike and I had been to Maui back in 1996. My sister and her husband had won a drawing for 10 days in a 2 bedroom condo on Maui and they invited us to join them. Trading in frequent flyer miles got us there, and we had a great time. We loved going from snowy winter to warm beaches. We also got up at 4 a.m. one morning to go see the sunrise at the top of Haleakala. It was still dark when we got to the top and found one last parking spot in the parking lot. We all jumped out to hurry over to the view point to get the first glimpse of sun. Within a few seconds we had all jumped back in the car. It was beyond freezing outside. It was colder than I had ever experienced. I hadn't even felt this kind of cold when we lived in Minnesota, and I lost feeling in three of my toes while living there. We didn't have any warm clothes, just our swimsuits and light clothing over them so we could go snorkeling later. We started digging around in the car for anything we could wrap around us to keep from turning into popsicles. We managed to endure the cold long enough to realize that the clouds were covering up the sunrise, and we were not going to see it.
So we had prepared the kids for that kind of cold. We told them about our first experience there. We told them we could still feel the bitter cold just by remembering it. We told them to bring every piece of clothing they had packed, and layer it all on until we could see the sunrise and rush back to the car. We told them and told them and told them that we were trying to prepare them so they would survive this great experience and thank us for it later.
We got to the top, braced ourselves, and got out of the car to fairly cool, but not bitter cold weather. We were actually over-insulated.
My kids looked at me with the "Is this another one of your 'I had to walk to school uphill, both ways, in the snow, in July because this was before summer vacation was invented' stories that you tell us all the time but which we will never believe because we know better now?" look that they have been giving me more frequently each year.
Oh the fickleness of the volcano.
We had a good time anyway, and saw a gorgeous sunrise.
This time Mike and I went in the afternoon. We went to see the huge crater, not the sunrise. Went to a lookout point before the summit. The whole view was covered in fog. We had been told to wait if it was foggy because it would clear. We waited. I said, "Volcano, reveal yourself!" It cleared. It was stunning and gigantic. I think I counted 7 large cinder cones almost lost in the middle of this massive crater. We decided to hike down the trail to the crater that was nearest the edge, just to look into it. We thought it would take about an hour.
Silly us.
The fog rolled back in and covered the crater, trail and everyone on the trail. We passed hikers and trail horses that were coming out, breathing hard and covered in droplets of cold dew. We kept going. I had an altitude headache. Even though I live in Colorado, I have not hiked above 9,000 feet. That's Mike's job. I have bicycled up to 11,000, but that is different. At that time, I turned around and road back down before the altitude could get to me.
I didn't like the thought that I was hiking down, and that meant I would have to climb back up. But the really hard thing was hiking in the fog. Visibility was only about 30 feet, and nothing grows up there. I felt like we were lost on a lunar surface in a dense mist. For a few minutes, the cold wind blew away the fog on the sides of the crater, but not in the crater. We couldn't tell if the first cinder cone was 100 feet or 100 miles away. After an hour, we turned around and hiked back out. 1 1/2 hours later, back at the summit, we looked into the crater again as the fog rolled away to reveal it all again. It is impressive, to see such dramatic landscape, and also look around and see the entire island of Maui, and other islands many miles away. Even with the fog, and altitude and hike, it was worth the experience.
Now, take me to the beach.
More of paradise tomorrow.

Monday, March 8, 2010

It's a Fluke!

Yes, one of my favorite lines from "The Princess Bride" is given by the pompous priest with the speech impediment performing the marriage, "Mawwage is what bwings us togetho today".
Maui is what brings us together today.
Mike and I have been in Maui for 24 hours.
On our first complete day here:
We rode a boat out to a crater where we got to scuba dive a couple of times.
We saw reef sharks, and morays, and had a "Finding Nemo" moment swimming around the reefs.
We went snorkeling from the shore through huge coral gardens.
We sat on the beach listening to the waves as dusk settled.

We cooked a wonderful fish dinner in the teeny kitchen.
And, best of all, the thing that if nothing else happened for the whole trip it would still be worth it, are you ready, here it is…
Anyone who has been to Maui in March knows that it is the height of whale migration around the island, and it is likely, at any given time to see whale spout, maybe glimpse a whale surfacing way off shore, and, if you are really lucky, a whale leaping out of the water, or breaching. This is what we were hoping and expecting to see.
It has been so much more than that.
There are whales everywhere - spouting, leaping, slapping their flukes 
and fins on the water repeatedly, whales swimming alone, with others, sometimes in large groups. We can hear whale song underwater when we are scuba diving.
 We can see all this from the shore.

And still, so much more.
When we were riding the boat to go scuba diving at the crater, we had to stop several times because whales surfaced in front of us, then swam to us and swam just under the surface around the boat. One time it was a small whale who seemed to be showing off or playing with us because he kept leaping out of the water and slapping his fins and flukes on it. Then, as he approached the boat and swam around it, I thought, "That just paid for the whole trip". 
The next time the boat had to stop, it was a mama and baby which had surfaced in front of us, then a large male showed up next to them, and they were gone. The third time, it was another baby, who also seemed to be playing with us. As it swam around the boat, the markings on its flukes seemed to glow. Yes, we got pictures, but kind of as an afterthought. We mostly just enjoyed being on the same planet with these huge creatures. After that, anything else that happens to us is a bonus. So much to be grateful for.
Now go and listen to a recording of Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World".
More tomorrow.