Scuba Diving Niihau, Hawaii
The family-owned island of Niihau (Forbidden Island) gained international notoriety in 1941 when an Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service pilot crash-landed on the island after the attack on Pearl Harbour. With the Niihau incident well in the past, the seventh largest inhabited Hawaiian island is now revered for its unique flora and fauna, not only above the water but also underneath it. In 1987 tour groups operating from the larger Hawaiian Islands, especially Kauai, which is only 17.5 miles away, were allowed to conduct supervised activities on the island.
When the ocean is calm during the year, usually during the summer months, scuba dive companies from Kauai will undertake the lengthy boat trip west across the Kaulakahi Channel. Not only are the views of Kauai unparalleled from the ocean during this 2-hour journey, but divers also have the opportunity to witness numerous cetaceans on the way to Niihau. False killer whales, spinner dolphins, pilot whales and even beaked whales have all been spotted by boat.
Due to the remoteness of the location, the unpredictability of sea condition and potentially strong current Niihau is usually recommended for the advanced divers. The majority of dive operators will undertake 2 or 3 dives throughout the day, the first usually the deepest, in the range of 100 – 130 feet. There is one site that entices divers year after year, Vertical Awareness lies on the south-west rim of Lehua and is a site where depths drop off quickly, in fact, the steep walls are a common area to encounter the endangered endemic Hawaiian monk seal. An iconic Hawaiian species, there are only around 1500 monk seals left in the wild.
Often curious of humans it would be a rare day when at least one monk seal was not spotted. One individual resident, Oscar, is known to pose for pictures while resting on the rocky ledges. Make sure to glimpse into the gin-clear pelagic waters off the walls, mantas and schools of eagle rays can be seen during the winter months. The dive is not only for megafauna enthusiasts though, but macro photographers are also known to spend all dive searching the wall for resplendent nudibranchs including Vericose phyllidia and the splendid Hawaiian Harlequin Shrimp.
Apart from world-class marine life, Niihau’s marine topography is similarly iconic. Monolithic lava formations have created complex structures of lava tubes, arches and walls. The lava tubes are particularly impressive and would take months of dives to explore. Puu Muu and Niihau Arches are two sites that dive operators enjoy using for the second or third dive of the day. Divers can experience the full beauty of the lava tubes here, Puu Muu is particularly beautiful, covered by vast, prehistoric black corals which hang from the walls. The currents in the deep canyons can be strong, don’t be surprised to see turtles, sharks and even a monk seal or two swimming against the current.
As the evening light turns the highest layer of the ocean gold look into the blue during your safety stop, pelagic schools of mahi-mahi, wahoo and trevally are not uncommon.