Molokai-Hammerheads at Last!
My first score in my hunt for hammerheads required certain gumption of spirit. Leaving from Maui, Lahaina Divers advertises a hammerhead dive across the channel at a remote pinnacle off the coast of Molokai known as Moku Ho’oniki rock. On further research, they claimed to see hammerheads nearly 90% of the time, and yet, as if to punctuate the difficulty of swimming with these animals, the best chance I had at seeing a school of these elusive sharks almost failed.
One might describe the trip across the Pailolo Channel between Maui and Molokai as energetic. Other suitable descriptors include terrifying, hair-raising, tempestuous and nauseating. This was my first look at truly rough waters, and because I had talked my poor, timid, land-lubbing girlfriend, Melanie, into tagging along, it was her first high seas experience as well. This was not an especially rough day for the channel, but I recall looking out over the wave crests at what appeared to be armies of lumbering giants marching to the horizon. In the wave troughs, ten-foot tall moving walls of water blocked all visibility.
Everything about this dive was hyped up to an eleven. “I have good news and I have bad news” the divermaster started his briefing. “The good news is there is a lee to all of this shit. The bad news is we are in it right now.” I looked down at the deck that rocked alarmingly while awash in saltwater. Because of conditions, the dropoff was live, meaning the boat was still moving forward when you leaped off the back. Our group met on the surface and dropped almost immediately. We were to hover at 80 feet to maximize bottom time, descending only to follow the action. At 80 feet, the wave surge is negligible, but the ocean currents here can be pretty crazy. The current grabbed us in a bad place and shuttled us along at a distressing rate. I watched as a point of rock came suddenly into view, rocketed past, and disappeared into the blue behind us. Unfortunately, after all of that hard work, our group spent the whole dive looking for sharks and not actually spotting any. If they see sharks 90% of the time, somebody has to be that 10%. My grief on the surface was amplified through the knowledge that the other two groups saw no less than 8 hammerheads apiece with one diver encountering a whale as he was about to climb aboard the boat.
While the rest of us fought hard to stave off the motion-sickness demons over our surface interval, the sea-dog crew danced, laughed and sang at every opportunity, reminding one of any scene in Pirates of the Caribbean. At first I thought they were nuts, but on inquiry, they claimed that singing helps keep them from getting ill. Motion sickness, they claimed, is all in your head. They continued rounds of English drinking tunes and telling dirty jokes. With every other customer on board acting much like Linda Blair at a pea-soup convention, I joined in timidly with the only song I could think of. “Row row row your boat…” The crew immediately stopped what they were doing and turned their manly, bearded to glare at me as if to say, “what the hell?” My own diminishing dignity aside, the first utterance of a joyous tune turned my entire trip around. Melanie’s trip was turning around, too. She had found a quiet spot off the bow to violently deposit a week’s worth of meals to the sea when, no more than a hundred feet away, a humpback whale breached magnificently as if showing off just for her. This was immediately followed by a huge pod of her favorite flippered creatures; dolphins. She gave one more good quality heave over the rail, wiped her mouth and was ready for the second dive.
Dive two could not have gone any different. Tuna streaked by at the surface, and while I had never seen tuna in the water before, I wasn’t here for them. I didn’t have to wait long for my real prize. No more than a couple of minutes passed before I saw my first hammerhead, lumbering along the bottom in no particular rush. It came in, looking at us with its mysteriously wide head before turning and cruising off into the blue beyond. At about nine feet, it was one of the larger sharks I had experienced at the time and after more than a year of searching, it was also one of the most beautiful.
The dive was far from over. As the hammerhead was still fading from view, a six-foot sandbar shark appeared cruising the bottom. As soon as it saw us, it changed course heading straight at Melanie! Mel bravely held her camera steady to catch a splendid video of the shark first bolting at her, then charging the divemaster, then splitting in as much of a hurry as it showed up. After it left, we had another encounter with a school of maybe 8 hammerheads. I dropped to their level and watched in amazement as they journeyed slowly past as if in some sort of trance. One of them turned on its side and swam for a ways while the others didn’t seem to take notice at all. They might have passed within 30 feet seemingly oblivious to our presence the whole time. Another few encounters later and it was time for our safety stop. From 20 feet I looked below me as two final hammerheads circled along the bottom 100 feet beneath.
The trip back to Lahaina was even rougher than the trip out to the site, yet somehow we didn’t notice. I guess I was too busy reveling in my own adrenaline. What a dive!
Sandbar shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus) approaching the dive group.
This image was taken fro our safety stop of dive #2.