BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII: Virgin Snorkelers at Kapoho Tide Pools

Our lives have moments of pure awakening, when we experience a place (or a new idea or fresh music or a great book) for the first time. That was our experience in the Kapoho Tide Pools, a wonderful coral reef south of Hilo.

Snorkelers and Coral Reef off Big Island of HawaiiKaren Rentz and our friend floating over the Kapoho coral reef

Our lives have moments of pure awakening, when we experience a place (or a new idea or fresh music or a great book) for the first time. That was our experience snorkeling in the Kapoho Tide Pools, a wonderful coral reef south of Hilo.

Reflections of Coral Reef on Surface of Kapoho Tide Pools off HaDappled by sunlight, the coral reef casts its reflections up on the surface

Snorkeling was entirely new to us. The idea of safely breathing underwater while encountering strange creatures was so alien that we wondered if we could even do it. A variety of relatives and friends had tried it and had trouble with trying to breathe and swim underwater at the same time. We were apprehensive, but how can you go to Hawaii and not even try? On the other hand, we didn’t try surfing, the other great Hawaiian form of water play.

We started by visiting a dive shop, and getting lots of advice on masks and snorkels. After purchasing our first masks and snorkels (from an online source, without fitting the masks first–a big mistake!), we visited our local high school swimming pool during free swim hours, and learned how to breathe through a snorkel, knowing that a life guard might be able to save us if we inhaled water instead of air. I took the risky step of investigating–then purchasing–a truly expensive underwater camera housing so that I could potentially take some coral reef photographs. That step forced me to make it a success!

For snorkeling wear, we each obtained a shorty wetsuit, which covers the torso and thighs and upper arms, and gives some warmth in cool seas. In May in Hawaii, it proved to be just right, though on land I felt like I had been stuffed into a casing like a sausage. We also wore neoprene caps to keep our heads warm and out of the sun. Finally, we wore neoprene booties to prevent the abrasion of the upper foot surfaces that flippers can cause. After all these purchases, we read that two Washington State snorkelers had just drowned while trying this new activity off the Hawaiian coast. Oh oh …

We flew to Hawaii, then drove around the island to visit some old friends who are now living on old lava flows south of Hilo. They had agreed to host our first few days in Hawaii, and to teach us how to snorkel in a place that has the reputation of being among the best snorkeling places on the Big Island. First they took us to a small cove along the coast that features water heated by volcanic activity. It was like snorkeling in bathwater, and was a shallow and forgiving place to try the basic techniques. There were even a few coral reef fish enjoying the water with us.

After graduating from the kiddie pool, we went with our friends to the Kapoho Tide Pools, which is actually a narrow and small bay that provides a relatively protected coral reef experience. We walked a short trail to a public access point, then donned our flippers and masks, and apprehensively floated off into the bay from a lava shelf.

Snorkeler's Legs at Kapoho Tide Pools on Hawaii Big IslandMy beautiful legs at the edge of the Kapoho Tide Pools; this small cove is bordered by cottages and a community park where visitors can enter the sea

We immediately experienced magic, with bright yellow Raccoon Butterflyfish and vivid lavender Blue Rice Coral and a hundred other creatures. The crystalline aqua waters revealed the promised new world to us, and it was even more wonderful than we could have imagined!

On our first day at Kapoho we gradually grew more confident about snorkeling, learning to expel water from a mask, clear a snorkel that had taken on water, and deal with leg cramps from flippers that were too long. Eventually we grew physically tired and hauled ourselves out for the day–wonderfully satisfied with what we had seen and learned.

Karen Rentz Snorkeling off Big Island of HawaiiWe each used a camera underwater to try and capture the magic

We returned the next day, enthused about seeing the place again. This time we had more challenges: we ventured out to where waves were roiling the reef, and found out that swimming and photographing under wavy conditions was more difficult than it had been in the bay’s more protected areas. Karen got a little seasick while trying to photograph where waves were tossing us around, and I was shoved by a wave into some coral, which left a coral-shaped bloody pattern on my knees and lower legs. Fortunately there weren’t any sharks nearby! We also found that saltwater tastes really salty, after ingesting too many mouthfuls.

Raccoon Butterflyfish in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hilo Coast of BigA school of Raccoon Butterflyfish in the aqua waters, watching us get our snorkeling lessons

Blue Rice Coral in Kopoho Tide Pools on Hawaii's Big IslandVivid purple of the Blue Rice Coral, a species found only in Hawaii and becoming rare

Blue Rice Coral, Montipora flabellata, in Kopoho Tide Pools on HThe corals are incised with dark lines; these are the recesses where Petroglyph Shrimp live

Slate Pencil Urchin and Coral in Kapoho Tide Pools off HawaiiSlate Pencil Urchin, with its fat reddish-orange spines, lives among the corals and other species of sea urchins

Ringtail Surgeonfish and Reef Reflections off Big Island of HawaRingtail Surgeonfish were one of approximately 35 species of fish we saw in this reef habitat

We were finally tired after two hours in the waves, and swam back to haul ourselves out. When I looked down at my legs, I realized that the backs of my Seattle-white legs were suddenly vivid pink.  As were Karen’s. Not good. We had forgotten to apply sunscreen, and hadn’t realized that we could get such an intense burn while snorkeling. Unfortunately, these burns were painful for Karen the rest of the trip, and she used a great deal of aloe vera to alleviate the pain and heal the skin. Live and learn.

We came away from our two snorkeling trips to the Kapoho Tide Pools newly aware of the wonderful world of the coral reefs. Sure, we had visited such reefs vicariously on television, but nothing can compare to actual experience. We learned new skills, and came away enthralled by a place of transcendence that we shall never forget.

Karen Rentz Snorkeling in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hawaii's Big IslWhen we swam to the mouth of the cove, the waves became more powerful and it was easier to lose sight of one another

Karen Rentz Snorkeling in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hawaii's Big IslI used a fisheye lens in this fisheye kind of place; this proved wonderful for showing the expanse of coral reef, often including reflections and the sky, as in this photograph of Karen

Photographer Lee Rentz Snorkeling off Big Island of HawaiiI even did a self-portrait with the fisheye lens, in which I come out looking a lot like a fish

Over-under View of Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiI did a bit of what is called “over-under” photography here, simultaneously revealing the surface and underwater scenes

Saddle Wrasse and Plump Sea Cucumber off Big Island of HawaiiA fat sea cucumber and a Saddle Wrasse add color to the reef

Ringtail Surgeonfish and Reef Reflections off Big Island of HawaRingtail Surgeonfish and reef reflections up to the surface

Resting Yellowfin Goatfish in Kopoho Tide Pools off Big Island oYellowfin Goatfish rest the day away in sandy alcoves among the coral, then feed at night

Corals in the Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiI found the surface reflections of the shallow reef endlessly fascinating; these are best where the reef is topped by shallow water, as it is here

Corals in the Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiI haven’t figured out what caused all these bubbles floating in front of the lens

Coral and Reef Bottom in Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawWith small waves and a bright sun overhead, the surface casts this network of sunlit wave patterns on the floor of the reef

Convict Tangs over Coral Reef off Big Island of HawaiiConvict Tangs are named for their prison-issue uniforms

Karen Rentz Snorkeling in Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HaFor those who haven’t tried it: snorkeling involves a mouthpiece attached to a hollow plastic tube that goes above the water. The nose is stuck inside the face mask, and isn’t used for what God intended it to be used for. Snorkelers become mouth breathers.

Snorkelers Reflections at Kapoho off Big Island of HawaiiKaren and Alice gliding through a liquid passage between sky and earth

Lined and Threadfin Butterflyfish off Big Island of HawaiiLined and Threadfin Butterflyfish above a sandy spot in the reef

Raccoon Butterflyfish in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hilo Coast of BigRaccoon Butterflyfish were approachable, often coming within inches of my lens

Rice Coral in Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiRice corals remind me of some of the shelf fungi that grow on trees–but on a much bigger scale

Looking Up Toward Surface of Kapoho Tide Pools off HawaiiWho knows what we’ll next find as we swim the length of the reef?

We used an excellent ebook snorkeling guide for advice on snorkeling hotspots. The Big Island Hawaii Snorkeling Guide is available at Tropical Snorkeling.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

HAWAII MANTA RAY ADVENTURE: Night Snorkeling with Huge Winged Fish

At one point, a big Manta Ray swung up from the ocean bottom and came directly toward us, with its gaping mouth open, and circled within perhaps a foot of us–not touching any of us. It was a thrill beyond belief for this landlubber from the great Midwest.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-129A Manta Ray glides toward us in the Pacific Ocean, lit by the lights of divers and snorkelers

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-77A magical view of fish gathering in the lights

The idea was intriguing. We would go out at night in the Pacific Ocean and snorkel with huge Manta Rays with 15′ wide wingspans that would come within inches of us. Or maybe the idea was just plain scary! Anyway, we decided to do it.

One key thing to realize is that Mantas are not carnivores who would eat people. That helped. Yes, their mouths gape wide and could swallow Jonah or Karen, but that has never happened (to the best of our knowledge!). They eat the ocean’s small stuff, such as shrimp and plankton and small fish, much as many kinds of whales eat small krill and some Grizzly Bears eat moth larvae (oops, not a good example, because they eat much bigger stuff too!).

We checked in at a dive shop at a strip mall in Kona. The enthusiastic staff outfitted us with wetsuits and prepared us for the experience. They had us sign the waiver form, and told us to meet at a marina at 5:30 p.m. We drove there and met up with our group, and with the staff who would be guiding us.

We signed up to go out on a tiny boat with three crew members. Our group had ten snorkelers and two scuba divers: four Swiss, two French, two Canadians, and four Americans. All of us had some previous experience in the ocean, though in the case of Karen and I it was just a few hours previous snorkeling, and that was in shallow waters.

When the boat was ready, we climbed aboard and motored out of the marina and into the choppy Pacific Ocean. We surged north along the coast, bouncing along the waves in the early evening. When we reached our destination, we set anchor and wriggled into our wetsuits, enjoying and enduring all the joking of the crew. The staff really went out of their way to make us feel at ease in what was a really alien experience for all of us. However, we were there long enough, bobbing in the ocean, that Karen grew queasy with the motion; we should have taken two tablets of Bonine.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-4Preparing for the experience, putting on wetsuits and checking our gear

One guide asked the divers if they were sure they could handle the idea of a huge Manta brushing right by their heads; one tiny young woman from Switzerland looked scared to death, but she decided to do it anyway. The divers were told not to wear snorkels attached to their masks, because the Mantas can sense the electrical fields of the human body and not touch living flesh, but the snorkel projecting above the head wouldn’t be sensed, and they could collide with it, ripping off a diver’s mask. I don’t even want to think about that possiblity, but I suspect it happened once upon a time.

Viewing Manta Rays is a surprisingly social experience. Several companies take out clients to one spot in the ocean, near the Kona airport, where the Mantas are known to feed. The people who want to scuba dive go down to the ocean bottom with bright dive lights. They are spaced out by the boat crews so that they cover perhaps a 100 x 100′ area of the ocean floor, and they project their dive lights upward. Those who want to snorkel grab onto a floating square made of PVC pipe with their two arms, and look downward. Each boat has its own floating square, and each square is equipped with lights projected downward. The night we went there may have been about 100 people participating, with perhaps twice as many snorkeling as diving.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-52Snorkelers holding onto a square assembly of PVC pipes that holds lights (looking up toward the ocean surface)

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-53Self portrait at night, using a noodle float to help stabilize me and my big camera housing

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-73Bubbles rise from the scuba divers below; Karen was wearing a shorty wetsuit and said that the bubbles uncomfortably tickled her arms and legs

The whole experience hinges upon the lights, so the more lights the better. With all the lights in the ocean, plankton and other small prey creatures swim toward the lights, which concentrates this source of food for the Manta Rays. The rays have come to expect this, so they come to feed near the lights. Which is why we get to see these otherwise hidden creatures of the deep. Over two hundred different Mantas have come to feed here; the staff can identify them by the markings on their bodies.

We climbed down into the dark water and swam over to the floating square. As a group, we moved out away from the boat and began peering down into the water, at once seeing the magic of all the lights projected up from the ocean bottom. I felt like I was in a spaceport, expecting the alien Manta spacecraft to arrive any second. By this point on our Hawaii trip, breathing through a snorkel became almost second nature, so we were able to relax in the ocean. The ocean was warm enough that we felt entirely comfortable in our wetsuits.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-83

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-89Hawaiian Flagtails gathered in the lights to feed, attracted to the concentration of plankton

Actually, it took some time for the Manta Rays to arrive. In the meantime, fish swirling in the lights kept us entertained and gave my itchy shutter finger something to do (I can’t stand it if I can’t take pictures!). Eventually, two Mantas swam gracefully into view, and I discovered that my alien spacecraft vision was not very far off. They truly do look alien.

At one point, a big Manta swung up from the ocean bottom and came directly toward us, with its gaping mouth open, and circled within perhaps a foot of us–not touching any of us. It was a thrill beyond belief for this landlubber from the great Midwest.

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-113

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-130

Manta_Ray_Snorkel-131The huge mantas wheeled gracefully in the ocean

Eventually, the lights on the ocean bottom switched off as the divers started ascending, and we kicked our way back to the boat and climbed aboard, adrenaline and endorphins coursing through our thrilled bodies and minds.

That night we only saw two Mantas, but some nights they see about 25. It was such a profound experience that I would love to do it again.

Video by Karen Rentz of the experience

The company we used for this trip was Big Island Divers, and we were extremely pleased with their competence in dealing with all of us novices.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

GOLD CREEK POND: Autumn into Winter

After a wonderfully dry summer, Seattle and the Cascade Mountains have entered autumn. When I heard a report that snow was falling at Snoqualmie Pass, I organized a hike to Gold Creek Pond to try and photograph snow and autumn leaves; seeing Kokanee Salmon in Gold Creek was a bonus.

Berries with an elegant, almost iridescent look against a background of fallen snow

After a wonderfully dry summer, Seattle and the Cascade Mountains have entered autumn. When I heard a report that snow was falling at Snoqualmie Pass, I organized a hike to Gold Creek Pond to try and photograph snow and autumn leaves. The forecast kept changing, so we didn’t know if we were going to encounter drizzle or fresh snow at the 3,000′ trailhead.

When we arrived, there was indeed fresh snow; not enough to need snowshoes, by any means, but just the perfect amount for a day of leisurely photography. There were still yellow leaves of Douglas Maple, blazingly scarlet leaves of Vine Maple, and multi-hued leaves of Red-osier Dogwood.

Gold Creek Pond is an artificial creation, despite its stunning and seemingly natural location surrounded by snowy peaks. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the stretch of I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass was under construction, and this was the location of a borrow pit for obtaining gravel for the road construction. Since the bulldozers and front-end loaders departed the scene, the pit has filled with water and is now a wonderful place for families to come and walk, fish, and picnic. The U.S. Forest Service has guided the process of revegetating the shores of the little lake, and it has become an excellent destination for Seattleites wanting a taste of nature.

On our visit, dramatic clouds briefly revealed the surrounding peaks. We also enjoyed seeing and photographing Kokanee Salmon, which are landlocked salmon that spend much of their lives in a lake, then migrate up the inlet stream to spawn. These are the same species as the Sockeye Salmon I had photographed in the Adams River of Canada, but those ocean-going fish are much larger. These fish look to be about 10-12″ long, but still sport the red-and-green color combination typical of the species when it swims upstream to spawn.

A paved one-mile trail leads around the lake, allowing easy access

Red-osier Dogwood leaves varied dramatically in coloration

Autumn Vine Maple leaves turn a vivid scarlet, looking as elegant as the Japanese Maples that so many people plant in their yards; here I photographed the leaves against a cloudy sky

Peaks surrounding Gold Creek Pond occasionally revealed themselves from behind their cloud masks

Migrating Kokanee Salmon clustered in quiet pools along Gold Creek

This salmon group was resting just above a Beaver dam; the bottom of the pond is lined with sticks the Beavers are saving as a winter food supply

Kokanee Salmon are silver for most of their lives, but when the time comes for their death swim upstream, the pigment in their flesh migrates to the skin and the fish become an elegant shade of red

Small gray birds known as Dippers would sometimes swim over the salmon, causing the fish to scatter in a panic

We don’t know why the salmon stay in such tight clusters at this point in their upstream quest; they are undoubtedly resting in a well-oxygenated pool, and perhaps the tight cluster gives some protection against predators or serves a role in mating. At some point the fish will scatter and establish breeding territories along the stream or around the shallows of the lake

Viewed from above, with the distortions of ripples and current, the salmon look as if captured in an abstract painting

Karen, my wife, has a tradition of creating wonderful snowmen on our hikes, and her creation “Autumn” uses seasonal styling cues to bring on a smile

Snow atop dogwood leaves

Douglas Maple’s yellow autumn leaves bearing a snow load

Bunchberry, also known as Canada Dogwood, with overnight snow

The pond itself sits in a dramatic location not far from I-90

The evergreen forest with its first major snow of the autumn

Vine Maple leaves against a light gray cloudy sky

When I visited in late October, the conditions were great for a late autumn hike. Be aware that conditions change constantly at Snoqualmie Pass, and be prepared for winter weather. Soon enough it will be snowshoe season at Gold Creek Pond.

For more information about the Gold Creek Pond area, go to Forest Service Gold Creek Trail; or go to trip reports and a trail description at Washington Trails Association.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Sasquatch Moss at Staircase

Hiking and photographing in autumn along the North Fork Skokomish River of Olympic National Park, where draping Usnea Lichens and Bull Trout provided beautiful details under Bigleaf Maples and giant cedars.

Usnea lichen drips from a Bigleaf Maple like the Spanish Moss of the American South, though it is completely unrelated (and Spanish Moss itself is a flowering plant related to pineapple, and has nothing to do with moss). Perhaps I should call this lichen “Sasquatch Moss!” The golden color in the background comes from autumn maple leaves, thrown out of focus by focusing on the nearby lichen. 

Autumn in the Pacific Northwest has never seemed as glorious as those Upper Peninsula or Vermont or Adirondack or Colorado autumns that I knew and loved earlier in my life. The trees don’t glow as brightly and the days don’t feel as sprightly and brisk. On the other hand–and there are always other hands with me–autumn in the northwest has its own magic of spawning salmon and dripping moss and golden Bigleaf Maples and scarlet huckleberries.

In search of the special qualities of a northwest autumn, I went hiking on four October days at Staircase, in Olympic National Park. Staircase is located on the southwestern part of the national park and, at about an hour away, is the closest access to where I live. Staircase is known for its Elk herd and for its rocky trail along the steep course of the North Fork Skokomish River, which tumbles joyfully from the Olympic Mountains. At Staircase there is a ranger station and a campground, and other routes along the river to explore.

Footbridge across Elk Creek, along the Shady Lane Trail; everything on the Olympic Peninsula eventually gets covered with moss

Alas, I don’t recall any staircases: it turns out that the area was named for the extremely steep trail that an early explorer built, and is now applied to the Staircase Rapids along the steeply pitched river.

These photographs represent those four lovely October days–a time when I desired to be nowhere else on earth.

Elk Creek winds through a forest of Bigleaf Maples near the point where it flows into the North Fork Skokomish River

A split view of the Skokomish, with the photographer in waders on a cold and colorful autumn day

Huge Bull Trout (close to 30″ long), a threatened species that migrates up the Skokomish from Lake Cushman every October to breed–much like a salmon swimming upstream

Bull Trout with fiery reflections of autumn leaves

I walked out over the Skokomish on these 3′ diameter fallen trunks, and could see skittish Bull Trout in the shadows cast by the logs

Reflections of Douglas Fir trunks and autumn Bigleaf Maples on the North Fork Skokomish River

The most vivid mushroom I’ve ever seen: a coral mushroom that goes by its scientific name of Ramaria araiospora var. rubella

I have a photograph of my mother and I standing in front of this giant cedar 20 years ago, when it was still standing; it fell a few years ago

The Usnea lichens I photographed are on this tree, with limbs hanging out over the river. For the impressionistic photos I got, with the golden background, I estimated that there were approximately four hours per year when the light would do what I wanted it to do.  I figured it out by my third day, and on my fourth day of photography, I got exactly what I wanted (represented by the first picture of this blog post and by the photos immediately below).

I have come to love a style of impressionistic photography that I have returned to often over the last few years, in which a few objects are in sharp focus against a wash of beautiful color created by distant plants (or shadows, or whatever) that are out of focus.  It lends a dreamlike feeling that works really well with an exotic subject like these strange lichens.

And here is a photograph that puts the lichens into their context, where they drip off maple branches. Usnea grows in northern regions around the world, and is noted for its sensitivity to air pollution–it dies even where pollution levels are relatively low (Olympic National Park has some of the cleanest air in America, so the lichen can grow long and prosper). For more information about Usnea, go to Usnea Lichen.

Sun catches ripples on the North Fork Skokomish, with scattered Bigleaf Maple leaves on the river bottom

A springboard notch, where loggers once inserted a board into the tree trunk so they could saw the tree at an appropriate height using an old-fashioned hand-powered, two-man “misery whip”

Moss forms over Bigleaf Maple roots exposed by the scouring action of Elk Creek

And a final look at the lovely river and its autumn maples

For further information about visiting Staircase, go to Staircase in Olympic National Park. This is important, as the road is closed to vehicle traffic during the winter.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website