Defining Paradise: The ‘Big Island’ of Hawaii

Close your eyes and envision paradise. Your mind’s eye may conjure images of lush rain forests filled with cascading waterfalls, isolated beaches, snow-capped mountains, coastal deserts and blue seas. Let’s bless this land with a rich history, fascinating culture and beautiful people who have a welcoming spirit. If you are a certified scuba diver, or on your way to becoming one, you will likely envision warm, crystal-clear blue water where colorful tropical reef fishes flourish, and where you can also enjoy encounters with green turtles, manta rays, and even humpback whales. You might as well add a healthy collection of invertebrates, a shipwreck or two and perhaps an open-ocean encounter with dolphins.

No need to abandon this imagined paradise upon opening your eyes and returning to real life. To enjoy such an idyllic place just visit the island of Hawaii. While everyone knows that Hawaii is a state in the United States, people sometimes are surprised to learn that the biggest island in the state is also named Hawaii.

The Big Island: Climate and Topography

While the Big Island is twice the size of all the other major Hawaiian Islands combined, speaking in global terms, the Big Island really isn’t very large. However, diversity in climate and topography is one of the island’s strongest attractions.

There are only two seasons: summer, a period from May through October, and winter, the period from November through April. The average daytime summer high temperature at sea level is 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius) while the average daytime high temperature at sea level in winter dips only a few degrees to 78 F (26 C).

The climate on the Big Island varies much more according to location than season. Legend has it that two Hawaiian gods, the volcano goddess Pele and the weather-controlling god Kamapua’a, struck a deal to make the west side of the island dry and its east side lush and wet.

The reality is there are 12 distinct climate zones on the island with extremes ranging from the tropical rain forests of the eastern side to the frozen tundralike permafrost conditions on Mauna Kea to arid costal desert in the south. The western coast, the home of the island’s tourist destination hot spot of Kailua-Kona and the region that attracts the vast majority of visiting divers, enjoys a well-deserved reputation for perennial sunshine. It can get quite warm and humid at times, but to escape the heat all you have to do is head up the mountain into coffee country where you experience cooler temperatures.

While there are a number of white sandy beaches on the Big Island, especially along the Kohala coast north of Kona, the Kona area coastline is mostly rocky. Some of the beaches are quite popular and others are remote and isolated. Even though professional lifeguards attend many beaches, it is wise to keep an eye on the surf and to watch for possible rip currents and submerged lava rocks.

On the eastern side of the island the community of Hilo sits in a beautiful crescent-shaped bay that is bounded by lush rain forests. You are unlikely to find nearly as many visitors in Hilo, probably because there is measurable rainfall an average of 278 days a year.

Circumnavigating the island by driving is an all-day affair. Some roads follow the coastline and are for all practical purposes at sea level, but in other places the main road gains considerable elevation as it wanders through rain forests, coffee country and macadamia nut groves. It is prudent for divers to keep in mind that it is not safe to travel to elevated areas immediately after diving due to the increased risk of developing the bends.

Volcanic Origin

Any meaningful discussion about the geology of any of the islands in Hawaii has to center on volcanoes. The Big Island is the home of five volcanoes: Mauna Loa, Kilauea, Hualalai, Kohala and Mauna Kea. Two of the world’s most active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea continue to add to the island’s landmass.

The peak of Mauna Kea rises 33,476 feet (10,144 m) above the floor of the Pacific Ocean, making it not only the tallest volcano on the island but also the tallest mountain on earth. When measured from its base on the seafloor to its peak, Mauna Kea eclipses Mount Everest by more than 4,000 feet (1,212 m). In addition to providing spectacular scenery, the volcanoes also play a big role in the island’s weather. Volcano visitors want to be prepared for the rain and chilly nights in volcano country.

The Gods of History

The human history of the Big Island is shared with the people of the entire archipelago. The islands are believed to have been uninhabited by humans until the first Polynesians arrived in sailing canoes in about A.D. 300. Their descendants likely lived in peace for about 500 years. Sometime around A.D. 1200 the Tahitians arrived, and they soon began to subjugate the existing population.

The body of laws known as the kapu governed and gave fabric to the Hawaiian society of that period. According to the kapu system Hawaiian society was divided into four groups: the chiefs, priests and craftsmen, commoners, and outcasts. The kapu system also addressed the use, protection and conservation of many natural resources. However, there was still a higher kapu — that of the gods. Many historians believe that the kapu system brought Hawaiians a system of laws and rituals protecting the spiritual power of energy that existed in all living things. This belief was symbolized in part through the worship of many gods, with the four principal ones being Kane, the God of Life; Ku, the God of War; Lono, the God of Agriculture; and Kanaloa, the God of the Ocean. In addition, there were dozens of demigods ruling over the natural world.

The Modern World Arrives

Europeans first arrived in 1778 when the famed British explorer Captain James Cook and his crew sighted Oahu. Believed by some to be the reincarnated god Lono, Cook first was received with great reverence. However, he was killed by Hawaiians on the Big Island the following year.

Cook’s “discovery” of the archipelago was big news in Europe and America. Soon whalers and traders from America, England, Russia and France headed for Hawaii. Of course, various governments from these competing foreign lands had self-serving ideas about the value of the “newly discovered” Hawaiian island to their homelands. Numerous missionaries arrived with the nationalistic forces.

Unfortunately, the arrival of so many foreigners also brought a host of previously unknown diseases. It is estimated that when Cook first arrived the population throughout the islands was roughly 500,000, but it dwindled to less than 50,000 by 1875.

Although it was strongly opposed in some quarters, the islands of the Hawaiian archipelago were annexed by the United States in 1898. Hawaii became America’s 50th state in 1959.

The Undersea Realm

The dive sites off the Big Island are legendary for their marine life, exceptionally good visibility and variety. In particular, the Kona Coast is blessed with more than 80 known dive sites and some of the state’s calmest water. Although it cannot be guaranteed, the underwater visibility often exceeds 100 feet (30 m). Be aware, the water is slightly cooler than it is in many tropical destinations, and many divers use 5-mm wet suits as well as a hood and gloves to keep warm.

Whether it is swimming through a lava tube filled with a school of colorful snapper, getting eyeball to eyeball with a green turtle, or diving with feeding manta rays at night, the reefs of the Big Island have plenty to offer divers of all experience levels. In fact, about 23 percent of the fish species found in the state’s waters are only found in Hawaii, meaning a trip to Hawaii offers the opportunity to see a lot of creatures that simply cannot be seen in any other diving destination.

The reefs drop off dramatically in some places and you will want to keep a close eye on your depth gauge, but there are a lot of sites with excellent diving in only 30-50 feet (9-15 m) of water. Another attraction of Big Island diving is that during surface intervals operators often cruise a short distance out into the deep blue water of the Pacific to look for dolphin pods, pilot whales, oceanic whitetip sharks and other nomadic open-sea creatures.

Much of the diving on the Big Island is done from local charter boats. They typically provide tanks, weights, divemasters and some food and drinks. Nitrox is available through some operators. A typical day charter involves a two-tank dive leaving the dock after breakfast and returning by early afternoon. Some afternoon boat dives are available as are night dives. Beach diving is a popular activity as well, but some shores are rather rocky and locating good entry and exit points can be tricky the first time you visit a new dive site. The live-aboard dive charter Kona Aggressor II enables guests to see more sites than those concentrated around the Kona Coast where most day charters go.

The nighttime manta ray dive at Garden Eel Cove is often thought of as Kona’s signature dive. Divers usually enter the water right around sunset and form a loose circle around a number of very bright lights put in place by the dive operators at a depth of about 35 feet (11 m). The light attracts plankton that serves as a magnet for rays. With mouths agape the mantas swim through the plankton, often doing a series of graceful back flips right in front of the divers.

Terrestrial Pleasures

Narrowing the list of things you want to see and do, so that the list is practical, can be a challenge. From spa treatments and fine dining, to hikes to waterfalls and through rain forests, from watersports to golf, the Big Island has plenty to offer visitors.

The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offers a setting where visitors can see the Kilauea caldera and enjoy some great scenery. The park entrance is 4,000 feet (1,212 m) above sea level, and it is wise to bring warm clothes. Those who travel to the Hilo area might want to take the opportunity to enjoy numerous waterfalls fed by streams on Mauna Kea that cascade over dramatic gulches and visit the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.

You can go for scenic helicopter tours that provide unique views of the volcanoes and coasts, hire a guide and rent all-terrain vehicles and get out and see some of the island’s out-of-the-way treasures, or rent a bicycle and cruise around Kailua-Kona. Sunset cruises and dolphin tours are also available. Ocean rafting and ocean kayaking offer alternative ways to go to sea. During the winter, whale-watching tours seek out humpback whales. And any time of year you can go parasailing, sailing, surfing, or take a ride on a glass-bottom boat or submarine. Polynesian dinner shows that include hula dancing are available nightly, and so is a long, quiet walk on a beach.

No matter how you picture paradise, it’s available on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Story and Photography by Marty Snyderman