Friday, May 24, 2024

Kona Blue

Kona blue. No, it’s not the latest Starbucks mocha fad, but rather Hawaii’s predominant geological — deep Pacific. The waters off Hawaii’s Kona coast are famous for getting deep fast. At some coastal points, you can head one mile out to sea and find yourself floating over a 12,000-foot canyon. And if you dip your dome into the Kona wild, you’ll enter a realm of astonishing, overwhelming blue.

Legendary underwater photographer Christopher Newbert deftly shared his Kona blue impressions in his seminal book, Within A Rainbowed Sea:

"My immediate reaction every time I slide into the open sea miles off the Kona Coast and look down into thousands of feet of ocean is simply, blue. Endless, transparent blue. Startling. Electric. It is blue beyond comprehension, and blue underscored by the piercing, dancing shafts of light which stab deep into the void beyond. Whatever blue you’ve seen, you’ve never seen this kind of blue. It shocks the senses; the impact is unnerving."

Newbert distinguished himself in the international diving community by accepting a National Geographic assignment that none of his counterparts would touch with a ten-foot spear gun. He agreed to conduct solo drift dives at night, miles from shore, to photograph whatever was attracted to his strobe light. Drifting at depths exceeding 100 feet, Newbert could only hope that the surface currents bore resemblance to those below. If they did not, he stood little chance of relocating his skiff.

Newbert’s exploits in the Hawaiian deep both piqued my sense of marvel and tapped my fear of the unknown. Submitting yourself to a billion gallons of electric blue requires serious psychological preparation — you have to gather your resolve and expose yourself to the world’s largest wilderness tract. And big wilderness begets big animals.

My first Kona submersion started in a sea kayak. We were aboard my friend Max’s dive boat, five miles out to sea, when a pod of humpback whales materialized off the starboard bow. Max cut the engine and my brother, wife and I launched the kayaks. An undulating swell bore us in the general direction of the whales.

Fifteen minutes into the paddle, we lost contact with the whales, and I suspected that strong currents had drawn us from our destination. During a break to scan the horizon, I heard a faint call from Max on the mother ship: "get in the water, get in the water!" As I turned toward his voice, a monstrous tail rose before my kayak and then disappeared beneath the swells. We all froze, paralyzed in the face of colossal wilderness. And then, without a further thought, we donned our free diving gear and rolled into the sea.

Instead of an oversized mammal, my first encounter was simply blue. I couldn’t adjust to my surroundings – to the suspension, the silence, and the overpowering color. The water was pulsing. Newbert’s words danced through my brain. This was indeed unnerving, I thought.

Gradually, I started to adjust to the Kona blue. I actually moved for the first time and saw that the currents had separated me from my wife and brother. They were motionless; heads cocked like hounds tuned to a fresh scent. I followed their gaze and saw the ocean climbing to meet me. A 50-foot bull humpback was slowly rising from a deep feed and I was floating squarely in its ascent line. Before I could react, the whale paused thirty feet below me. Its size was blinding. Through my refracted lens, the whale looked comically large.

The humpback broke my daze with a mighty sweep of its tail. Two other whales had materialized and the bull was swimming to meet them. A pair of Pacific spotted blue dolphins joined the aquatic show and the whole scene erupted into dance, with the whales and dolphins spiraling toward the surface.

We followed the cast for ten minutes before the humpbacks once again surfaced, arched downward and plummeted into the belly of the sea. The dolphins circled us before they too disappeared. We were once again alone, bobbing in the Hawaiian swell. My mind was blank, save for Newbert’s eloquent testimony: "whatever blue you’ve seen, you’ve never seen this kind of blue."


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