May 18, 2012
After a couple of nights at Lono Harbor, we raised the anchor at 7 am on Tuesday morning (May 15th) and in calm, sunny conditions motored east towards Kaunakakai Harbor. Situated about half way along the southern coast of Moloka’i, this is the island’s main harbor so there is a regular stream of cargo-laden barges entering the channel which is carved out of the impressively shallow reef. We entered the harbor and circled a few times to identify where anchoring was possible just outside the turning basin. We had debated about spending a night or two here to explore a more populated part of Moloka‘i but we were anxious to indulge in more snorkeling before turning northward so decided that we might postpone a visit until we were on our way to Kaua‘i.
Motoring past the eastern half of Moloka‘i with its deeply carved, almost 5,000 ft-tall peaks (1,524 m) was certainly more visually stimulating than had been the flatter (max height 1,346 ft, 410 m) western half of the island. Once we cleared Kamalo Point and entered the narrow Pailolo Channel, the wind picked up considerably but being directly on the nose we decided to motor the 15 nm to the northern tip of West Maui rather than tacking under sail, knowing that the wind direction could change unfavorably as we neared the Maui coast. By the time we arrived in Honolua Bay, the last charter catamarans were just leaving for their downwind sail back to Lahaina and we were easily able to anchor in middle of the bay’s central, sandy channel. With a strong wind blowing over the cliffs to our north, our stern swung over the deep coral at the southern edge of the bay which looked a bit alarming at first. But once Randall swam down to check that the anchor was fully buried in the sand and to be sure that our chain was nowhere near any coral we felt very comfortable with our position. The coral was at least 30 ft (9 m) below us and when the wind subsequently turned more easterly, coming down the bay from the beach, we swung out, most satisfactorily, over the sandy channel.
The snorkeling during our previous stay in Honolua Bay had been so spectacular that there seemed to be a risk that we might be a little disappointed the second time around. Instead, it all seemed even better as we knew the rhythms of the Bay and the best places to linger. Someone was usually in or on the water soon after dawn, snorkeling or paddle-boarding, and the population on the beach slowly increased as the sun rose higher over the cliffs. The charter catamarans mostly arrived between 9 and 10 am but were gone by 2 pm so we developed a pattern of snorkeling soon after breakfast and then again in mid-afternoon. There seemed to be many more people snorkeling from the stony beach than we remembered from November but the bay can absorb a large number of people without starting to seem crowded. Once the cliff-top, sunset-viewers had left in the evenings, we were usually the only people in the bay and it was wonderfully peaceful.
Once we were convinced that Tregoning was securely anchored, we snorkeled on the reef behind her. It was wonderful to recognize the coral and rock formations from our previous visit and to be reunited with familiar species of fish and, no doubt, the same individual turtles. In addition to the large-scale grandeur of the site, our foray gave us our first sighting in Hawai‘i of a nudibranch (small, flattened sea slug), or at least that is what we thought it was. Subsequent online investigation revealed that the small purple creature trimmed with yellow that was crawling over the coral was probably in fact a flatworm (Platyhelminthes) which was still a first Hawaiian sighting for us (http://seaslugsofhawaii.com/general/look-alikes-flatworms.html).
The next morning, despite being rather cloudy, after passing over a group of turtles resting on the deep coral, we were treated to seeing the black diamond-shape of a coastal manta ray below us. It was not a huge one but with about a 5 ft wingspan (1.5 m) it was impressive enough as it circled just above the coral with its huge, toothless mouth slowly opening and closing. It seemed unlikely that it was feeding on plankton in such a confined area. Instead, we could see tiny (less than 4 inches or 10 cm) yellow and purple cleaner wrasse attending it, even going inside the gaping mouth. It is not unusual for cleaner wrasse to have specific cleaning stations on the reef and according to our fish book, manta rays may gather at “specific cleaning stations, the locations of which persist over years”. Sure enough, when we returned to the same site the next afternoon, we saw another manta ray gracefully flapping its wings as it circled in just the same way.
We knew that it was a different individual because the second ray was missing one of its “arm-like cephalic flaps which funnel water in the mouth as they feed”. Until we read about these appendages, we had marveled at what the first ray was doing because when not in use these flaps are furled in tightly rolled tubes on either side of the mouth. When the ray’s mouth opens, the flaps unfurl and are held-out, below and in front of the mouth to create a bit of a funnel. Lazily circling to be cleaned, the manta rays were constantly opening and closing their mouths with the corresponding flap unfurling and furling, turning on their sides so we could see their white underside, and generally trying to ignore us. It was truly captivating.
After dragging ourselves away from the first manta ray but before ending our Wednesday morning snorkel, we spotted an octopus scooting across some of the shallower coral. It quickly tucked itself under a small cluster of coral as we came closer but its head poked out far enough to keep its watchful eyes on us. All of the time it was changing colors so fast and was so perfectly matched with the surrounding coral that it was difficult to keep it in sight as we snorkeled towards it. For a while I had to just float above and stare at the exposed part of the octopus waiting for it to move a little or to change color so that I could convince myself that I was not just fixated on a solid piece of coral. With a head the size of a large grapefruit, it was one of the larger octopi we have seen, presumably because it has benefited from the absence of fishing in the Honolua Marine Life Conservation District.
I snorkeled alone on Wednesday afternoon but on Thursday morning we both swam around the rocky headland astern of Tregoning and explored the neighboring Mokule‘ia Bay which is also part of the Conservation District. As we had noted on our previous visit, these two bays are remarkably different with Mokule‘ia Bay having much less coral but more flat beds of rock and shallow sand leading up to a sandy beach. The fish population is still impressive with perhaps more larger-sized fish racing around in the surge and surf. We swam ashore on the fairly well-populated sandy beach and, perhaps looking a little odd in our full-body wet-skins, we climbed the stairs to the road so that we could look back down on the bay.
By the time we had completed our final snorkel (my sixth, all of which were at least an hour long) in Honolua Bay on Friday morning, I estimated that we had seen at least 90 fish species during this brief visit. Most were familiar species but we could now confirm the sighting of: a large, yellow-margin moray eel (because it was free-swimming and the bright yellow margin on its tail was obvious); some Polynesian halfbeaks; endemic white-saddle goatfish; stripebelly puffer; endemic Hawaiian hogfish; and ringtail wrasse. I had never identified the latter species before but once I started to notice them I saw them all over the reef suggesting that on our previous visit I must have erroneously assumed that they were some other species.
A fitting send-off for our final foray in Honolua Bay was that in the early morning calm before all the charter boats arrived, we found ourselves in an area of reef with eight tranquil turtles. Most were lying on the coral below us but one large individual, after ascending for air, stayed at the surface closely examining us with an unblinking and seemingly curious eye. Eventually, while we hung motionless and breathed very quietly through our snorkels, the turtle quite deliberately brushed up against my extended arm before slowly descending back to its resting place on the coral. What a magical, magical place.