Some people come to Maui for the sole purpose of plunging into the tropical Pacific and exploring the underwater world. You can see the great variety of tropical marine life (more than 100 endemic species found nowhere else on the planet), explore sea caves, and swim with sea turtles and monk seals in the clear tropical waters off the island. I recommend going early in the morning. Trade winds often rough up the seas in the afternoon, so most dive operators schedule early-morning dives that end at noon, and then take the rest of the day off.
Unsure about scuba diving? Take an introductory dive: Most operators offer no-experience-necessary dives, ranging from $119 to $150. You can learn from this glimpse into the sea world whether diving is for you.
Everyone dives Molokini, a marine-life park and one of Hawaii's top dive spots. This crescent-shaped crater has three tiers of diving: a 35-foot plateau inside the crater basin (used by beginner divers and snorkelers), a wall sloping to 70 feet just beyond the inside plateau, and a sheer wall on the outside and backside of the crater that plunges 350 feet. This underwater park is very popular, thanks to calm, clear, protected waters and an abundance of marine life, from manta rays to clouds of yellow butterflyfish.
For personalized diving, Ed Robinson's Diving Adventures (tel. 800/635-1273 or 808/879-3584; www.mauiscuba.com) is the only Maui company rated one of Scuba Diver magazine's top-five best-dive operators for 7 years straight. Ed, a widely published underwater photographer, offers specialized charters for small groups. Two-tank dives are $130; check in at their new store in the Kukui Mall, 1819 S. Kihei Rd., boats depart from Kehei Boat Ramp.
If Ed is booked, call Mike Severns Diving (tel. 808/879-6596; www.mikesevernsdiving.com) for small (maximum 12 people, divided into two groups of six), personal diving tours on a 38-foot Munson/Hammerhead boat with freshwater shower, a rare amenity that makes your post-dive experience much more pleasant. Mike and his wife, Pauline Fiene-Severns, are both biologists who make diving in Hawaii educational as well as fun. (They have a spectacular underwater photography book called Molokini Island, Island Heritage 2002.) In their 30 years of operation, they have been accident free. Two-tank dives are $145, including equipment, or $130 if you have your own equipment.
Stop by any location of Maui Dive Shop (www.mauidiveshop.com), Maui's largest diving retailer, with everything from rentals to scuba-diving instruction to dive-boat charters, for a free copy of the 40-page Maui Dive Guide (you can also order a copy from the website). Inside are maps of and details on the 20 best shoreline and offshore dives and snorkel sites, each ranked for beginner, intermediate, or advanced snorkelers/divers. Maui Dive Shop has branches in Kihei at Azeka Place II Shopping Center, 1455 S. Kihei Rd. (tel. 808/879-3388); Kamaole Shopping Center (tel. 808/879-1533); and Shops at Wailea (tel. 808/875-9904). In Lahaina, there is a shop at Lahaina Gateway Mall (tel. 808/661-5388). In Maalaea, there are shops at Maalaea Village (tel. 808/244-5514); Whalers Village, Kaanapali (tel. 808/661-5117); and Kahana Gateway (tel. 808/669-3800).
An Expert Shares His Secrets: Maui's Best Dives
Ed Robinson, of Ed Robinson's Diving Adventures, knows Maui's best dives. Here are some of his favorites:
Hawaiian Reef -- This area off the Kihei-Wailea Coast is so named because it hosts a good cross-section of Hawaiian topography and marine life. Diving to depths of 85 feet, you'll see everything from lava formations and coral reef to sand and rubble, plus a diverse range of both shallow- and deepwater creatures. It's clear why this area was so popular with ancient Hawaiian fishermen: Large helmet shells, a healthy garden of antler coral heads, and big schools of snapper are common.
Third Tank -- Located off Makena Beach at 80 feet, this World War II tank is one of the most picturesque artificial reefs you're likely to see around Maui. It acts like a fish magnet: Because it's the only large solid object in the area, any fish or invertebrate looking for a safe home comes here. Surrounding the tank is a cloak of schooling snappers and goatfish just waiting for a photographer with a wide-angle lens. Despite its small size, Third Tank is loaded with more marine life per square inch than any site off Maui.
Molokini Crater -- The backside of the crater is always done as a live boat-drift dive. The vertical wall plummets from more than 150 feet above sea level to around 250 feet below. Looking down to unseen depths gives you a feeling for the vastness of the open ocean. Pelagic fish and sharks are often sighted, and living coral perches on the wall, which is home to lobsters, crabs, and a number of photogenic black-coral trees at 50 feet.
There are actually two great dive sites around Molokini Crater. Named after common chub or rudderfish, Enenue Side gently slopes from the surface to about 60 feet and then drops rapidly to deeper waters. The shallower area is an easy dive, with lots of tame butterflyfish. It's also the home of Morgan Bentjaw, one of our friendliest moray eels. Enenue Side is often done as a live boat-drift dive to extend the range of the tour. Diving depths vary. Divers usually do a 50-foot dive, but on occasion advanced divers drop to the 130-foot level to visit the rare boarfish and the shark condos.
Almost every kind of fish found in Hawaii can be seen in the crystalline waters of Reef's End. It's an extension of the rim of the crater, which runs for about 600 feet underwater, barely breaking the surface. Reef's End is shallow enough for novice snorkelers and exciting enough for experienced divers. The end and outside of this shoal drop off in dramatic terraces to beyond diving range. In deeper waters, there are shark ledges at varying depths and dozens of eels (some of which are tame), including moray, dragon, snowflake, and garden eels. The shallower inner side is home to Garbanzo, one of the largest and first eels to be tamed. The reef is covered with cauliflower coral; in bright sunlight, it's one of the most dramatic underwater scenes in Hawaii.
La Pérouse Pinnacle -- In the middle of scenic La Pérouse Bay, site of Haleakala's most recent lava flow, is a pinnacle rising from the 60-foot bottom to about 10 feet below the surface. Getting to the dive site is half the fun: The scenery above water is as exciting as that below the surface. Underwater, you'll enjoy a very diversified dive. Clouds of damselfish and triggerfish will greet you on the surface. Divers can approach even the timid bird wrasse. There are more porcupine puffers here than anywhere else, as well as schools of goatfish and fields of healthy finger coral. La Pérouse is good for snorkeling and long, shallow second dives.
Snorkeling is the main attraction in Maui -- and almost anyone can do it. All you need are a mask, a snorkel, fins, and some basic swimming skills. Floating over underwater worlds through colorful clouds of tropical fish is like a dream. In many places all you have to do is wade into the water and look down. If you've never snorkeled before, most resorts and excursion boats offer instruction, but it's plenty easy to figure it out for yourself.
Some snorkeling tips: Always go with a buddy. Look up every once in a while to see where you are, how far offshore you are, and whether there's any boat traffic. Don't touch anything; not only can you damage coral, but camouflaged fish and shells with poisonous spines can also damage you. Always check with a dive shop, lifeguards, and others on the beach about the area in which you plan to snorkel: Are there any dangerous conditions you should know about? What are the current surf, tide, and weather conditions? If you're not a good swimmer, wear a life jacket or other flotation device, which you can rent at most places offering watersports gear.
Snorkel Bob's (www.snorkelbob.com) or Boss Frog's Dive and Surf Shops (www.bossfrog.com) will rent you everything you need.
Maui's best snorkeling spots include Kapalua Beach; at Black Rock at Kaanapali Beach, in front of the Sheraton; along the Kihei coastline, especially at Kamaole III Beach Park; and along the Wailea coastline, particularly at Ulua Beach. Mornings are best because local winds don't kick in until around noon. Olowalu has great snorkeling around mile marker 14, where there is a turtle-cleaning station about 150 to 225 feet out from shore. Turtles line up here to have cleaner wrasses pick off small parasites.
Ahihi-Kinau Natural Preserve is another terrific place. I recommend it, even though it requires more effort to get there, but it's worth it because it's home to Maui's tropical marine life at its best. You can't miss in Ahihi Bay, a 2,000-acre state natural area reserve in the lee of Cape Kinau, on Maui's rugged south coast, where Haleakala spilled red-hot lava that ran to the sea in 1790. Fishing is strictly kapu (forbidden) here, and the fish know it; they're everywhere in this series of rocky coves and black-lava tide pools. The black, barren, lunarlike land stands in stark contrast to the green-blue water. After you snorkel, check out La Pérouse Bay on the south side of Cape Kinau, where the French admiral La Pérouse became the first European to set foot on Maui. A lava-rock pyramid known as Pérouse Monument marks the spot. To get here, drive south of Makena past Puu Olai to Ahihi Bay, where the road turns to gravel (and sometimes seems like it will disappear under the waves). At Cape Kinau, three four-wheel-drive trails lead across the lava flow; take the shortest one, nearest La Pérouse Bay. If you have a standard car, drive as far as you can, park, and walk the remainder of the way. For information on the preserve, go to www.dofaw.net, scroll down to "Programs," then "Natural Area Reserve System," then click "Natural Area Reserves System," and then click Maui on the map. The Department of Land and Natural Resources (tel. 808/984-8100) has a free printed brochure available by mail. (A website was still under construction as of this writing.)
When the whales aren't around, Capt. Steve's Rafting Excursions (tel. 808/667-5565; www.captainsteves.com) offers 5 1/2-hour snorkel trips from Mala Wharf in Lahaina to the waters around Lanai (you don't actually land on the island). Discounted website rates of $124 for adults and $89 for children 12 and under include breakfast, lunch, snorkel gear, and wet suits.
Snorkel Cruises to Molokini -- Like a crescent moon fallen from the sky, the crater of Molokini sits almost midway between Maui and the uninhabited island of Kahoolawe. Tilted so that only the thin rim of its southern side shows above water in a perfect semicircle, Molokini stands like a scoop against the tide, and it serves, on its concave side, as a natural sanctuary for tropical fish and snorkelers, who commute daily in a fleet of dive boats to this marine-life preserve. Note: In high season, Molokini can be crowded with dozens of boats, each carrying scores of snorkelers.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.