Story by Catharine Lo | Photography by Tracy Kraft
It was shortly after 6:30 in the morning when I pulled up to the Kihei Boat Ramp. Trudging toward the water, I could feel the heat of the rising sun on my back.
Near the dock, seventeen eager passengers stood, applying sunscreen and waiting to board the Pineapple Express, a thirty-foot RAIV—the Rigid Aluminum Inflatable Vessel that puts the “raft” in Blue Water Rafting. This giant inner tube would be our ride for Blue Water’s “high-adventure” tour of the Kanaio Coast.
After the requisite safety orientation, our animated guide Dante and the cherub-faced Captain Aaron assisted us aboard, and we glided out to sea. The ocean was unusually flat, unaffected by the faint Kona winds. In the absence of trade winds, vog (volcanic smog) from the Big Island’s Kilauea volcano had settled over Maui. Molokini seemed a mirage, and West Maui was barely discernible in the haze. The only ripples came from the boat’s gentle wake; otherwise, the sea’s texture was sheet glass.
We were not thirty seconds out of the harbor when a turtle broke the surface. Captain Aaron slowed the raft to an easy drift while the passengers grabbed their cameras. I peered into the sea’s liquid window; it framed another world that promised peace and clarity. I wondered if there was an imaginary boundary somewhere offshore, past which this other world becomes our reality, a dimension where land is only an illusion.
The screech of an electric guitar jerked me back into the boat. What?! Captain Aaron had cranked the music and the wheel all the way to the right. Flexing the muscle of the twin 225-horsepower Honda motors, he began carving a donut through the still water. Some cherub!
With a death grip on the safety rope, I glanced at Dante, who grinned with demonic delight at our captain’s stunt. Then someone flipped the switch on centripetal force, flinging us toward Makena. The wind from the boat’s velocity quashed all other noise, save for the occasional shriek of excitement whenever we hit a watery speed bump. The bluster must have blown the fear right out of me, because after a minute of this wild bucking, my fists unclenched and my toes uncurled. I became a bird skimming effortlessly across the boundless, blue sea. I was free! No appointments. No voicemail. No seatbelt! Total exhilaration.
Aaron downshifted as we entered La Pérouse Bay, the eastern buffer of the ‘Ahihi-Kina‘u Natural Area Reserve. Haleakala’s most recent eruption, circa 1790, ravaged the community of Keone‘o‘io that once thrived here. That same volcanic episode spilled lava down the southern slope, and the flows meandered to the Kanaio Coast.
In the middle of Dante’s geology lesson, a host of pectoral fins emerged from the water. We gasped as a pod of spinner dolphins beelined for the boat. As their audience oohed and ahhed, they surfaced and dove at the raft’s bow for five minutes before resuming their morning routine.
We went about our own journey, cruising further down the coast. The summit of Haleakala loomed in the background, and lonely cinder cones abandoned by Pele, Hawai‘i’s volcano goddess, kept vigil over the desolate landscape of Honua‘ula. Our raft was dwarfed by the fifty-foot-high volcanic shoreline. The cliff’s color scheme was fabulous: rust, white, light gray, sand, slate, and a jagged crust of dark brown a‘a (lava) on top. Crimson and pink of coralline algae crept up from below the surface.
A boom sounded from a curious opening at the bottom of the cliff. Dante identified it as a compression cave. “A sideways blowhole,” he explained. Of course, we couldn’t leave without witnessing this phenomenon, so we floated a few feet from the mysterious hole, waiting for a surge. Eventually one came, swept into the chamber and then sprayed us like an explosive sneeze.
Moving on, we arrived at the entrance of what Dante dubbed “the Psychedelic Hallway,” a series of fantastical arches and grottos. If Alice had entered a lava tube instead of a rabbit hole, this would have been her Wonderland. This pageant of igneous rock featured walls corrugated with many-sided pillars, the product of different cooling rates. For the next half-hour, we marveled at this spectacular display of columnar basalt, the work of Pele, whose artistic hand, I decided, is terribly undermined by her destructive temper.
The next stop was a secret snorkel destination—but a distant whitewater splash diverted our mission. Whales! Switching course, we headed toward the splash zone, where we spotted a calf and its mother. In compliance with federal regulations, Aaron killed the engine when we were 100 yards away.
And then, amazingly, the whales swam to within a boat-length of us. In a moment of fright, I wondered if I would still be able to swim in the belly of a whale. The enormous creatures made a few erratic turns (a shark, someone speculated), and suddenly a bottlenose dolphin—bigger and much less frequently seen than spinners in Hawaiian waters—leapt out of the water as if to tell the whales, “Hey, guys! This way.” And off the merry party went.
Still reeling from this marvelous encounter, we zipped back toward land, arriving at a remote, glittering, turquoise bay.
We eagerly donned our fins and masks, and in every manner of clumsy, bounded into the blue. Instantly, my sight was vivid and clear—I was on the other side of the looking glass. The water felt chilly, but I was too distracted to care. I chased striped wrasses with spotted heads as they hunted for succulent mollusks. A fat-lipped parrotfish fuddled around, discharging bursts of sand. Clusters of yellow tangs roamed from coral head to coral head like shoppers at an underwater swap meet, policed by an iridescent blue cornetfish that went wherever his needle-nose took him. A spaghetti worm wiggled its outstretched tendrils, and I found myself waving back. Is this what they meant by “high” adventure? Had someone spiked my can of Hawaiian Sun?
Aboard the raft once more, we sped to our second snorkel destination, “Turtle World” (not to be confused with the more highly trafficked Turtle Town) outside Wailea, where we swam amid turtles, a stingray, and hundreds of red pencil urchins. Pleased as I was with the marine life, I was even more grateful for the warming touch of the mid-morning sun. Word to the wise: Bring a dry outer layer or change of clothes for the return trip up the coast; wet swimwear plus wind multiplied by hyper speed equals numb.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention our sighting at Makena! As we cruised past the beach park, we had the dubious privilege of observing one of nature’s most baffling species: homo sapiens. This particular assembly of humans must have just finished molting, as they were buck naked.
I should emphasize that none of the aforementioned sightings are guaranteed on this tour.
The profusion of resorts and condominiums along the shoreline signaled that we were back on the more familiar side of the looking glass. I swallowed the last bites of my sandwich as we turned into the harbor. When we reached the dock, I reluctantly stepped off the boat and back into reality.
Halfway to my car, I turned around for one last look. The Pineapple Express was already out of the harbor. I watched as it vanished into the vog, headed for Molokini.